"Autism is different." Well, yes. But different how? Many people with a diagnosis of autism regard it as just that: a difference, part of the broad span of neurodiversity, and one which confers a number of advantages. They are offended by any notion that they are disabled, not least because people at the Asperger end of the spectrum tend to have above-average levels of intelligence. Any Autism Spectrum Condition is classed as a disability under the terms of the 2010 Equality Act – and this can sometimes be useful when engaging with employers - but it is different from other conditions / diagnoses / impairments / disabilities.
Any disabling aspect, if it is present, invariably comes from other people's reactions and lack of understanding.
Autism is at root a condition that affects the way that someone communicates. In particular, many (although not all) autistic people struggle to register the non-verbal aspects of communication: body language, facial expressions, voice tone, and context (sarcasm, irony, and some forms of humour). And since the percentage of communication which is non-verbal is a significant proportion of the total, this offers ongoing opportunities for mutual misunderstanding - particularly in the workplace, with its host of unspoken rules and convention that vary from one organisation to the next.
Autism is a condition apart, and it varies a great deal between individuals.
Anyone who does need support for one or more aspects of their condition has traditionally been signposted either to 'Learning Disabilities', 'Physical Disabilities', or (with apparently increasing frequency) to 'Mental Health'. This is rarely helpful, except indirectly on those occasions when it provides access to a budget to buy in appropriate specialist support. If any of these services do try to provide support from in-house, autistic people tend to find they don't have the experience to meet their needs. More often the service they have been told to contact says "Oh no, it's not us you need, you need to go to Learning Disabilities / Physical Disabilities / Mental Health" (delete as appropriate). Autism doesn't fit into any of these categories. Someone may have other co-occurring conditions which do, but the autism won't.
So does it involve a different way of thinking?
Absolutely. And herein lies its strength. Many autistic people find it helpful to use the terms 'neurodiverse' and 'neurotypical' to indicate the contrasts. They are often frustrated by the irrationality, emotionality and sheer woolliness of the way most people think and speak. Their preference for rational analysis and consistency often enables them to be gifted problem-solvers, particularly when that’s coupled with the fresh and creative ways of approaching a particular issue that also tend to characterise other neurodiverse conditions such as dyslexia.
The communication issue recedes as colleagues and managers get to know each person as an individual.
So if you're getting bogged down at work, feeling that you are stuck with the same old same old, maybe what you need is someone with autism on your team.
Think about it. Differently.
By David Perkins, Director, AS Mentoring