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The Intersection of ASD and Technical Communication

By Janine M. Rowe

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder currently affecting about 1 out of every 250 individuals. Autism Spectrum is a “spectrum” disorder, which means that if affects each individual differently. No one descriptor is accurate for all people with ASD, however, a deficit in social communication and social interaction is most often noticed. For example, individuals on the Autism Spectrum may have difficulty interpreting non-verbal communicative behaviors, such as tone, facial expressions, or other subtle messages. A lack of social reciprocity may be noticed, including delayed verbal responses and reluctance to initiate conversation. Autism Spectrum is also associated with benefits that are assets in many different types of roles, including intense interest in defined topic areas, an encyclopedic memory, attention to detail, and strong logic and analytic skills.

At Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY, we enjoy a diverse student population including many students with disabilities and a large group of students who identify as being on the Autism Spectrum. Our Disability Services and Career Services offices work together to support the career development of students and alumni on the Autism Spectrum, who are highly capable but sometimes under-utilized by employers. This article combines the experience of two telecommunications professions who identify as being on the Autism Spectrum, Myles Cryer and Danielle Villegas. An interview with Cryer, describing his experience as a telecommunications professional with ASD, is available at on page 10 in Appendix 1.

Unique Qualifications
Intense interest and attention to detail

Intense interest and attention to detail often mean that individuals on the Autism Spectrum are uniquely qualified for positions in the technical communication field. “A misplaced comma or the use of the wrong word in the wrong context can potentially lead to negative business consequences or a misunderstanding of the material by end users,” says Cryer. “An obsession over details within technical communication is a positive attribute that those with ASD can use to their advantage to ensure documentation is as accurate as possible.” Intense interest can allow for an ability to focus on a specific area of work and notice details that others may have missed. “Deep interest prompts more attention to details, for sure. If it’s something that the ASD person enjoys doing or it’s a topic that they are interested in, they’ll be happy to do it quickly and efficiently, and done to as close to perfection as possible.” says Villegas.

Preference for factual information, routines, and structure over abstract ideas

Individuals on the Autism Spectrum may have a natural preference for routine, organization, and factual information. This leads to their ability to create structure, pathways. This is “especially helpful with writing screens, manuals, and other technical communication documents that need organization to work well,” says Villegas. Cryer reports that he enjoys the ability to navigate through technical information easily, and the ability to understand and translate technical information to a wide variety of audiences. “When providing technical documentation for end users of a product or service, the technical communicator must be able to understand how an end user may interpret written material. When editing material, taking a literal approach can help one to understand the way an end user may interpret certain aspects of that material—especially when communicating processes and procedures,” says Cryer.

Exceptional talents

In addition to often having an above average intellect, employees on the Autism Spectrum may have highly developed and defined skill sets. Villegas described a blend of creative and technical talents that are useful in her daily work. “[Technical communicators] take what’s technical, and creatively write about the topics in a way that’s user-friendly and comprehensive. It’s making an art out of something technical.” Both Cryer and Villegas have experienced difficulties interpreting clients’ abstract statements, so they developed additional skill sets to help define their needs. Because he does not take information at face value, Cryer has found that he has an advantage in soliciting factual, detailed information. Villegas finds it helpful to ask lots of questions and learned about the ideal way that customer service inquiries should be handled so she could replicate these skills in her work. Both also used their abilities to recognize patterns and routine to streamline their work. For Villegas, she finds that creating content architecture strategies in content management systems comes easily: “It’s really all about creating the structure and organization so that it makes sense and flows!”

Potential Barriers
Multitasking

Some tasks and projects may naturally be more challenging for employees on the Autism Spectrum. Multitasking can be especially challenging, especially if the tasks are new. Villegas explains that individuals on the Spectrum are wired for focus and attention to detail, meaning that multitasking might be limited to a few tasks at once, where a “typical” person (someone not on the Autism Spectrum) may be able to take on several. Villegas also pointed out that being assigned large tasks at the last minute and negotiating changing deadlines can feel especially overwhelming and require a bit more time and effort to process through those tasks.

