How to work with my highly functional autistic co-worker
February 8, 2007 7:34 AM   Subscribe

I have a co-worker with Asperger's Syndrome and I'd like to learn more to better our working relationship.

I have a co-worker who, quite honestly, annoyed me for the first few months that we worked together. When I found out she had Asperger's, it explained a lot of the 'annoy' factor; however, knowing it's Asperger's doesn't mitigate it entirely. I'd like to educate myself on highly functional autism to help me be ... well, a better person and co-worker. But when I look this up on the web, there is VERY little to read about. Most education materials are related to children.

This co-worker has inadvertently alienated and frustrated others (because they write her off as weird or annoying) and I'd like to 'lead by example' in how to work with and relate to her. She is extremely smart and has great ideas but has gaps in her social skills. (I should mention that I am not trying to cure her - but rather how to work with her.)

She has periods during the day when she's really wound up. Of course, the group of people we sit around like to throw things and that scares her. Again, I'm looking for how I can educate myself - and others - on things we can do to all peacefully - and respectfully - exist.
posted by lostinsupermarket to Human Relations (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This suggestion might seem juvenile but get your co-workers to stop throwing stuff. If you know it scares her or startles her or whatever the case - then so do they and they are being jackasses. That doesn't make it easier or better for anyone. She may come off as not having the best set of social skills but the people throwing stuff just come off as complete jackasses.

As to how to best work with her - I'll leave that to the people that actually know those answers.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 7:48 AM on February 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Did she tell you that she has Asperger's? If so, you could find a way of asking her yourself how you can be a more considerate colleague. The throwing things would drive me insane, too, though, so your coworkers need to cut that out. Totally rude if people are trying to work.

I worked closely with a woman who was legally blind. I asked her what I could do to make working together easier for her, and she was straightforward about it--for example, digital documents are easier for her to look at rather than hard copy, meeting in places where she can use her magnifying tools if we expect her to have an opinion on things we are looking at, sending her documents before meetings so that she can read them at her desk.

It's a different sort of thing, but I wonder if just asking her if there are things that you can do to make things easier for her would help. Especially if you do something and she seems annoyed, ask her "is there a better way for me to communicate this?" or some other open-ended question that could get the conversation rolling.
posted by tk at 7:58 AM on February 8, 2007

I have a sister with Asperger's and what worked for my family was to try and keep things as low-key as possible. Her hearing is very acute, so soothing ringtones on the phones, quiet doorbell, and keep your tone of voice calm. Don't ask too many questions at once or give her a list of more than three things to do at the same time, etc. Little annoyances that we would easily brush off are major stress factors to my sister; when we reduce the noise and stress level she's much better able to cope with other people.

If I know we're heading into a situation that could cause her stress, I'll casually talk about what might happen and what we'll do about it beforehand. ("If this doesn't work we'll try it this way, and if that doesn't work we'll do this other thing instead.")

Needless to say throwing things around her would be a big no-no; try to lead the way in getting your co-workers to stop that behavior, at least around her. At the very least tell her you won't let them hit her and put yourself between her and the items being thrown.

Oh and learn not to take any comments personally; she may be refreshingly/brutally/painfully blunt about things most people wouldn't mention to another person, but she just doesn't realize it's a mean thing to say. Learn to appreciate her unique perspective and sense of humor instead. Sounds like you've already made great progress in that direction, and hopefully the rest of your co-workers will too.
posted by Soliloquy at 8:24 AM on February 8, 2007

It helps to be extremely specific when giving directions. People with Aspergers are unable to distinguish nuance (which often leads them to be socially outcast.)
posted by sswiller at 8:31 AM on February 8, 2007

It sometimes helps to think of yourself as the weird one.
posted by kmennie at 8:35 AM on February 8, 2007

Our theatre group has a guy that has actually been cast more than once that has Asperger's. I asked my psychologist friend how to deal with him (ie, make us all feel better about working together), because, like you, he drove us all insane until he told us he had Asperger's. At that point, everything seemed to make sense and he was easier to deal with in a lot of ways (but not all).

So, my friend told me to be specific, as sswiller says above. Don't expect this person to do what your 20+ years of social training have taught you to do, because she may or may not have those skills (although, you can never tell - our guy is spectacular at 'getting' some stuff and just over the top WTF about others). Specificity in all things, though, was the biggest thing that he stressed. And patience. Lots of patience and being a nice, compassionate person who isn't a jerk will help. I had to really learn to NOT get frustrated.

As for other things, I would say that the throwing stuff around her, unless it's somehow part of the job (mailroom?) has got to stop, and if it doesn't stop, the employer would be looking at a possible HR nightmare. If they won't stop because they're being mean, maybe they will stop if it's pointed out that they're harassing her, and harrassment is a big no-no.
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:03 AM on February 8, 2007

You don’t have to know that someone has a diagnosis with a name to ask their preferences. If your co-worker seems upset, ask if there’s anything that particularly bothers her. (This is appropriate for all co-workers, not just the ones who have a diagnosis you know the name of.) Even if it’s something as simple as noise or overstimulation, take it seriously instead of dismissing it as trivial, that’s all.

Maybe she needs a a room with a door. Your office might be a cube farm, but perhaps there’s an extra meeting room that she can use in the mornings to ease into things (or in the afternoons to recover from the stress of being with co-workers). For instance.

Be tolerant if she needs to wear earplugs, and ask the best way to get her attention when she’s wearing them.

She probably has trouble directing her attention from one thing to another quickly, so interruptions will drive her nuts. (Most people are like this to some extent. It’s a matter of degree.)

She may not process oral instructions well, or cope well with multimedia experiences. Writing things out clearly in list form will probably be helpful. (You don’t necessarily have to do it yourself. If you’re working with her you can ask her to make the list and look at it to see if it makes sense to you.)

An upside is that you can probably be really direct with her. If she’s going on and on about some aspect of process or politics or a sci-fi character or whatever, you can probably just interrupt and say you’re glad to listen, that she’s obviously given a great deal of thought to the topic and you’ll take her input, but it’s your turn to talk now and you want to say ___. If you don’t expect her to take hints, or respond to tactful direction appropriately, you’ll probably get along much better.

Another upside is that she is probably thrilled to have work that would bore many NTs (neurotypicals) to tears. If this is the case, point out repeatedly to her and to others what a valuable asset she is to the team.

Tip: watch some early episodes of 24 with a really terrific Aspergerian character called Chloe. They tarted her up for later seasons, but when I saw her in Season 2 I fell in love.
posted by kika at 9:04 AM on February 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh - and the people I’m familiar with who throw stuff are in Sales. They are extremely social and tactful and are more likely to have ADD than to find interruption painful. So if you’ve got someone with Asperger’s working directly with people in Sales there are going to be some serious translation issues to cope with both ways.
posted by kika at 9:08 AM on February 8, 2007

The biggest thing to understand about Asperger's is that there *isn't* a defined set of things that you can do to help someone. It's a very individual ailment that can seem to change day to day.

Autism isn't a definition, it's a spectrum -- you can either be VERY high functioning, you can be somewhere in the middle where you're quite weird but still can function with special provisions, and you can be high-functioning but so far off the wall that you're a space alien. Even people that are in the same relative place on the linear spectrum can be affected in very different ways.

I have Asperger's as well -- it's an unofficial diagnosis, but I can't afford the $3000 in non-insurance-covered fees to have a neuropsychologist confirm the diagnosis when we're 99.9% sure that the general description of symtoms matches me. I can safely say that I annoy people on a regular basis until they get to know me.

A few ideas that help most people, and specific things that help me, but please note the caveats above that some of this will be just plain wrong for her:

What most Aspergers' people thrive on is patterns. They see patterns, they feel patterns, and they live in patterns. It's an intuitive process, not a conscious one, for most people -- I personally try to live in patterns, and I get disrupted if they get disrupted.

Aspergers people do what's called "hyperfocusing". The first twenty or thirty minutes when I come in in the morning are spent trying to get into a hyperfocus mode so that I can work. Once I'm in it, the excessively loud salesguy down the hall or my coworkers throwing balls or whatever will annoy the flying fuck out of me, and I'm liable to go off the handle at them until I 'reload' my social skills into my brain and unload my work patterns. I use music and have an office with a door that closes to keep myself in this mode. If neither of those are possible, I use noise cancelling and isolating headphones. Get the assholes in your office to stop throwing shit. I suggest snagging the ball out of the air and beaning them in the skull a few times.

Hyperfocusing is funny, because it's almost like we need to distract our bodies into doing something else to keep it amused while the brain goes off and thinks. Sitting in place and jiggling, bouncing on trampolines, rocking back and forth, and other repetitive motions that don't require any mental input are what helps on this. I usually close my office door if I know I'm going to do something that others would perceive as weird, but I know not everyone has the luxury of a private office with no windows...

With social skills, ... the easiest way to describe how aspergers people do social skills is that we work with them the way you'd learn to play a piano or speak a foreign language. It takes practice, constant reinforcement, and continuing learning to keep them working. And a lot of what 'normals' do with social skills, like the automatic responses to standard queries like, "how are you doing?" isn't just 'click-whirr' when you have Aspergers'. We have to think about it. Or, we have a set of responses that we 'click-whirr' that may not actually match... "How is it outside today?" "I'm doing fine sir, thanks." ... ... And now you know where the weird comes from.

