Could Your Boss Have Asperger’s?

By the time she learned of her disorder, she’d been fired repeatedly. How did someone with such poor social skills develop a thriving career?

by Penelope Trunk
aspergers illustration
Illustration: Brian Cronin

I used to try to hide that at work—that I wear the same jeans, the same underwear, the same everything for weeks in a row. Sometimes I’d throw a sweater over a sweater; that way, people thought I had changed, but the new clothes didn’t actually have to touch me. Now I realize I have severe sensory integration dysfunction—common with Asperger’s—so I just tell people I am wearing the same clothes because I need to. They don’t care. If you tell others you understand why you can’t change clothes, they don’t think you’re psycho.

People say it is hard to grow old. They miss their younger selves. My younger self was a fog. It wasn’t until after my son’s diagnosis that I learned how to explain my situation and ask for help in a way that encouraged people to give it to me. Knowing how to tell people about my Asperger’s allows me to connect with them.

For example, I tell people who work for me that I will never be intentionally hurtful, because I don’t understand the process; they should just tell me when I hurt their feelings. When they do, I say I’m sorry, even though I have no idea why they would be sad. I try to use the tone of voice that people use for “I’m sorry.” (The inflection goes down at the end of the word so you don’t sound too upbeat.) Next, I ask the person I’ve hurt to give me a rule. What’s the rule for what I should say in a particular situation? After years of practice, I’ve learned how to generalize only a couple of the directives; mostly I just re-ask as each situation arises.

People don’t like instructing their boss on how to talk. It takes a while for my employees and colleagues to understand that I want that. But once they get it, they are happy to help. Because people who work together care about one another, and if you work with someone who has Asperger’s, you have to have the discussion about how to care for each other every single day. So really, you could say that people with Asperger’s make the work world a more meaningful place. If they can hold down a job. 

Penelope Trunk recently launched her fourth start-up, She lives in Darlington, Wisconsin.

Next: The No. 1 Secret to Staying Relevant in your Career

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First published in the November 2013 issue

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