Asperger Syndrome (AS) is a mild form of autism. The condition is named after the Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger who first described children displaying features of social awkwardness and atypical forms of communication in the 1940s. The condition remained relatively unknown until the 1980s when the English psychiatrist Lorna Wing brought the work of Hans Asperger to wider attention and introduced the term 'Asperger Syndrome'.
According to the National Autistic Society in the UK, just over 1% of the population have autism (1). The condition is more common in males than females: some studies suggests that approx. four in five people with autism are male (2). Although the cause of autism is still unclear, research suggests that a combination of factors - genetic and environmental - may contribute to changes in brain development resulting in the characteristics of autism. These characteristics are expressed in each individual in differing ways and to varying degrees. As a result, the condition is thought of today as a spectrum disorder, with people with AS having less pronounced difficulties than people with classic autism and intellectual abilities in the normal to above-normal range.
In general, people with AS have a different way of processing information than other people. An analogy for this quite unique way of thinking can be found in the computing world, and has been described by a young man with Asperger Syndrome as follows:
'Most people are like PCs. However, people with AS are like Macs, with a very specific and individual operating system. Whereas both look similar and carry out similar tasks, having different operating systems means they complete tasks in different ways. The PC is more common, offering a wide range of software, and although the Mac can run certain PC software, this tends to be rather slow and less productive. The Mac is less common, with less software available. However, in certain areas, the Mac clearly outperforms the PC'. (David Breslin, Scotland) (3)
A consequence of this different way of processing information is that people with AS interact with other people differently. The characteristics of autism fall into three main categories: communication, social interactionand ways of thinking. Whereas most people enjoy dealing with people and have a broad range of interests, people with AS enjoy dealing with information and facts and have very specific interests. Some characteristics of AS may include, amongst other things, the following difficulties: interpreting non-verbal communication, expressing thoughts and feelings, socializing, asking for help, managing time and adapting to new situations. In addition, people with AS may be over- or undersensitive to sensory stimuli.
On the other hand, people with AS may have skills and abilities in very specific areas which can be quite remarkable, such as high concentration levels, extensive knowledge in a particular area of interest, an eye for detail, concientiousness, loyalty and honesty. Indeed, a number of highly successful people are thought to have had, or have, AS, including the English novelist Jane Austen, the German physicist Albert Einstein, the English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton and the American entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates.
As more becomes known about AS and the particular skills and abilities that people with AS can bring with them, companies are coming to appreciate how valuable a person with AS can be to an organisation. For example, Microsoft has recently announced a pilot program to hire people with autism at its Redmond Campus (4), and SAP has set a corporate goal of having at least 1% of its workforce being people with autism by 2020 (5). To find out why SAP believe it is 'good business' to hire people with autism, see this short video.
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Many of the characteristics of AS diminish by adulthood as the person develops coping mechanisms and some characteristics may not be easily noticeable by others. Nevertheless, in today's work environment, where stringent deadlines, fast-changing priorities and job insecurity are the norm, additional factors such as difficulty communicating, social awkwardness, rigid ways of thinking and sensory issues may augment any feelings of stress the person may already be experiencing, leading to anxiety. If anxiety levels become too high, the person may suffer a type of meltdown - a feeling of loss of control in which they may become overly critical, loud or, in some cases, aggressive.
If a company is aware of the special needs of an employee and is prepared to provide the right kind of support, this can help an employee with AS not only to cope with the challenges involved, but also to be highly successful in a professional environment. In turn, the employer can profit from the unique skills and abilities people with AS bring to the workplace.
3: Text provided by the author directly