New LSE research could provide a critical breakthrough for job seekers with Asperger’s syndrome

We are socialised into a world with very tight expectations of social coordination
Work meeting 700px520p
Interviews can be stressful for people with Asperger's LSE Photography

Job interviews rate as one of the most stressful situations that people face in their lives, but imagine that stress amplified tenfold. That’s the reality for people diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

People with Asperger’s experience life-long difficulties with social interaction, reading body language, maintaining eye contact, and interpreting people’s conversations. Take those personality traits into a job interview and it is small wonder that only 16 per cent of people with an autism spectrum diagnosis such as Asperger’s are in full-time employment.

But an innovative research project by LSE PhD student Brett Heasman could provide an important breakthrough for job seekers with Asperger’s syndrome (AS).

As part of his thesis, the 29-year-old PhD researcher in LSE’s Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science is working on a training programme to help employers better understand the mindset of those with AS.

“Intelligence is not the issue with people who are diagnosed with AS – far from it,” Brett says. Most people with Asperger’s have a normal or even higher IQ than average, but they have specific difficulties with social interaction.”

In a job interview this can be costly, and compounded by the fact that many employers do not recognise the classic signs of Asperger’s and dismiss applicants as “odd”.

“We are socialised into a world with very tight expectations of social coordination. If someone looks at you the wrong way or blinks the wrong way, or there is a silence that lasts more than three seconds, it means something. Yet people with Asperger’s may give off these signals unintentionally, while also struggling to follow the signals of others. People – including employers – need to look past these social cues and take a broader perspective on what is meaningful interaction,” Brett suggests.

“Part of the challenge of understanding Asperger’s is that the autism spectrum encompasses a wide range of abilities and behaviours and it can be hard to know what to expect when encountering someone with Asperger’s. Although the term is well-known, most people actually have little idea of how it manifests in social interactions. This presents a potential problem for employers because labels can set up misguided expectations.”

An estimated 700,000 people in the UK live with autism, the spectrum which includes Asperger’s, and the overwhelming majority want to live independently and work in ‘normal’ jobs.

“It would help if employers had a better understanding of Asperger’s and not get stuck on the micro details of social behaviour in job interviews.  This would allow people with Asperger’s to better demonstrate their potential,” Brett says.

To this end, Brett has been building a virtual experience online where people can step into the shoes of those with Asperger’s and get a better appreciation of how they see the world. He hopes it will help family members and potential employers to get a different perspective.

The virtual experience allows users to absorb information in the same way that people with Asperger’s do – for example, fixating on the small details and overlooking the big picture. The experience focuses on details in the environment and holds them in the player’s field of view even after they have seen them.

The sounds are also connected to the visual input, so that loud, piercing noises such as a drill, affect the field of view.

“The virtual experience allows users to explore environments in a completely new, sensory way. It makes people question their assumptions about perception, which in turn can help them to understand the wider challenges that people with Asperger’s face.”

Brett is also working with a number of UK organisations that support adults with Asperger’s syndrome and high functioning autism, including Matthew’s Hub, Project Aspie and Sensory Spectacle which have proved invaluable for his thesis and paved the way for future collaborations.

 “Parents of children on the spectrum can feel completely trapped and are often at a loss of how to handle their condition. The clinical literature is so varied and quite stigmatising at times. Hopefully my research can demonstrate a more social approach to Asperger’s that considers the individuals, groups, norms and cultures which promote or inhibit interactions,” Brett said.

Behind the article

Brett Heasman is in the third year of his PhD in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

His research explores how to build enabling environments for people with Asperger’s syndrome, who experience life-long difficulties in social interactions. His doctorate is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and he is supervised by Dr Alex Gillespie.