Asperger’s Syndrome and Adult Work Life 

I have posted a number of pieces about children and Asperger’s Syndrome.  The last piece was about children and primary school.  I will be posting additional pieces about secondary school and university. I am writing this piece out of order because of some letters I read. They are from people with Asperger’s and they concern how Asperger’s relates to their later work life.  Please consider this post a beginning of this discussion.

As you may know, there is a growing controversy over the extent to which Asperger’s is addressed in the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5.  Many newspaper articles and TV programs have addressed the issue.  This post is not designed to address it.  But there has been a lot of public discussion about the controversy—from Aspies who talk about their later work life.

I want to tell you about several letters in the New York Times of Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012, page A18.  The first is from Lyn Miller-Lachmann.   She writes:” …I was the ‘weird” kid all the way through school.  But while I fit in, briefly, among my focused, intellectual peers at an Ivy League university, I did not outgrow my social deficits….My lack of awareness of social cues and appropriate behavior led to my having to leave graduate school in my 20s.  Today, 30 years later, having been bullied and exploited in a succession of jobs and getting fired from several, I am a graduate student in a writing program…Without accommodation for Asperger syndrome diagnosed in adulthood, I would not be able to complete my degree or keep my current part-time job.”

She goes on:  “Asperger syndrome does not prevent me from being a good writer.  I have to study the patterns of social interaction that others take for granted, something that has helped me understand point of view and writing across cultures (as everything is a foreign culture to me).”

What Miller-Lachmann says is incredibly moving.  To me as a clinician dealing both with children and adults with Asperger’s, it says—understand what you’re experiencing; get help and accommodations.  Increasingly, this is becoming more important for adults as well.

Let me give you an example. One client worked for a government agency.  He was in trouble.  He was not handling his ‘customers’ and his fellow workers correctly. He did not know why.  When we first started treatment, I told him I thought he had Asperger’s syndrome. We reviewed his personal, school, and work life—and the diagnosis helped him understand many of his difficulties.

His job presented the immediate problem.  While the work he did was largely routine, he still experienced some difficulties when discretion was involved.  I wrote to the agency suggesting ways to make his work easier to do so that he needed less discretion in dealing with customers.  As for help in dealing with his fellow workers, that proved more difficult. They were more judgmental and less tolerant, and less willing to make allowances.  Most of my work with him was designed to help him avoid mistakes.

Another client needed to take a credentialing exam.  We had reviewed what he needed to do for this exam.  The exam itself was somewhat straightforward and required lots of practice tests.  Still, he was struggling and he was getting more anxious. I asked him:  Would more time taking the exam help?  He said yes.  I asked him if he had requested accommodations when he registered for the exam.  He said no; he had never thought of it.  I got on the website for the exam and found that there was indeed a provision to request accommodations. Both he and I wrote letters asking for additional time and food if necessary.  The request was granted.

The lessons are very clear: adults with Asperger’s may need accommodations and help as well.  They should be able to ask for these and receive them without any anxiety, shame or misgivings. Employers should be helped to provide these accommodations and supports.  I will say more on this subject, but this should be a good beginning!

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