I had a great weekend. It was good, really good. My parents came up to stay on Friday night and I cooked pizza for them. Then on Saturday we went into Bicester and chose some new stair carpet (will just have to wait till the new year to get it measured up and fitted). After a quick and easy lunch, I went off to my rehearsal before the concert, which went well. Then on Sunday we took Barney for a walk at Stowe Landscape Gardens, and came back for roast lamb with roasted vegetables and crab apple jelly, and meringues the way Gran and Granpy used to make them… 🙂 I even bought a hand whisk for the job!

Today was okay, very Monday, very ordinary. I’m not entirely sure why but this evening I suddenly got very low about the whole job redundancy/uncertain future/and I cried, big balls of snivvelling tears and much feeling sorry for myself. I do actually feel bad about this reaction because though I’m not rolling in money, I’m not badly off, and there lots of people with less, so why should I be complaining? But this evening I did feel very sad and insecure and wanted, desperately, everything to be sorted.

Oh, and before you say it, yes I know that I should be taking this opportunity to launch off into something new and exciting and better. And I kind of agree, but you know, for me, people saying that – it doesn’t help. To seize those opportunities requires one to get out there and talk oneself up, and sell oneself and network, and you know what, I find that really, really difficult. This recent, informative, article in The Guardian nicely explains why…

Special intelligence

If you have Asperger’s syndrome, getting and keeping a job might seem impossible, but it’s not. Sabina Dosani talks to employers about why they value their ‘incredible’ workers.

Sabina Dosani, Saturday 18 November 2006, Guardian

Jonathan Young’s job entails using complex technology to collate and disseminate information for investment bankers at Goldman Sachs. He is highly intelligent, motivated and was close to being selected for MI5. He also has Asperger’s syndrome.

“I come in at nine, check my emails, check for any outstanding tasks and, if there aren’t any, I carry on with my job,” he says. “It’s basically an admin job. I go out at one and, when I return, I stay until five – unless there are urgent tasks. If there are, I stay behind.”

When asked to describe a typical day in the office, most people pepper their answers with examples, anecdotes and characters. Young gives a barely annotated timetable. People with Asperger’s often struggle with basic social assumptions that the rest of us take for granted. The result is that he undersells himself, underperforms at interviews and has spent extended periods out of work.

“It is very difficult for people with Asperger’s to be able to sell themselves,” explains Young’s line manager Richard Bremmer, knowledge manager at Goldman Sachs. “Jonathan came on a work placement, but he sold himself by doing such a tremendous job. He does an important job. Recently he carried out all the inputting for an overhauled website. He did it so well, we had to make him permanent.”

Asperger’s syndrome is a disability that is part of the autistic spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, autism itself profoundly affects communication and relationships. Asperger’s syndrome is a diagnosis given to people who are often considered to be at the higher-functioning end of the spectrum.

Psychiatrists describe it as a pervasive developmental disorder, meaning it affects all parts of life. A number of features of autism are common to Asperger’s syndrome including difficulty in communicating; difficulty in social relationships; and a lack of imagination and creativity. People with Asperger’s syndrome are of average, or above average, intelligence. While often excelling at learning facts and figures, many have difficulty with abstract thinking.

Bremner has a colleague whose son has Asperger’s. This colleague knew that Bremner had taken on several students for work experience. He asked him to offer work experience to a young school leaver with Asperger’s. The school leaver, who had struggled to find work, gained knowledge, skills and experience that led to a job in the City. Four years on, there is a formalised programme at Goldman Sachs and, to date, 19 people have taken part. “We work with the National Autistic Society,” explains Bremner. “We are not filling existing vacancies; we’re actually creating positions for the interns and paying them a salary.”

Most job application forms say something like “excellent communication skills essential” and “must be a team player”. “That’s off-putting to someone with Asperger’s as those are exactly the areas they find difficult,” explains Judith Kerem, senior employment manager and project manager of the National Autistic Society Transitions Project.

Kerem started Transitions in April 2005 to support jobseeking graduates and help final-year university students with Asperger’s into work. The focus is on career choice, communication and interview skills, as well as effective job searching. The society also runs a work preparation programme for school leavers.

As part of a Master’s degree, Kerem studied graduates with Asperger’s. “They had lots of support during university but literally none after graduation day,” she explains. “Two or three years after graduation, most had recurrent negative experiences as jobseekers that directly related to their disability.”

For example, people with Asperger’s may speak fluently but not attend to the reaction of those listening. They may talk on and on and appear insensitive to the feelings of others. Despite having good language skills, people with Asperger’s may sound over-precise or over-literal.