Social interaction

Supervisors of individuals on the Autism Spectrum may wonder if their employees will be comfortable working with clients and on teams in the workplace. Villegas explains that empathy and perspective-taking require more energy and time and may not come naturally, but can develop with practice and coaching. “As with a lot of social interactions, I had to be taught how to react, how to put myself in the other person’s situation, and how to devise solutions in that setting. Coworkers and managers can help the tone and help you as you work with your clientele and needs to fill in those blind spots.” Cryer found tasks like public speaking particularly stressful, and while it does not come naturally to him, he practices skills such as modulating his voice when necessary and smiling as not to appear bored. Cryer and Villegas also worry that their tendencies for asking questions—an essential practice for uncovering information that others may inherently understand—can come off as rude or redundant.

Working with Someone on the Autism Spectrum

Sharing that one is on the Autism Spectrum with co-workers or supervisors is a very personal decision. Employees must weigh the impact of stigma and assumptions and the desire to be open with their co-workers. While the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, implicit biases may negatively impact the hiring and promotion of practitioners on the Autism Spectrum. Villegas stated that she does not always find it necessary to share that she is on the Autism Spectrum with her co-workers. If she does decide to disclose, Villegas says that she “treats it just as if I had any other learning disability. It doesn’t impede my other skills and talents. I treat it like any other potential weakness I might have as an employee. Someone else may be weak with digital skills and literacy, so as a team member, I would fill in that gap. I’m weak in other ways, and that person can fill that gap.” Cryer reported that he has not made a habit out of discussing being on the Autism Spectrum with his co-workers, but that he did discuss it privately with his co-workers so they could better understand his experience with public speaking.

Appendix 1: An Interview with ASD Practitioner Myles Cryer
The Intersection of ASD and Technical Communication

Rowe: Can you share a bit about your background and about how you experience ASD?

Cryer: I think it’s appropriate to first start with the particular ASD (Asperger’s) challenges I face on a personal level, since symptoms and experiences can range on the spectrum. Perhaps the most challenging aspect I face is social anxiety and an inability to fully comprehend basic social cues and rules. It’s difficult for me to engage in small talk, whether in large or small settings, as I prefer to listen to surrounding conversations than to immediately offer my own opinions. Partly, I don’t immediately engage in conversation because I don’t want to say something without having thought through every aspect of what I want to say. However, I often find that I simply go blank when in social settings, especially when attempting to engage in small talk. I could talk about the feasibility of sending humans to Mars for hours, but I find it exceedingly difficult to talk about my plans for the weekend. In a business setting, I’m often praised for my ability to understand and discuss complex processes, but I have never learned how to engage in pre-meeting small talk before those discussions take place.

Rowe: Has ASD impacted your career? How?

Cryer: After receiving a Masters in Technical and Professional Communication, I accepted a position as a Major Incident Manager for an IT consulting company working on a state contract for IT service integration and data center consolidation. You may say this role didn’t align with my degree (and you’d be right), but I needed a job, and I saw this role as an opportunity to get my foot in the door with an IT company.

This particular role challenged almost every aspect of my ASD symptoms. Incident management requires continuously leading conference calls in a high-stress environment, ensuring various people are engaged in the right place and at the right time, delivering status communications on a regular basis, updating the ticketing system’s status log, and convincing IT personnel to stop what they’re doing and immediately resolve a critical issue. All of these actions are performed simultaneously, meaning one must have an ability to multitask and focus on several critical actions at once.

However, I quickly discovered there is a repeatable routine for every incident, even though each incident is different in nature. Once I understood the pattern of incident management and how those patterns connect with the overall process, I was able to overcome aspects of the job for which many people eventually quit (the role has an exceedingly high turnover rate). In this respect, my propensity for routines helped me to quickly understand the overall incident process.

Two common symptoms of ASD are reduced abilities for “small talk” and the literal interpretation of communication. In incident management, these two traits are actually beneficial to the job. When on incident bridges (technical conference calls), small talk often distracts from solving the problem and can result in technical engineers losing focus on the issue. Further, since it’s the responsibility of the incident manager to update the ticketing system with each action performed during the course of the incident and to deliver status communications, it’s imperative that each status entry and communication explicitly state, without embellishment, each action taken. Thus, my ASD became a benefit when communicating technical information and actions.

My current role as Communications Manager has been more challenging from a social interaction perspective. A person in this role is responsible for not only delivering enterprise communications, but to also create and maintain business relationships at all levels, from entry-level to executive personnel. Many aspects of social interaction that most people inherently understand are exceedingly difficult for me. A few examples include difficulty maintaining close relationships, problems reading non-verbal cues, and little ability for small talk.

One aspect of my role that I’ve found particularly difficult to overcome is leading our account’s All Hands meeting. This forum is an in-person meeting with approximately 150 attendees, and my role is to emcee the forum. Given my uncomfortableness in social settings and a high level of stage fright as a result, speaking in front of so many colleagues has proved to be a challenge. My mind will often go blank in the middle of a sentence, I must actively attempt to modulate my voice to prevent myself from speaking in monotones, and I find it difficult to directly look at the audience’s faces. However, much practice has allowed me to overcome many aspects that I found difficult at the beginning, although I still do not find that practice makes these elements come naturally. For someone with ASD, we must constantly remind ourselves to look at the audience, modulate our voice, write important points on notecards, and smile so as to not appear bored.

In this role, I write and deliver communications to a wide variety of stakeholders on technical topics, assist in the creation of technical documentation, create presentations for a wide variety of purposes, assist in creating user guides, and create marketing collateral for internal and external use. Each of these areas requires collaboration with various stakeholders to create effective documentation, but each also allows time alone to create material once information has been gathered. Through trial and error, I’ve developed strategies that work effectively for me when collaborating with others on projects that overcome some aspects of my ASD.

Tips for Managers, Supervisors, and Coworkers

If you are working with, or think you are working with, someone on the Autism Spectrum, the following suggestions can help that person shine.

  1. Develop an understanding of the general challenges and strengths associated with ASD.
  2. Give clear and detailed instructions and make sure your instructions are understood.
  3. Ensure that the workplace is a comfortable environment to ask questions, remembering that asking for help might feel embarrassing for the individual. Give instruction on who the individual should go to with questions, and encourage emailing questions. Consider that an employee who is “asking too many questions” may be trying to check assumptions, uncover missed information, or gain more details.
  4. Provide a mentor who can provide feedback, reassurance, and explanations for vague concepts, such as the unwritten rules of the workplace culture.
  5. Allow easy access to written resources to assist with the tasks, including definitions of acronyms and industry-specific jargon, or a list of high priority activities, clients, and projects.
  6. Recognize that employees have different levels of comfort and interest socializing at work. Do not interpret disinterest in small talk as rudeness or boredom; opening up and engaging in conversation takes more time for some. Make social events optional.
  7. Facilitate communication whenever possible. Give advance notice of topics to be discussed at meetings, and advance notice of when the individual is expected to present. Encourage various modalities of communication, especially email or texting. Coworkers can assist with social interaction by introducing the employee to others or inviting them into conversation since these tasks may not come easily.