I'm intensely visual. I need things in writing. If you want me to do/remember something, don't use voicemail, I hardly check it. Send me an email or give it to me on a piece of paper. Find out what kind of learner she is.

I'm on an ADD drug, Strattera, to help those periods of the day where I get wound up. Don't ever suggest this to her, but I'm just saying for the sake of others reading this thread that it worked for me. Before I was on it, I'd have periods where I was intensely hyperactive. I dealt with most of it with daily exercise -- if I was being hyperactive, I would go run up and down the stairs in my office building until I settled down and could go back to work.

The last thing you need to realize is that she doesn't always realize when her mood or actions swing towards one end of the spectrum or another. She. Can't. Tell. Subtleties in the ways others are perceiving her are either completely lost on her, or she's powerless to work with them. The thing I always appreciated most is when I had someone around who would cue me -- a trusted teacher, coworker or friend. I actively sought these people out as I began to trust them, and we worked out a series of keywords or signals that would let them signal me as to how I was acting at that moment. This requires building trust and being her defender in the subtle ways she can't defend herself... and then sitting down with her and asking her how you can help her. Be a friend. Don't condescend.

Since we're all so different, that's all I can tell you -- how the ailment affects me, how I work around it, and other things I've heard of being issues for other people. Good luck.
posted by SpecialK at 9:13 AM on February 8, 2007 [10 favorites]

Yeah, stopping the throwing stuff would be a good first step.

kmennie's link is good stuff.

What follows is my inexpert layperson's impression of what having Asperger's is like. Sweeping generalizations abound -- I'm not a psychologist; I haven't even met your co-worker; any amount of this might be completely off from her experience.

Remember that she and the rest of you are like the proverbial two nations divided by a common language. You may share a language, but yours is one with a permanent, immersive, can't-imagine-its-absence sensitivity to an accepted set of social cues. Hers is without that.

Or, rather, with a certain subset of social cues she's struggled to learn as a second language. But there's so terribly much stuff in the social cues. If you don't just get it and feel it, like a neurotypical does, it's impossible to think fast enough to simulate it. No one's that smart.

She probably struggles to remember and follow social cues, but it ends up being a haphazard attempt to apply one rule at a time, in isolation, which, of course, doesn't work. (And can make things worse if it makes people think she can do these things and is choosing not to.)

So try to remember that everyone else is communicating all the time in what's incredibly complicated gibberish to her. She may be able to pick up a little of the content some of the time, but mostly not. Don't expect her to follow the conversations occurring in the gibberish. Remember that she's not following it when her behavior is at odds with what someone who was following it would do.

Try engaging in communication while remaining conscious of all the ways non-verbal cues and social sensitivity affects the interaction -- where you're standing, your posture, your tone, where you look, your choice of words. You won't be able to do it -- it's too much.

But you can probably make some gains in keeping the content of your communication explicit, and listening for what's explicit in her communication, actively working to drop all the inferences you would normally make.

Good on you for wanting to put in the effort.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:50 AM on February 8, 2007

Oliver Sacks' "An Anthroplogist On Mars" has an excellent chapter on this very subject.
posted by Dizzy at 10:27 AM on February 8, 2007

Who knows if this will work for your situation but it definitely worked for a friend of mine, who'd never had a friend in her life until she stumbled into a chat community that I was a member of. See, she literally sortof *can't* look people in the eye and yeah, she is somewhat different socially, but none of that makes any difference in newly minted words showing up on a screen. She has tremendous communication ability but writing was the best way for her to interact with others. She didn't know that until she stumbled into our chat one afternoon and began immediately making friends.

She's super cool, one of the smartest people I've ever known (maybe THE smartest - this gal is bright), she writes really well, she's a great painter and photographer - she is basically a renaissance woman but lived in her own world for all those years. She's suffered so deeply and can really lay it out in poetry or paint, not lame 'Oh I'm so unhappy because I'm a teenage twit goth' but real stuff, anyone would be proud to have it spin forth from their fingers, out of their heart, though few would want to go to where she went to get the words, to have that deep heart, which is rock solid gold. She really is a great person.

In time, we began also chatting over AOL voice chat, and since we knew each other so well in words it didn't matter that her verbal communication skills weren't the most polished.

So. Ask what her IM nick is, tell her you like to chat about some things that way, see if maybe it'll be a way for her to cross the divide, or maybe you to cross the divide, whatever. What matters is that it get crossed. Or meet in the middle. Who cares, right, just meet. It was a huge relief for her to have friends and it surely was good for all of us to be able to spend time in her company also.

