Workers With Asperger's Syndrome Enter Economy With Challenges, Unique Gifts

workers aspergers syndromeAsk Daniel Felner about his $7.65 per hour job as a receptionist at a YMCA branch in New Jersey, and the 26-year-old will get effusive. "Everyone is so pleased with me," he says in a telephone interview. "I get complimented on the way I answer phones. Sometimes I compliment people when they walk in. And most of the time I am told, 'Daniel, you are a charmer.' "

Felner is one of a growing number of young adults who have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, and are still making a place for themselves in the workforce. (In addition to Asperger's, the spectrum also includes a range of complex disorders related to brain development). The Centers for Disease Control, citing improved diagnosis and a broader definition, says 1 in 88 children now have an ASD. And so as a result, half a million Americans with an ASD will enter adulthood over the next decade, according to some estimates.

People on the spectrum can have a wide variety of symptoms and behavioral issues. Some are high-functioning individuals who are successful and may just be seen as a little "quirky." Others are unable to have a conversation or may be nonverbal. Still others are like Felner, they hold down jobs and can communicate one-on-one without major problems, but can't understand the concept of lying. All are characterized by varying degrees of impairments in social interaction and communication.

Debate rages on in the medical establishment about who qualifies as falling on the autism spectrum, and everyone involved is eagerly awaiting the publication of the next "Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders," scheduled for next May. But however the new definitions are crafted, one very basic issue should remain unchanged: How will these Americans find jobs and contribute? A recent study from the journal Pediatrics found that just 55 percent of people with an ASD were employed six years after graduating high school.

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"The issue for workers with Asperger's is the same for all workers: People have an ingrained distaste for bad social skills," says Penelope Trunk, the founder of Brazen Careerist, who's been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. "And so yes, it can be difficult to deal with someone who has Asperger's. But when there is deficit, there's also often genius. So people with Asperger's have a chance to specialize and carve out a niche. And that's how they can remain employable."

'500 More Daniels'

In Felner's case, his disability was apparent from an early age, says his mom, Sonia Felner, of Springfield, N.J.

"By the time he was 3, we realized when he was talking, he wasn't talking to us," she says. He also suffers from seizures, and has an inflexibly black and white view of things. "He cannot understand people breaking rules."

%VIRTUAL-hiringNow-topCity%Felner finished his education at Union County Vocational Technical School in Scotch Plains, N.J., where he specialized in office occupations and technology. After working at his father's auto repair shop, where he helped with customer service and the shop's computer records, he applied for an opening at the YMCA in Westfield, N.J.

He was hired in September 2007, and works five- and six-hour shifts four days a week. In addition to greeting members, Felner mans the telephones at the community center, transferring callers. He also helps with basic administrative duties, like taking messages. And he helped give tours of the center's grounds to prospective members before someone was brought on solely to take over that task.

"If I could hire 500 more Daniels, I would," says Janice Carthens, the senior director for Member Services at the Westfield "Y." "He doesn't come into the workforce with all the baggage and attitude young people have today. Young employees often need supervision. He does not."

During his first two weeks of employment, Felner was shadowed by a job coach. The visits then became weekly, then monthly, and now Felner is checked in on once every six months. In referring to Felner as an "asset," Carthens says Felner had the most successful turnover rate among the 20 other people who were giving tours during the 2010-2011 season. She says she can't really recall an incident when his Asperger's hindered his performance on the job.

He has been regularly nominated for "Employee of the Month" among the staff of roughly 60. And his enhanced cognitive abilities, which is common for anyone with an ASD, often come in handy. He knows all the members' names, of which there are about 11,000, according to Carthens. "After six months at this job, most people still have to look up the important numbers and extensions." Felner, however, has them memorized.

Unique Attention To Detail

Indeed, people with Asperger's and other ASDs, especially those who are highly functioning, are known to thrive in environments that allow them to take advantage of their unique attention to detail, says Jonathan Hoffman, the clinical director of the the NeuroBehavioral Institute in Weston, Fla. He says that companies specializing in maintaining complex systems -- such as a transatlantic grid -- have specifically reached out to workers with Asperger's syndrome.

"Highly functioning Aspies can have a tremendous attention to detail, and that can prove extremely helpful for upkeep on a global electronic grid," he says. If there's an overlap between an innate skill and a "need, why not bring them in?" (Aspies is a term of affection for people with Asperger's.)

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The prevalence of workers with Asperger's syndrome in information technology is widely acknowledged among the workers in that field. "Aspies--> tech--> as fish--> water," is how one worker, who identified himself as "Ryno," put it to ComputerWorld.

And the reasoning, according to Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and author of "Developing Talents: Careers for Individuals with Asperger's Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism," has everything to do with the nature of ASD.

"The Asperger's brain is interested in things rather than people," she says. "Who do you think made the first spear as the rest of the cavemen sat around the fire? If he didn't have an actual disorder, it was definitely someone who wasn't interested in being social. These people are important."

There's no formal study showing the link between people with Asperger's and tech fields. But the experience of succeeding because of an ASD is still far from the universal experience, as the figure from Pediatrics demonstrates.

'Too Nice'

So it's with good cause that Daniel Felner and his family are proud of his continued employment at the YMCA. "He's never moody because he's so happy to have the job."

For his part, Felner loves his job so much he that finds ways to add to his workday. He's thrown himself into charity activities, regularly devoting extra time to working the phones for benefit dance-a-thons hosted at the local JCC. And when he goes on vacation, he comes back with gift keychains for 45 of his co-workers, including the directors at the "Y."

When asked what holds her son back the most at his job, his mother weighed the possibilties.

"Nothing - apart from the fact that he's too nice?"

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