Author’s note: In my role at Rochester Institute of Technology, I create specialized career development programming to meet the needs of students on the Autism Spectrum as well as consult with employers who hire individuals with disabilities to ensure their recruiting, hiring, training, and managing practices are inclusive to employees with disabilities. Composing this article represents a new opportunity for me, since I normally work with individuals who are just beginning their careers. My students on the Autism Spectrum face multiple challenges when working toward obtaining their first internship or job, including the fear of discrimination, uncertainty of how to navigate unfamiliar corporate cultures, and living away from family support for the first time. I look forward to sharing the wisdom from Danielle and Myles with my students and their employers: 1) Certain tasks, particularly those related to social interaction, may prove more challenging but are surmountable with co-worker support and a bit more time and effort. 2) All employees have areas of strengths and challenges. Adjusting your roles, responsibilities, and job titles as your career progresses is not necessarily an indication of lack of skill. This process is advisable for any employee and can lead to greater employment satisfaction; and 3) Coworkers, supervisors, and clients will often recognize the unique contributions of employees on the Autism Spectrum, making them valuable team members.

Rowe: How are characteristics common to ASD helpful in your profession?

Cryer: A few beneficial characteristics of those with ASD that are helpful in the technical communication profession include:

  • Detail-oriented approach to tasks
  • Preference for technical/factual information over abstract
  • Literal interpretation of communication
  • Superior ability to focus on an area of interest
  • Tendency to become obsessive over details

I’ll take each of these aspects and expound on how they may benefit someone with ASD within TC.

Detail-Oriented Approach / Obsession over Details

Technical communication inherently requires extensive attention to detail. A misplaced comma or the use of the wrong word in the wrong context can potentially lead to negative business consequences or a misunderstanding of the material by end users. An obsession over details within technical communication is a positive attribute that those with ASD can use to their advantage to ensure documentation is as accurate as possible.

Preference for Technical or Factual Information

Although this may appear to be a requirement in respect to technical communication, a preference for technical information over abstract information is an obvious advantage for those with ASD. It’s much easier for those with ASD to extrapolate the technical/factual from the abstract, making this characteristic an especial benefit when communicating processes and procedures. This particular characteristic also makes the technical communication profession a great fit for those with ASD.

Literal Interpretation of Communication

Technical communicators must not only understand technical information gathered from various resources, but they must also be able to translate technical information to a wide variety of audiences. Especially when providing technical documentation for end users of a product or service, the technical communicator must be able to understand how an end user may interpret written material. When editing material, taking a literal approach can help one to understand the way an end user may interpret certain aspects of that material – especially when communicating processes and procedures.

Ability to focus on Areas of Interest

If a technical communicator is indeed interested in the topic he/she is communicating, then an ability to focus on tasks is indeed a positive trait, especially when dealing with deadlines. Personally, I’ve found when thinking on an area of interest, I’m able to tune out the surrounding world and heavily focus on one area. This ability to focus on a specific area allows one to examine aspects of that area that others may have missed or neglected. In technical communication, it’s important to understand various interpretations of written material and whether that material adequately answers various questions end users or business owners may have.

Appendix 2

By Myles Cryer

Social Interaction and Communication:
  • Difficulty interacting with others
  • Difficulty in initiating or maintaining close relationships
  • Find it hard to get close to others
  • Difficulty looking others directly in the eye
  • May appear bored in social situations
  • May seem to lack empathy for others
  • Seeks out time alone when overloaded by other people
  • Not seek comfort from other people
  • Problems reading non-verbal or social cues or understanding/using social rules
  • Very socially naïve
  • One-sided conversations and little ability for “small talk”
  • May appear overly shy or overly extroverted (overly shy in my case)
  • Unaware of others’ thoughts, feelings, or perceptions, resulting in inadvertently appearing rude or inconsiderate
  • Literal interpretation of communication from others
  • Avoidant of social contact or events, and may experience heightened anxiety in social situations
  • Language is learned and used in “chunks” (e.g., phrases, dialogue from TV shows, etc.)
  • Tendency to speak with a monotone inflection
  • Communication is used for delivering or requesting information, not as a way of interacting socially
  • May speak too formally for the situation
  • Slang language may not be a part of usual speech
  • Fixed pitch when talking
Repetitive or Restrictive Patterns:
  • Overly reliant on fixed routines
  • May become overly attached to specific objects
  • Tendency to become obsessive over details
  • May become preoccupied with a certain activity
  • Highly focused on certain interests
Cognitive Traits:
  • Average to superior intelligence
  • Detail oriented approach to tasks, which may result in missing the “bigger picture”
  • Prefer technical/factual information over abstract
Behavioral Traits:
  • Repetitive movements and speech
  • Superior ability to focus on favorite activity or area of interest
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Oversensitivity to stimuli through the five senses

