In the episode “The Thespian Catalyst” of the TV series The Big Bang Theory, the presumably autistic character Sheldon Cooper holds his first lecture. While he describes it as “triumphant” afterward, his students do not share this impression. He is depicted as misreading the situation, making unfunny comments, and even insulting the students. One student even tweets: “Dr. Cooper has taken a relatively boring concept to make it downright insufferable.” Trying to explain what happened to Sheldon, who is unable to understand his failure, his girlfriend notes that “teaching is a performance art,” which, in addition to the transfer of knowledge, also involves communication, entertainment, and engagement. To improve his performance, he takes acting lessons with his neighbor, actress Penny, who coaches him in interpersonal communication. While Sheldon is depicted as a brilliant scientist, he at the same time needs guidance so that his employers can make full use of his talent.
Sheldon is just one example that indicates a rising interest in autism spectrum disorder in the past twenty years. Not only is there an increasing representation of autistic characters in films, TV series, and books as well as growing scholarly attention towards neurodivergence, but autistic workers have also become attractive to employers as never before.2To name just a few pieces that feature neurodivergent characters prominently: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (2003), The Big Bang Theory (2007-2009), and recently Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum (2019-) and Atypical (2018-2021). This development is accompanied by an explosion in self-help literature and guidebooks that at first sight seem to be directed at integrating the autistic individual. A closer look reveals, however, that these guides also often serve to market autistic workers, to position them on the neoliberal market, and to construct them as the ideal worker. They do so, as Karen Kopelson observes, by employing three processes: advising, facilitating understanding, and marketing (554).
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism was first described in the late 1940s as a “syndrome of social communication deficits combined with repetitive and stereotyped behaviors” (Black and Grant 40). While in the past related disorders such as “infantile autism,” Asperger’s disorder, and Rett’s disorder were categorized individually, the DSM-4 – which is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and as such the main reference guide for medical professionals – subsumes these diagnoses under one single diagnosis, which is autism spectrum disorder. According to the DSM-5, the latest version of the handbook, autism spectrum disorder is characterized by deficits in social communication and interaction as well as restricted, repetitive behaviors, interests, and activities (American Psychiatric Association 50). As a spectrum disorder, its manifestations are furthermore functionally categorized and arranged between the two poles of low- and high-functioning autism. This classification, quite obviously, carries numerous problems. It flattens out the actual variety of manifestations and mainly allocates them at the polar points of the spectrum. Additionally, it equates, as Stuart Murray notes, function and value: “[T]he worrying aspect is that an idea of autistic functioning equates with an idea of disabled human value, that the shorthand that ‘function’ has become allows for processes of assessment and judgment that fix those with autism into inflexible ontological categories, and that these categories themselves then pass for the norm” (Murray n.p.). Even though the spectrum of possible manifestations is broad, most contemporary pop-cultural representations refer to high-functioning autism (The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon is a case in point); autism and savantism, which denotes individuals’ showing exceptional abilities only in one specific area (like an exceptional memory, or the ability to calculate with large numbers), are oftentimes used synonymously. Skills that are described as being beyond neurotypical performance, uncommon ways of thinking, extraordinary mathematical or programming skills, the ability to concentrate longer and better, and little social engagement are common characteristics of the image of the high-functioning autist in pop culture as well as in guidebooks.
The past twenty years have seen an explosion in self-help literature and guidebooks addressing autism spectrum disorder, which are mostly concerned with integrating autistic people into the workforce. While there is a large number of commercial publications, many companies have started to publish their own guidebooks, videos, brochures, and websites. Programs like SAP’s “Autism at work,” Microsoft’s Inclusive Hiring Programs, and EY’s Neurodiversity Program are just a few examples of a rapidly growing market targeting allegedly neurodivergent individuals, but actually mainly high-functioning autistic people.3This trend is observable in the recruiting strategies of global players such as SAP and EY. While SAP directly addresses autistic people by calling for “authentic identities” who should “bring everything [they] are and become everything [they] want” (“Autism at Work” n.p.), EY focuses on the employer’s perspective. They emphasize that companies should “embrace neurodiversity in the workplace [to] gain competitive advantages in many areas – productivity, innovation, organizational culture and talent retention” (Hofman n.p.). Explicit recruiting strategies like these examples index that autistic individuals have been discovered as potentially resourceful workers.
