If Things Don’t Go EXACTLY As Planned

Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter, August, 2017

Several weeks into his first job as a junior data analyst, Ben was having trouble managing his workload. He decided to disclose his Asperger’s Syndrome to his employer and requested accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The employer agreed to both of Ben’s requests. His supervisor would meet with Ben each morning to establish priority tasks. A senior analyst was assigned to help Ben learn how to manage project timelines.

Additionally, Ben agreed to control his temper when things did not go as he expected. Ben explained to me that he was unnerved by abrupt, unexpected changes. He would become anxious at first, and then lose his temper. There had been several incidents at work when Ben would become visibly agitated and challenge co-workers. Once, when a meeting date was changed, Ben angrily asked the project lead, “Why are you being so disrespectful of my time?”

Once the accommodations were set, a follow-up meeting was scheduled for the next month.

Over the next few weeks Ben’s performance improved. Since he was less stressed, he was able to control his temper. On the day of the review meeting, Ben felt positive. However, upon arriving at the conference room, he was shocked.

In addition to his supervisor and the senior analyst, a representative from human resources was there. Ben interpreted the presence of human resources to mean that his performance would be criticized. He also discovered that 30 minutes had been allocated, when he thought the meeting would last 10 minutes or less. He panicked and became angry. Ben declared in a loud voice that he did not believe that he should be criticized, and did not want to participate in the meeting.

When the human resources representative said that he was not going to be criticized, Ben accused her of lying. A heated exchange followed, and finally Ben was told that he was making everyone very uncomfortable. If Ben could not regain his composure, the meeting would be over.

Ben managed to calm down and apologized. The meeting continued with Ben’s boss and manager from human resources. Both expressed their confusion about his reaction. Ben explained his life-long difficulty dealing with unexpected change. “When things do not happen exactly like I think they will, I panic,” he said.

Luckily, Ben’s supervisor was sympathetic, as he had a nephew on the autism spectrum. He was clear, however, that Ben had to control his emotions. Even though Ben was performing his tasks well, he also had to interact with others in a professional manner.

Ben’s rigid expectations created an all-or-nothing mindset that fueled his anxiety and anger. He didn’t consider the context of a situation and often misinterpreted the actions of others.

Together, Ben and I considered the meeting from a different perspective. It is the job of human resources personnel to make sure that accommodations are implemented. The presence of the manager meant that Ben’s accommodations were being taken seriously. In the previous weeks, he consistently met deadlines and there had been no emotional outbursts. There was nothing for which he could be criticized. Finally, the meeting length meant that everyone would have a chance to discuss progress and whether any adjustments were needed.

I taught Ben the technique of mental “previewing.” This involves anticipating situations and what is likely to occur. Responses for various scenarios can be planned in advance. For example, he previewed an up-coming celebratory lunch for a co-worker. Ben anticipated that little or no work would be discussed. He planned topics to discuss with his colleagues, such as their plans for the weekend. We also planned what to do if he didn’t care for the restaurant’s menu, what he should wear (his usual work cloths) and other aspects of the event.

Ben knew that it was not possible to predict exactly what would happen in the future. However, previewing helped him to feel less vulnerable and anxious. He realized that he could make good guesses and create reasonable action plans. Three months after the progress meeting, Ben had maintained his composure at work.

Copyright 2017, Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching