By MATTHEW BRODSKY, senior editor/Web editor of Risk & Insurance®
NEWPORT BEACH, CALIF.---The pre-eminent expert on Asperger's Syndrome, Tony Attwood, is said to enter workplaces and play "find the Aspie," Aspie being the affectionate term for someone with this condition on the functional end of the autistic spectrum. When he goes into NASA, though, the game becomes "find who's not the Aspie."
This gives a sense for the value of having autistic individuals in the workplace, as well as the surprising prevalence of them.
In 1985, medical professionals estimated that four out of 10,000 children had autism. In 2006, the prevalence was one in 210.
"I walk by one every single day," said Jon Sharp, head of disability Management for Shell Oil Co., referring to a colleague at the energy company, a Ph.D. Whether it was a supposition, or Sharp's colleague actually professed a diagnose, Sharp is a bit more familiar with Aspies as his son is autistic.
Workers with Asperger's Syndrome, or "Little Professor Syndrome" as it's also called, bring unique skills to the workplace and seem to thrive in certain occupations, such as those in the science and technology fields, Sharp said. They can be dedicated workers, great rule-followers, loyal compatriots.
Yet though they have been resilient enough and capable enough to function in the society of "neuro-typicals," as they call us, they still are autistic. Communication can be a challenge. Relationships are a struggle. But as Sharp pointed out, is it the wheelchair or the steps in front of the workplace that are getting in the way? In other words, the developmental disabilities of an Aspie should not stand in the way of what positives they can bring to work.
Sharp spoke during a session at the 2011 Behavioral Wellness in the Workplace Conference held by the Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC) from March 23 to 25 in Orange County, Calif.
In fact, in learning to communicate with Aspies, managers could develop skills that will benefit their relations with all colleagues. The lesson: Don't beat around the bush.
"You almost got to be kind of rude," Sharp said about the importance of talking in a clear and direct way to Aspies. The individual with Asperger's won't see it as rude.
Of course, regular employees might. But a little clarity in conversation and instruction can help everyone. As Sharp's father used to tell him when he was beating around the bush, "Don't build me a watch. Just tell me what time it is."
STRESSED AND DRUNK
Then again, no matter how clearly managers speak to their employees, no one might be home. Autism spectrum disorders are neurological conditions, not emotional or behavioral illnesses. Plenty of those can be found in the workplace too. The biggie is depression.
"Depression is really one of the most significant causes of disability in our organizations," said Marcia Carruthers, CEO of DMEC.
Add stress to that list. Although it's not a diagnosis, stress can aggravate or set about a host of conditions, both behavioral and physical.
David Campbell, senior vice president of quality management for ComPsych, speaking at the DMEC event, reeled off a list of scary statistics to reveal stress' impact, including that $300 billion is spent in the United States on stress-related illnesses, that 60 percent to 80 percent of workplace accidents are linked to stress, and that 13.4 million workdays are lost to it each year because of it.
"Stress is insidious," is how Stanley J. Kulesa, assistant vice president of benefits for the Standard Life Insurance Co. of New York, put it.
Some employers, like the Standard, are tackling the issue with stress management programs. Perhaps many other employers, however, are letting employees deal with it alone. No wonder alcohol problems are nearly as prevalent as diabetes in the United States, with 17.6 million suffering from the former and 18.2 million from the latter.
Considering that 80 percent of people who misuse alcohol are in the workplace, according to Tracy L. McPherson, assistant research professor at George Washington University, it's safe to assume that a lot fall through the cracks of health, wellness and absence management programs at their employers.
"We aren't going to reach them unless we're looking for them," McPherson said.
It's almost as if, though, that there are too many people to reach.
March 25, 2011
Copyright 2011© LRP Publications