In the following, I will refer to two authors of very popular guidebooks: Rudy Simone, who is diagnosed on the spectrum and who published the bestseller Asperger’s on the Job in 2010, and Barbara Bissonnette, who is a certified professional coach, neurotypical, and who has published several books on the topic such as Asperger’s Syndrome Workplace Survival Guide (2010), The Complete Guide to Getting a Job with Asperger’s Syndrome (2013) and Employer’s Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (2017).
“Advising, Facilitating Understanding, and Marketing”
All selected guidebooks strongly attempt to market autistic individuals. In doing so, they simultaneously encourage the autistic individual to “make use of their potential” and to have the courage to apply to jobs even if they might be intimidated by the uncertainty of engaging in wage labor. At the same time, they call on prospective employers to discover what Bissonnette calls the “capable, intelligent, well-educated and underutilized workforce” (Bissonnette, Employer’s Guide 1). The main method the books employ to market autistic people is presenting supposedly common autistic features as characteristics of an idealized neoliberal subject. The features that are advertised always resemble the list Simone provides: “focus and diligence, we take pride in our work, a desire to please, independent, unique thinking, higher fluid intelligence, visual, three-dimensional thinking, attention to detail, honesty, and logic over emotion” (Simone, chap. 1). Both authors don’t solely list these features, but they explicitly reframe them to highlight their economic value. Bissonnette, for example, compiles a list that names attributes which are immediately followed by their translation into “benefits”:
- Tolerance of repetition and routine.
Benefits: perform the same tasks without getting bored or burned out.
- Strong logic and analytic skills.
Benefits: ability to see patterns/connections in data; objective view of facts. (…)
- Creative thinking.
Benefits: Different way of processing information can lead to novel solutions.
Benefits: stick with a job until it’s done.
- Honesty and loyalty.
Benefits: not afraid to tell the truth; stay with an employer long term. (Bissonnette, Workplace Survival Guide 184f)
While the list includes several supposedly unique traits that are easily identifiable as a competitive advantage, Bissonnette also reframes what might be perceived as deficits, mostly relating to communication and interaction, as assets. Using a colloquial style, Simone also remarks: “But even if a person never does come ‘round to the charms of chitchat, that can actually be a plus – they have time for work” (Simone, chap. 3). Furthermore, the reframing of these supposedly common autistic characteristics sometimes carries undertones of the romanticized notion of the “mad genius.” Still, as Kopelson observes, the idea of “imbalance-as-resource” is not the most prevalent narrative in these guidebooks (Kopelson 558). She rather concludes that the “ideal employee with autism is regularly constituted as a docile, determinedly task-oriented team player despite – or […] because of – ‘autistic traits’ such as asociality and inflexibility” (ibid.). Hence, what in other contexts, such as the medical and social realms, is framed as pathological becomes a competitive advantage in the neoliberal context of work; autistic individuals are presented as ideal workers “precisely because they do not thrive on interpersonal relationships or daily sociality” (ibid.) and because they prefer logic over emotion, which enables them to concentrate on the work at hand. Interestingly, these blatant generalizations are not only used to market autistic workers, but they also permeate the advice that is directed at the autistic audience.
In their advice for autistic people, the self-help books try to accompany the autistic worker on their paths from application to job interview to the daily work routine and offer instructions for probable situations and obstacles. This, of course, is empowering and very well-received by many autistic people. Nevertheless, these instructions not only function to facilitate the integration of autists into wider society, but they also resonate with neoliberal ideals and are directed at normalizing and homogenizing behavior. As autism spectrum disorders manifest quite differently, these guidebooks attempt to align autistic individuals by instructing them which behaviors are desired and can therefore be displayed, and which behaviors should rather be avoided or adjusted. It is important to note here that these aspects are not solely constructed from the vantage point of a potentially exploitative employer, but these guidelines also respond to the desire of many autistic people to engage in wage labor because economic self-containment socially signals an important individual achievement (cf. Galer).