I surely hope you can make contact - you seem a good-hearted person, and while I don't know if this person is lonely or not she easily could be; many of us are lonely without having that diagnosis, and finding a way out of that sort of loneliness is like a flower seeing the sun, and turning toward it, leaning into its warmth.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:30 AM on February 8, 2007

And what Zed Lopez says about it being a world of confusion is dead on. I was a carpenter for many years, and when building supermarkets or other large, complex commercial projects people would walk onto the jobsite and be just blown away, takes a new apprentice a month to even begin to get acclimated - there are plumbers plumbing, tile setters setting tile, ceiling guys, just all sorts of different trades walking around and every goddamn one of them making tons of noise and clatter, and there are radios blasting, and maybe a welder or two throwing bright arcs around the space and hot sparking metal falling here or there, and lasers are flashing around, there are just so many types of stimuli coming at you from every direction, and somehow you're to make sense of it, and everyone is throwing stuff at one another and unplugging the other guys drill and being jerks and it is surely confusing if you don't know your way around it. Thanx Zed, for your words, your clarifications.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:40 AM on February 8, 2007

This livejournal community is mostly adults with Aspergers. Looking through the archives to see the kinds of social questions the members have trouble with has definitely helped me get some perspective.
posted by hippugeek at 11:25 AM on February 8, 2007

Asperger's is just a different set of social skills. It just highlights how dependent your communication is on people being like you. Learn to explicitly detail stuff you thought was obviously implied. Do not assume anything is so obvious that it doesn't need to be said.
posted by krisjohn at 12:25 PM on February 8, 2007

Here's a link to the DSM IV on Aspergers Disorder. This outlines the diagnostic criteria and gives us laypeople some sort of clue what the diagnosis involves.
Asperger's Diagnostic Criteria

Imagine what it would be like if you were sitting in a chair at work, and the sound of coworker's talking, the brightness of the lights, the feel of the chair under your butt, and the crap whizzing past your head all registered as the SAME level of stimulus. It can be like that for some.

The other thing is, she may have a really clear idea what's going on (she's not dumb after all), but just lacks the tools to deal with it outwardly and in the moment. That can add a LOT of unecessary situational stress to her interactions, which only exacerbates the problem.

Like others have said, just be patient, use literal vs. figurative speech, be explicit, capitalize on her assets, and encourage other's to grow up and be respectful! Good luck and kudos to you for being so observant and taking initiative in finding solutions to happier workdays!
posted by iamkimiam at 1:57 PM on February 8, 2007

I highly recommend It's mostly an online community for aspies, but it also includes many discussions and posts from NTs like yourself trying to understand aspie friends, children, etc. My son (6) has Asperger's, and I've found the parents forum to be extremely useful in understanding his behavior from an aspie perspective.

I've also found it very useful for myself, since I have some Asperger tendencies although probably not severe enough for a diagnosis.
posted by wps98 at 6:03 PM on February 8, 2007

[fixed wps98's link]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:19 PM on February 8, 2007

I have some of these symptoms. Your coworker may not get jokes (she doesn't follow the emotional "working the room" lead-in to the joke). She may not get slang or figurative speech.

For instance, in "throwing things" are you referring to throwing physical objects, such as balls or pillows, or metaphorically throwing tasks, such as "Oh, by the way, can you do this by tomorrow?"

I don't want to be sexist, but I have a hard time dealing with female nonverbal communication, and assumptions of my fluency in such communication because I'm female. Most of my social difficulties have been with other women. Not many women have ASDs, in contrast with men, and I've been stereotyped as "stubborn," "selfish," and even "manipulative" (which is the last thing an Aspergers person can be: if he or she seems to be pushing your buttons, he or she is doing it blindly)

Most of what I've picked up about human communication over the last several years has been through reading blog comments and forums, and through getting off the school-work treadmill enough to think about people instead of data.
posted by bad grammar at 8:05 PM on February 8, 2007

I'm not sure if the OP is still reading this thread, but the wife and I literally *just* watched a movie called Mozart and the Whale.

It's essentially a romantic drama, but the two main characters have Asperger's syndrome, and interact with several other Autistic people throughout the film.

The characters are fictional, but apparently the movie is based on true events, and wasn't half bad.
posted by mrhaydel at 9:59 PM on February 8, 2007

Definitely 2nd getting her instant messaging info. I'm not quite autism-spectrum but have some problems that have some comorbidity, and I would always, always rather use text than speech. I have trouble with eye contact, some trouble with speech processing, and a lot of the time when I'm talking I'm preoccupied with something else or preoccupied with trying not to think about something else, so I don't remember what was said. In other words, you might want to follow up conversations and meetings with an email. And never put her in a position where she's going to have to call you on the phone. If it were me, I'd handily forget to do it.

And definitely find a place where she can have quiet to work. My train of thought gets totally derailed by little noises in the workplace (especially chewing).
posted by crinklebat at 10:03 PM on February 8, 2007

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