From author/speaker/animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin to blogger/speaker/career expert Penelope Trunk, it's become clear that people with Asperger's Syndrome, or Aspies, as some like to be known, have a role to play in the workplace. It's often a critical one and they can execute it successfully, albeit awkwardly and with struggles the rest of us can't quite imagine.
People on the autism spectrum are pattern thinkers, visual thinkers and verbal thinkers. According to Grandin, they provide a counter-balance in a world where "we are getting too abstract and away from the hands-on."
The question is, as we come to know more about how Asperger's works and increasingly understand the abilities and limits of people who have it, what can we do and what should we do to help them succeed in the work-a-day world?
Meet Jeffrey Deutsch, Doctor, Life Coach, Speaker, Aspie
Dr. Jeffrey Deutsch is a 40-year-old Aspie, life coach and presenter for A SPLINT - http://www.asplint.com- , a coaching company that helps people on the autism spectrum navigate the world of neurotypicals, or people not on the autism spectrum. (A SPLINT stands for ASPies LInking with NeuroTypicals). Deutsch has plenty of first-hand experience with the challenges of living and working in a world that's not quite designed for people like him.
He knows coworkers and bosses can dole out some harsh treatment, sometimes because they don't know any better or sometimes because they see a situation that they can take advantage of. "I have had several bosses who actually verbally abused me publicly, blamed me for their mistakes and fired me with little, no or false justification," says Deutsch.
Deutsch was not diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome until 2003 and he described the development as "anticlimactic." His then girlfriend, now wife, Emily, knew that Jeff's bluntness, unease in social situations and need to have things spelled out in detail in advance were not exactly mainstream personality traits. But they hadn't kept him from from leading a mainstream and even prosperous life.
Deutsch's case shows that because of the subtleties, and wide variations of Asperger's symptoms, people's perceptions of those on the autism spectrum is often distorted. People on the higher end of the spectrum can function and succeed in the mainstream, but they struggle to fit in and can be treated unfairly because they are labeled as different.
All Different Kinds Of Thinkers
As Grandin points out, different is good and helpful to our society and should be nurtured and embraced for the benefit of all rather than quickly written off as a weakness.
For example, people with Asperger's who are pattern thinkers, or people who have a thinking process dominated by patterns, can become accomplished mathematicians, computer programmers, engineers and IT technicians. Aspies who have "word minds," or who process written and oral communication forms very effectively, make good journalists and stage actors. Meanwhile those who are visual thinkers, or who see ideas and concepts and translate them into pictures through hand-on tasks, like Grandin, excel at graphic design, photography and industrial design.
From Handicapped To High Achiever
Grandin herself is an example. Diagnosed as severely handicapped when she was three and a half, in 1950, she would have been institutionalized had her mother not advocated on her behalf. She first won acclaim as an animal behavior expert for her work making slaughterhouses and livestock farms more humane for the animals. She has designed more than half of the slaughterhouses in the US and has developed an objective scoring system for assessing the quality of handling for cattle and pigs at processing plants. She's most recently been in the news because of an HBO biopic about her, My Life In Pictures, starring Claire Danes as Temple.
Vincent van Gogh Would Be An Aspie Today
Grandin likes to provide a laundry list of famous artists, philosophers, scientists and musicians who would be placed somewhere on the autism spectrum today. For example, Vincent van Gogh was a different thinker, likely somewhat autistic, and no one knew what to make of him in his time. The swirl patterns in many of van Gogh's paintings, like "The Starry Night," seem to express the mathematical structure of turbulence common in water or in air from a jet engine. "The autistic mind is a specialist mind. Good at one thing, bad at another, "says Grandin. The key is to find out what interests these "different" thinkers and get them involved.
The World Needs Specialist Thinkers
So the question is, how do we create support systems in schools and in the workplace, to help these smart, different thinkers excel? According to Grandin, the steps are three-fold. First, we have to provide these people with mentors who can "light that spark of intrigue." Second, we can return to hands-on methods of teaching. Finally, we have to work on acceptance. "When does nerd turn into Aspie?" Grandin asks pointedly.
Thankfully we have people like Grandin and Deutsch, who have bridged the gap, to help us get started.