To facilitate integration, the guidebooks follow a dual strategy: (1) underline the unique strengths of autists, and (2) instruct autists on how to adapt to the neurotypical workplace. Thus, while they openly demand a more inclusive workplace, they are also aware that all parties must adapt to the situation at hand. Interestingly, the proposed adjustments are partly also based on common stereotypes as they mainly focus on communication and hygiene, and they, as is common in self-help literature (cf. Graaff and Klepper 74), underline that the individual is, at least partly, responsible for improving their situation. Handing back the responsibility to the neurodivergent person is, of course, highly problematic considering the creation of a more inclusive work environment. The social constructivist approach to disability has taught us that “the ‘problem’ is not the person with disabilities; the problem is the way that normalcy is constructed to create the ‘problem’ of the disabled person” (Davis 23f). The relocation of the ‘problem’ of disability from the subject to society underlines that disability is, in fact, constructed in a dialogical process: “It is the interaction of individual bodies and social environments which produces disability” (Shakespeare 218). Exclusion, disadvantage, restriction, and the limitation of participation are the main features that characterize disability according to this approach. Therefore, the guidebooks problematically reinforce the social burden already put on the autistic individual.
Still, these guidebooks, at least partly, acknowledge that autism and its manifestations cannot be switched off or easily changed and they sometimes even link the ‘problem’ to the social environment at work: “Don’t blame yourself for being autistic and don’t internalize the guilt others lay on you for being different. Just learn to manage less positive behaviors” (Simone, chap. 2). Similar to Sheldon’s realization that “teaching is a performance art,” these guidebooks at times simultaneously remark that the change doesn’t need to be inherent but that one’s public impression is most important to be successful: “Even if you don’t feel confident on the inside, you can act in ways that project self-assurance. This is not dishonest. It is a way to influence how your colleagues perceive you. At work it is important that you are perceived as capable of working independently, making good decisions, and handling unexpected situations” (Bissonnette, Workplace Survival Guide 57). Crucially, the principle of “fake it ‘till they believe it” deviates from most other self-help texts. As Eva Illouz observes, the narrative of self-realization is usually closely connected to an ideal of health which is contrasted with a range of dysfunctions – behaviors, thinking patterns, etc. – that can be overcome by following the featured instructions and sincere, inner change directed at realizing one’s full potential (Illouz 73). While the guidebooks instruct autists on how to integrate, they do not pressure the individual to change intrinsically and in doing so, they don’t pathologize autism. Nevertheless, the guidebooks are permeated by the clear distinction between autists and neurotypicals and they do not present the prospect of breaking down this dichotomy; instead, they rather encourage a convergence of both parties without unmaking the idea of the autist as other.
Furthermore, these guides invoke another binary, namely the one between high- and low-functioning autism. Even the titles of the books I selected, by referring to Asperger’s, relate only to one polar end of the spectrum. ‘Functioning,’ as said before, becomes equated with social and economic value and it ontologically predetermines the chance of being included. Murray makes an important observation that can be transferred to the guidebooks: “[…] the quality of life debate has become enveloped in the language of function [which] clearly limits the possibilities of allowing those with autism meaningful expression or agency; the ways in which the intricacies of autistic being manifest themselves, both in terms of ontology and in interaction with that which is outside of the self, are lost if such complexity is reduced to an idea of scale and decided by what are clearly utilitarian processes” (Murray n.p.).
