Henry Cavendish is an acclaimed 18th century scientist. He discovered hydrogen, developed a formula to calculate the density of the earth and developed laws governing electrical attraction and repulsion. His colleagues and neighbours experienced him differently. They saw a man who took the same walk at the same time every evening, walking in the middle of the road to avoid social contact. A man who ate the same dinner each day, dressed in the same style of clothing throughout his life and communicated only by notes with his servants. Fellow scientists spoke of him as being taciturn and avoiding eye contact, but that he would become animated and talk at length if he overheard a conversation on a topic that interested him. They viewed him as eccentric . Today we would recognise those behaviours of difficulty in social interaction, rigid patterns of behaviour, and only engaging on subjects that were of interest to him, as indicators of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Autism from the Greek word ‘autos’ meaning self: the isolated self which allowed Cavendish to develop his exceptional cognitive abilities and also created his isolation from others. Autism is a spectrum condition. At one end are people who have profound and multiple disabilities of which autism is only one and who need lifelong care. At the other we have people with extraordinary talents but difficulties in negotiating their lives. Along that spectrum, are the 16% of people with autism who obtain work. Many of them will not have had a formal diagnosis because of their intelligence, but they may well recognise in themselves some of the markers of autism: discomfort in social situations, a restricted range of interests, difficulty in understanding the non-literal, discomfort with eye contact or difficulty in understanding emotional issues in others. They may speak of themselves as having Aspergers, as a way of differentiating themselves from those whose cognitive and behavioural abilities are more severely impaired by autism.
Our view of neurodiversity has now changed, from a deficit condition, to a recognition that there are naturally occurring differences in human neurocognition which result in some brains having pronounced strengths and weaknesses. Often those strengths benefit the workplace. Journalist Steve Silberman working in Silicon Valley in the early 2000’s noticed the prevalence of successful individuals in IT companies with indicators of autism. It enabled them to give extraordinary levels of focus and concentration to their work. They had ‘spiky’ brains, ones where some areas of work were extraordinarily easy for them, and some behavioural areas were more difficult than they were to those with neurotypical brains. This recognition of distinctive strengths has led organisations to explicitly look to recruit those on the spectrum for areas such as IT, accountancy and engineering: areas where memory, ability to deal with detail and to focus for long periods of time are valued.
Colleagues will notice that they seem to want alone time, that they do not get jokes, that they seem rigid in their style, or that they have periodic meltdowns. What they don’t see is that the individual finds it hard to process non-verbal cues, that they can see the detail but not the bigger picture, that it is hard for them to predict ahead of the here and now, and it is difficult for them to change thought patterns.
How to Develop Leaders with ASD
The conventional way to prepare individuals for leadership is through leadership programmes, but these often do not work for those with ASD. The content may be general rather than specific to their interests or needs, too abstract in its delivery and the expectation of being with others for extended periods of time too draining.
For all these reasons, coaching can be a more productive offer. It acknowledges that no 2 people with ASD are the same and provides a bespoke experience that works alongside the learning preferences of the individual. Birkbeck College’s Centre for Neurodiversity Research at Work researched the value of coaching to those who identify as neurodiverse by following a bespoke coaching programme . They found that coachees reported a 75% improvement in areas that were problematic to them and their managers observed improvements of 50%. Overwhelmingly, the area coachees most wanted help with was stress management. This was not the stress of high work demands on them, but the stress being expected to behave in ways which went outside of their comfort, and the embarrassment and loneliness experienced when they saw others’ reaction to their behaviours.
How is coaching a Leader who has ASD different from conventional coaching
Leadership coaching is premised on a view of an individual as valuing a non directive approach where through skilful questioning and appropriate challenge the individual can find their own solutions. A model based on learning from counselling is assumed to be universal in its application.
The evidence is that it does not work with those with ASD. The abstract can be confusing, indirect messages get lost, the resources to find their own solutions to behavioural problems are not present. What does work are approaches which are concrete. Where feedback is direct and the coach is directive in telling the client what they need to do and then modelling the behaviour for them. It often involves role playing so the coach can act as the neurotypical colleague and offer clear feedback on the (unintended) impact of their behaviours. The client then learns by copying what others do more easily. Equally, it can involve re-using data from remembered experiences of when things have gone well and looking to magnify the skills of those experiences.
There are few Henry Cavendish’s in every generation, but there are many talented individuals with ASD who could offer even more, if they were provided with the right support to enable them to develop the behaviours that would enable them to be more effective and happier in their leadership roles.
Dr Carole Pemberton is an executive coach and resilience expert working in corporate environments and the public sector for over 35 years, as well as being a researcher and published author.