Can Aspergers make you a better lawyer?
This week, Moulis Legal’s Chief Executive Suzanne Moulis spoke to Sabina Coles, about what it is like to be a lawyer who has Aspergers, an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Sabina recently finished her Masters of Law at the Australian National University in Canberra, specialising in governance and development in the Asia Pacific region. She has worked with the Aboriginal Legal Service, Legal Aid and the ACT Civil and Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Currently, she is working with Amnesty International in a volunteer capacity on projects that benefit Indigenous Australians.
They talked about the challenges she has faced, the aspects of Aspergers that actually make her a better lawyer and what firms can do to make their workplace more friendly for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Why did you want to be a lawyer?
I always had an interest in certain areas of the law – in particular, human rights and the environment. I was looking for a new challenge so I decided to study law and found that I actually enjoyed the work. While the social aspects of studying were stressful, I really enjoyed going to class and learning.
How has having Aspergers positively influenced your abilities as a lawyer?
Having Aspergers means I have differences from other people. Some of these give me a definite advantage. Like many lawyers, I am quite intelligent, received good marks at university and have demonstrated a real legal ability in the workplace. Aspergers also gives me the ability to be highly focused and methodical when working on something that interests me. This means that I can sit down, focus on a piece of work, problem solve within set legal frameworks and get a good result for the firm and the client. Being methodical and highly focused are good attributes for a lawyer.
While socialising is challenging for me, that doesn’t mean that I’m difficult to get along with. In fact, many people with Aspergers are quite polite and even-tempered so we’re seen as nice people to work with. Because we are generally less interested in socialising, we can also be more productive.
In what ways can Aspergers negatively impact your workplace interactions?
Social communication and interaction are challenging for many with Aspergers. It can sometimes be difficult for us to pick up on social cues, facial expressions, tone of voice or even jokes. We may not seek comfort from others and some people may see this as being insensitive. but it’s not, it’s just how we behave. While many people with Aspergers have good language skills, we just have a different way of communicating.
As it’s a spectrum, not everyone with Aspergers is the same. Some people like to talk about their field of interest incessantly, but I tend to keep to myself. I also like to seek out time alone because I can feel overloaded with people.
I’ve always been upfront about my diagnosis with colleagues, which has helped them to understand where I’m coming from. It also means they don’t expect more of me than I’m able to give. If people understand where I’m coming from the differences become easier to manage and less of a problem.
How could workplaces be made more friendly for people with Aspergers?
I’ve found it really helpful to keep an Energy Accounting Diary. This has two columns – on one I note down what empowers and gives me energy, and on the other what drains my energy. This makes it easy for me to see what I need to be aware of and what needs to change.
Generally, people with Aspergers have sensory issues – we can be sensitive to sight, touch, taste, smell, light, and sound.
For me personally, sound is a big issue. Having access to noise cancelling headphones helps to reduce the sounds around me so I can focus on my work. Lighting is another area that can be easily addressed. If the lighting is too bright it can be quite challenging, so access to blinds or curtains and softer lighting is helpful.
Other things that can be altered to make it easier for someone on the spectrum to function well in the workplace include colour, temperature, and smell. Look at the colour of the office space and take down brightly coloured furnishings. Keep the temperature moderate, not too hot and not too cold, and sit someone with Aspergers away from the kitchen so they’re not affected by smell.
What do you think people misunderstand about Aspergers?
There have been some TV shows that have shown people on the spectrum – like Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory and The Good Doctor. They have all been portrayed as extroverts who talk incessantly and are quite nerdy. But these are only some examples, everyone with Aspergers is different. But we can be highly effective lawyers and great doctors as well.
My passion is human rights and how we can use our differences to make society more inclusive and diverse. I hope that talking about Aspergers will help improve how others perceive this syndrome.
One of the things that struck me when I first met Sabina was her honesty and openness about Aspergers. These are fine qualities for a lawyer, and one of the reasons we encourage people from diffferent backgrounds, personalities and experiences to work with us at Moulis Legal. Diversity enriches our workplace and we’re committed to embracing it wherever possible.
Author: Suzanne Moulis
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