Jonathan Young admits he has had difficulties understanding people and making himself understood. This has adversely affected his performance at interviews. He went through MI5’s selection procedure. “The first stage is an application form, which I got through,” he says, “then I passed the next stage, a logic test. The final stage is an interview. I was very disappointed as I was almost in.”

He is keen to point out that Asperger’s conveys certain advantages. “My talent and intelligence obviously benefit employers. Colleagues have said they value my humour too.” Bremner agrees: “I heard that people with Asperger’s don’t always understand humour but Jonathan has a great sense of humour and people warmed to him.”
Unlike people with autism, who are disinterested in the world around them, those with Asperger’s want to be sociable and enjoy human contact. They find it hard to understand non-verbal communication, including facial expressions, which typically makes it more difficult for them to form and maintain social relationships.

Bremner has appreciated seeing Young develop socially. “He now goes around the office talking to people and asks for things. When Jonathan first arrived he didn’t feel comfortable doing that but over time he has become more socially aware.”

People with Asperger’s often develop an almost obsessive interest in a hobby or collecting. Judith Kerem considers this a strength. “Many of our clients have specialist knowledge through extended study. Several are experts in quite unusual fields.”

Six weeks ago, Transitions placed Robbie Brunton with Linklaters, a law firm specialising in advising companies, financial institutions and governments on transactions. This is his first job. “We don’t think of having someone with Asperger’s in the team, we just think of having Robbie around,” says Loreen Jamieson, training and communications consultant.

Brunton works in the client data team, analysing the accuracy of information in the database, coordinating client activities and data. He graduated from University College London this year with a first class degree in palaeobiology. “People with Asperger’s are often highly intelligent,” explains Kerem. “We have people on our books with MAs and PhDs. But in social skills, they are lacking – so they don’t get past interviews.”

His social inappropriateness caused some difficulties at Linklaters. “Robbie has a great interest in computers,” says Jamieson, “but he’ll put little made-up words like ‘diddly doo’ into emails. I have to remind him that he’s in the workplace.” In response, Brunton called her a spoilsport.

After recognising himself in a description of Asperger’s, Brunton approached the student health service asking for a diagnosis.

Jonathan Young has a similar story. “Since the age of about eight, people thought there was something wrong,” he recalls. “Nobody really knew what was wrong and I went through many tests. I then heard about this condition and it seemed to fit with me. From then I was assisted to get a diagnosis.”

Jamieson and her team have made several adaptations. “We talk to Robbie in a different way. I don’t mean in a patronising way, but we make sure everything we do is clear.” The pair meet at the end of every day to check how Brunton is getting on. If things aren’t going the way he wants them to, he uses phrases like, ‘Everything’s a bit muddled up today.'”

People with Asperger’s typically find change perturbing. Most prefer to order their day according to a set pattern. If they work set hours then any unexpected delay, such as a traffic holdup, or a late train, can lead to anxiety or upset. Loreen Jamieson says she can relate to that. “Robbie likes everything to be in order. He has to finish one task before he can start another so we have to learn to be able to cope with that.”

“Life with Asperger’s isn’t bad,” says Andrew Thompson, who works in Goldman Sachs’ technology department. “Sometimes I struggle to switch attention if I’m concentrating and someone fires a question about something else. It makes me feel slowed down. It hasn’t affected me in this job, but in a previous job I had my priorities switched daily. My colleagues have told me that they don’t see me as different.”

In fact, Thompson’s colleagues do think of him differently. They think he’s incredible. After sailing through eight A-levels, he obtained a first in maths from Cambridge and then a Master’s in maths and physics. His work is so impressive he was offered a permanent contract following a five-month work placement.

“These achievements may be related to Asperger’s,” says Thompson, “It gives me a good memory and a good mathematical ability. I learn quickly and have great attention to detail.”

Most of Judith Kerem’s clients are excellent timekeepers. She says that they rarely take time off sick, are very dedicated to their jobs and are highly professional. Richard Bremmer agrees: “There are certainly advantages to having someone with Asperger’s in the workplace. They are reliable, punctual, they are meticulous in their work and leave no stone unturned, they are very loyal, and all these things come as part of the package.

“There are so many young people with Asperger’s, but many are ignored and not given a chance to succeed. But they can flourish and grow.”

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006

I cooked myself a nice meal, and gave my cats a good cuddle whilst watching the bonus features on my my new Beowulf & Grendel dvd.