Finally, I want to conclude this essay by underlining the ambiguities that arise from analyzing self-help literature directed at integrating the autistic workforce. While I have been mostly critical in my remarks, I want to acknowledge that these guides also respond to a growing and rightful demand. They, as Kopelson concludes, “serve a legitimate, pressing need in helping a population excluded or potentially excluded from the world of work […], pleasurable employment, which is a marker of both identity and full citizenship” (Kopelson 572). Nevertheless, the guidebooks also deserve more critical attention as they are flooding the market. First, they problematically construct an idea of autism that misrepresents the spectrum and are based on the exclusion of the manifestations that do not settle on the polar end of high-functioning autism. Furthermore, they, while purporting to help, mislead autists by underlining aspects such as discipline and obedience and by warning against behavior that displays too much personal dedication, critical thinking, and dissent. Thus, they try to normalize autistic behavior and confront the reader with a questionable notion of the neoliberal self which needs to be addressed more critically.
- 1This blog post is based on a presentation held at the 66th Annual Meeting of the German Association for American Studies in 2019.
- 2To name just a few pieces that feature neurodivergent characters prominently: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (2003), The Big Bang Theory (2007-2009), and recently Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum (2019-) and Atypical (2018-2021).
- 3This trend is observable in the recruiting strategies of global players such as SAP and EY. While SAP directly addresses autistic people by calling for “authentic identities” who should “bring everything [they] are and become everything [they] want” (“Autism at Work” n.p.), EY focuses on the employer’s perspective. They emphasize that companies should “embrace neurodiversity in the workplace [to] gain competitive advantages in many areas – productivity, innovation, organizational culture and talent retention” (Hofman n.p.). Explicit recruiting strategies like these examples index that autistic individuals have been discovered as potentially resourceful workers.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. 5. ed., American Psychiatric Assoc., 2013.
“Autism at Work Program: SAP Careers.” SAP, https://www.sap.com/about/careers/your-career/autism-at-work-program.html. Accessed 13 Sept. 2021.
Bissonnette, Barbara. Asperger’s Syndrome Workplace Survival Guide. A Neurotypical’s Secrets for Success. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2013.
—. The Employer’s Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. Forward Motion Coaching, 2009.
Black, Donald W., and Jon E. Grant. DSM-5® Guidebook : The Essential Companion to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. 5. ed, American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2014.
Davis, Lennard J. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. Verso, 1995.
Galer, Dustin. “Disabled Capitalists: Exploring the Intersections of Disability and Identity Formation in the World of Work.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 3, 2012, http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3277/3122.
Graaff, Kristina, and Martin Klepper. “Self-Help and/in Mass Cultures: Performatives of (Self-) Management and Race between 1890 and 1930.” Fictions of Management: Efficiency and Control in American Literature and Culture, edited by James Dorson and Jasper J. Verlinden, Winter, 2019, pp. 73–100.
Hofman, Nathalie W. “How to Get the Benefits of a Neurodiverse Workforce.” Ey, 23 Nov. 2020, https://www.ey.com/en_gl/forensic-integrity-services/how-to-get-the-benefits-of-a-neurodiverse-workforce. Accessed 13 Sept. 2021.
Illouz, Eva. Gefühle in Zeiten Des Kapitalismus. Translated by Martin Hartman, 6th ed., Suhrkamp, 2016.
Kopelson, Karen. “‘Know Thy Work and Do It’: The Rhetorical-Pedagogical Work of Employment and Workplace Guides for Adults with ‘High-Functioning’ Autism.” College English, vol. 77, no. 6, National Council of Teachers of English, 2015, pp. 553–76, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44077486.
Murray, Stuart. “Autism Functions/The Function of Autism.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 1, 2010.
Shakespeare, Tom. “The Social Model of Disability.” The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 4th edition, Taylor & Francis, 2013, pp. 214–21.
Simone, Rudy. Asperger’s on the Job. Must-Have Advice for People with Asperger’s or High-Functioning Autism and Their Employers, Educators, and Advocates. Future Horizons, 2010.
“The Thespian Catalyst.” The Big Bang Theory, written by Chuck Lorre, Lee Aronsohn & Maria Ferrari, season 4, episode 14, CBS, 2011.