Autism has advantages at work: Researcher

Enhanced skills can include exceptional memory, error detection
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/07/2011

Every month, Today’s Trucking magazine has a photo contest where readers are presented with an extremely zoomed-in picture of a location in Canada, such as a mountain, building or tourist attraction, and are challenged to determine the location. Tom Jackman, a cameraman at Rogers in St. John’s, N.L., has participated in the contest every month for the past five years and successfully identified the location every single time. He’s able to do this because he has Asperger’s syndrome.

“I have really good computer research skills and I’m really good at focusing and being able to really search and stay with something,” said Jackman, who is chair of the adult advisory committee for the Autism Society of Canada and on the board of directors at the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador. “We look at new ways to solve problems and we do kind of look outside the box.”

It’s skills like these that prompted Laurent Mottron, a University of Montreal professor and autism researcher, to tout the advantages of autism spectrum disorders (which includes Asperger’s) in the workplace. In the Nov. 3, 2011, issue of the British journal Nature, Mottron argued employers should capitalize on the special abilities of people with autism.

“Autism is probably one of the unique, non-developmental variants which gives cognitive advantages and these can be measured,” he said. “It concerns attention, perception, patterns, discrimination, not to mention the specific ability to be more precise when memorizing information.”

Memorizing a lot of information is something Leland Kreklewich, who has autism, feels is one of his strengths as a senior accounting technician at MNP in Saskatoon.

“We’re very good with memory so, for example, if a boss comes up and needs to refresh their memory or is trying to remember something, they can go to that (autistic) person and they can probably remember something from awhile back,” he said. “I know I’ve helped in those cases.”

People with autism also have the ability to spot recurrent patterns and breaks in patterns in large amounts of data, along with processing large pieces of perceptual information, said Mottron.

“Autistic people can concentrate on one task at a time and can stick to a job until it’s completed,” said Jackman. “They’re very detail-oriented, intense attention to detail, (and have a) very single-minded focus and a willingness to work on something repetitively until it’s perfect.”

Individuals with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism are likely to have more job options than those with more severe forms, he said.

People with autism thrive in careers that focus on information and structures such as numbers and letters, and mechanism and geometrical patterns such as math and science, said Mottron.

They can also thrive in error detection; anything related to accuracy in visual information, such as architecture; and verifying printed information, such as in law to make sure it is properly copied or translated, he said.

“They regularly find that two per cent of errors you have in any scientific paper and sometimes we have very funny feedback from scientific journals saying, ‘Your paper is amazingly free of errors,’” said Mottron, who has worked with eight people with autism in his lab over the past seven years.

But autism does impact other functions such as communication, social behaviour and motor abilities. Therefore, people with autism struggle in people-oriented fields such as retail or customer service, said Mottron.

The key to effectively managing people with autism is to be patient and understanding, said Kreklewich.

“For me, what’s worked is having someone that’s about understanding you and seeing you for your talent even though you might have shortcomings, and working on strengths and helping them with their weaknesses,” he said.

Managers also need to use clear language and give autistic employees very detailed instructions about job tasks.

“You can leave lists on their desk or schedules, or use a big white board in the office that has timelines,” said Jackman. “They should have written instructions and use a lot of visuals to instruct and organize.”

It would also be useful for autistic employees to be assigned a mentor who understands them better and can offer support, he said.

The first two to six months in the workplace are the most difficult for people with autism and they may need a few accommodations to help them get settled. For example, some have problems with lighting, crowds and noise, said Jackman.

“You have to look at the workplace and try to eliminate sensory overload or distractions. Maybe if their desk is in the middle of the room, it might not be the best place for them. So you can move them to the corner,” he said. “It might be a rocky road at the beginning before they get it all straightened out — but you have to stick with them in order to get (the benefits).”

Employers can benefit from hiring people with autism as they are very punctual, reliable, loyal and honest, said Kreklewich. They may also be able to help employers with retention, said Jackman.

“Many companies experience high turnover when they first hire college graduates but because some of the characteristics of people with Asperger’s is desire for stability and extreme focus, they’re less likely to job hop from job to job during the early years of their career.”

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