The potential to cause harm by acting upon surface symptoms

Upside down image of a cartoon style illustration of 3 icebergs - showing the tip above the water and the main body of the iceberg under the water.
Adapted from image by sketchify.
In the image above, the icebergs are upside down because in autism, what you see is the symptoms which are often many and confusing while the underlying that are causing the symptoms are relatively few.

Having had the privilege of accompanying Dr. Elizabeth Guest on four workplace assessments (WPA), a key revelation has emerged – the potential harm that can arise from overlooking the unique aspects of an individual’s experience with autism.

Note: The information in this blog is illustrative, and WPA reports encompass a broader range of details.

Initial WPA: Focus Challenges

In my first encounter during a WPA, the primary focus was on substantial challenges related to an individual’s ability to concentrate. The person acknowledged their struggle to engage in work and experienced profound feelings of shame and frustration, attributing the issue to personal inadequacy.

Despite the absence of significant processing issues and the person’s high intelligence, their focus challenges were intricately connected to their interests and social dynamics. Practical solutions emerged, emphasising tasks aligned with the individual’s interests, collaborative work, and the application for a support worker through access to work. Crucially, it was essential for the individual to recognise that their focus issues were not their fault.

Potential Pitfall and Subsequent WPAs: Uncovering Deeper Issues

A potential pitfall arose in subsequent WPAs, where apparent focus issues led me to initial conclusions influenced by the earlier case. Fortunately, Elizabeth, conducting the assessment, demonstrated that while focus issues were present, they were not severe enough to guide recommendations solely based on this aspect. In fact the key issues that needed addressing were completely different.

Subsequent Two WPAs: Expanding Understanding of Slow Processing

In the subsequent two WPAs, the underlying issues were surprisingly not centred on focus but were symptoms of slow processing. However, in each case the way in which this was affecting the individuals was different. Both were intelligent people who had proven success in an academic environment. Neither however were aware that their processing of incoming information was slow.

One of these individuals had excellent pattern recognition skills, and throughout the WPA had given examples of using practical exercises to improve their understanding and learning. This did not match the approach of the on-the-job training they were receiving. This meant that adjustments could be focused more on providing impactful training, focused on how their brain works, and the person giving the training understanding why.

The second individual adapted to slow processing by developing “fragmented processing,” where their brain selectively retained detailed information based on interest and emotional attachment. This led to a great deal of frustration and misunderstanding in the workplace. This selective retention led to workplace misunderstandings. Understanding of what was going on and tailoring communication quickly improved the situation.

Conclusion: Treating Underlying Issues Rather Than Symptoms

This experience underscores the importance of avoiding recommendations based solely on symptoms, because distinct manifestations of similar symptoms may indicate entirely different underlying issues. Misguided assumptions based on surface-level observations can lead to detrimental outcomes. Understanding the diverse ways individuals experience and adapt to their challenges is crucial, particularly in the context of autism, where a comprehensive exploration of the whole person is essential, moving beyond stereotypical associations with diagnostic labels.

If you would like to address challenges in the workplace, including focus, processing issues, and much more, with personalised solutions, explore our blog videos and real-life cases for insights into tailored support for autism and other related cognitive issues. Break free from generic approaches and discover the person behind the diagnosis.

For more information about workplace assessments and how we can assist, contact us today.