Rowe: Does being on the spectrum help to augment your understanding of your clients and customers’ needs? In what ways?

Cryer: It depends on the client, so yes and no. As mentioned earlier, those with ASD tend to interpret communication literally, and many business clients may hide their true needs behind fuzzy contract language or abstract statements. In this sense, understanding social cues or social interaction and communication would be a benefit in understand what a client is truly saying, so those with ASD may miss the hidden meaning behind words or actions.

However, since someone with ASD prefers factual information over abstract, we do have an advantage in obtaining factual information from clients to understand their customers’ actual needs. A client may say that their customers need better computing power, and my immediate thought is, “What does that actually mean? Do customers need better computers? Do they need greater network bandwidth or more reliable cloud computing?” Following up and asking the client these questions can lead to a more accurate understanding of customers’ needs.

Rowe: Is there anything you recommend when working with a client or co-workers with ASD?

Cryer: In the example above, I posed a question someone with ASD may ask a client. Clients and co-workers may sometimes misinterpret such a line of questioning as rude or unnecessary, thinking “you should know what they mean by better computing power.” However, we may not understand the meaning behind hidden behind the statement, and asking various questions may be our way of obtaining knowledge that others may have inherently understood. So if someone is asking more questions than you believe may be necessary, it may in fact be their way of trying to understand what was said so they can meet the client or customer’s needs.

An inability to interact socially is a commonality for those with ASD as well. We may not know how to approach people at conferences, corporate events, in the cafeteria, or in social spaces. Understand that we’re not trying to be anti-social or rude – we honestly do not know how to be social. Try bringing us in to conversations or introducing us to other people, since making those introductions on our own or jumping into a conversation of our own volition is not in our comfort zone.

Mostly, however, I find that co-workers or clients misconstrue social awkwardness with rudeness. This is a mischaracterization for those with ASD. We don’t want to appear rude, but we’re honestly unaware of social cues and norms. Be patient with us, as it may take us longer than usual to feel comfortable opening up to others and engaging in conversation.

Rowe: Please describe your experience of reflecting on being on the Autism Spectrum and your employment.

Cryer: Honestly, I wasn’t all too surprised when I discovered I was on the spectrum, and I actually think it has helped knowing that I am. I can now analyze the symptoms I face (as I did in this interview), why I face those symptoms, and how to overcome them. In terms of employment, I do not expect knowing that I am on the spectrum to change the way I look at my current employment position or, should I seek other employment opportunities, the way in which I would approach other potential employers. Actually, I believe I’m now much more confident in discussing drawbacks and weaknesses that result from being on the spectrum and the ways I’ve overcome those challenges. I don’t feel that I would openly volunteer such information in the course of normal workplace conversation, but should the topic arise, I’m now in a much better position to speak with authority and confidence on the subject, whereas I might previously have deflected to another topic .

Resources

http://aspergerstest.net/aspergers-checklist/

http://www.autism.org.uk/about/what-is/asperger.aspx

http://www.aspergers.ca/what-is-asperger-syndrome/common-traits/

JANINE M. ROWE, MSEd., NCC, is a career counselor and Assistant Director of Disability Services at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY. In addition to providing developmental career counseling, she provides education and advocacy for students with disabilities and consults with employers hiring individuals with disabilities. She is the winner of New York State’s Early Career Professional Award and has written numerous articles and presentations regarding best practices for employing individuals with disabilities.

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