Posted by: Lena B. | December 10, 2010

Collaborative teamwork and knowledge creation in persons with Asperger’s Syndrome (as): implications for workplace learning.

By Gabriel U. Ezechukwu & and Sonya Sahradyan


Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are life-long conditions with presumed neurodevelopmental aetiology (Matson & Rivet, 2008). It is classified under The American Psychological Association DSM-IV- TR (2000) as one of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD). ASD is consists of classical autism, Asperger’s syndrome (AS) and pervasive development disorder not otherwise specified. Persons with autistic spectrum disorder are quite heterogeneous in their characteristics. While some may experience difficulties in learning, others function on the normal intelligence or cognitive skill level of the general population. Others still may possess exceptionally high cognitive abilities especially in the areas of logics and music and visual arts. This last group is often referred to as autistic servants. However, the underlining features of person with ASD are deficits in social interactions and communication, and the presence of stereotyped behaviors interest and activities (DSM-IV- TR, 2000). The focus of this article is on Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), a part of the autism spectrum. The distinguishing features of people with AS is that they do not experience the delayed language development that is typical of persons with classical autism though they still have problems with pragmatic aspects of language. In addition, people with AS have average or above average intelligence; often defined as having intelligence quotient of 85 and above (Pijnacker et al., 2009).

A quick look at the above paragraph may portray this article as being out of place and better suited for Psychology and Special Education journals and audience. However, professionals in workplace learning and the business world will benefit from this. This is because as already noted; persons with AS often operate at above average intelligence. This means that they are good at what they do. They were exceptional students in school (considering their high scores in academic subjects) and are able to attain expertise in their profession. However, their social and communication inaptitude makes it difficult for them to negotiate the complicated world of work (Foden, 2008a). The life outcome of an adult with AS who has strong intellectual capability may not turn out well. Impairment in his or her social skills may mask his or her talents in the workplace, making him or her vulnerable to job loss and lack of advancement. He or she may be excluded from the better-paying jobs that offer health insurance, paid vacation, and other employee benefits, though she is qualified or even overqualified in terms of job skills (Foden, 2008b).

A second point for consideration is that most of today’s adults with AS are undiagnosed. This means that there are chances that a work colleague may have a problem that he or she is unaware of but which nevertheless affect the atmosphere of the work. There is also the observed tendency of adults with AS to deliberately withhold information about their disability because of the widespread employment discrimination against persons with disabilities (McMahon et al., 2008). One of the purposes of the article is to shed light into the nature of AS and its interaction with work especially teamwork.


Though there is no clear-cut theoretical framework in which the study of the interplay of work and disability could be based, since like most applied fields, disability and rehabilitation do not have their own theories, but depend on theories from other behavioral and social sciences (Shamar, 2005). There are however a few theories that support the practice of making reasonable accommodations for the effective participation of persons with disability in the workplace. One of such theories is the Amartya Sen’s Capability Theory, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Science in 1998.

The capability Theory emphasizes people’s opportunities to make use of available resources to achieve well-being. (Shamar, 2005) The capability theory is made up of five basic constructs namely character, functioning, wellbeing, capabilities and exchange entitlement. For the purpose of this article, attention will be given only to functioning and capabilities constructs since they are of major implications for working live of persons with disabilities.

In the Sen’s Capability Theory, Capabilities refer to things a person can achieve or could have achieved in life. They are a range of attributes which can either be innate or acquired that help a person to attain a particular goal. When applied to persons with AS, the capability construct highlights the need to explore the potentials of the group to meaningfully contribute to the success of the organization were they ply their trade. According to Shamar (2005) the notion of capability is essentially one of freedom. For persons with AS, this freedom has to do with the acceptance of their unique personality and the liberty to be creative in the quest for expertise.

Another important construct in the Capability Theory with implications for persons with HFA is “Functionings”. Functionings refer to a mixture of “doings” and “beings” or the various options or actions we perform in everyday life to achieve things in life” (Shamar, 2005, p. 127). The unique feature of the Capability Theory is its emphasis on the equality of capability and not functioning. This means that it is not all about what one does and how he or she does it but in the equality of opportunity for self-development and fulfillment that comes from successful career.

The hallmark of the capability theory is its focus on the capabilities or real opportunities that people have in their lives, to achieve things they can and want to achieve. Sen argues for egalitarian access to capabilities for all. Persons with AS are at a disadvantage as the capabilities in their lives are often stunted due to the communication and social limitations imposed by their disability (Shamar, 2005).

This article posits collaborative teamwork as an ideal workplace practice for persons with AS collaborative teamwork is analyzed from the theoretical frameworks of cognitive acquisition of learning and the socio-culturally oriented situative perspective of learning. These are the two main approaches to empirically study and theoretically conceptualize how new knowledge is constructed in social interaction (Leinonen, 2007).

Cognitive perspectives presuppose that an individual extends his or her knowledge as he or she engages in work through the creation of new cognitive structures (Leinonen, 2007). In terms of the different learning metaphors, this falls in line with the knowledge acquisition metaphors which emphasis an individual’s ability to construct knowledge through practice. In Leinonen’s (2007) opinion, the Piagetian theory of the two learning mechanisms, assimilation and accommodation, can be adopted to explain how individuals make sense of the workplace activities in which they interact and how they integrate these experiences into their understanding. With assimilation, an individual makes meaning out of a learning task by reconciling present experience with past experiences while accommodation has to do with the creation of new categories of knowledge from experiences (Piaget, 1985; Leinonen, 2007). In the socio-cultural perspective, learning is conceived as an interactive process of participating in various cultural practices and shared learning activities rather than a simple process of individual knowledge formation (Hakkarainen et al., 2004). Instead of emphasizing an individual’s cognitive processes and knowledge acquisition, in the studies conducted from the socio-cultural perspective, the individuals’ participation in social practices are usually analyzed (Hakkarainen et al., 2004; Gruber et al., 2007). Thus the socio-cultural perspective adopts the participatory metaphor of learning.

The idea behind the adoption of these two theoretical approaches is that the practice of collaborative teamwork requires that an individual engages self advancement in order to benefit from and contribute to team knowledge.  Moreover, neither of the perspectives is limited to either activity by groups or to individuals acting alone (Anderson et al., 2000; Leinonen, 2007).

The process of collaborative learning and work situations will give rise to both an individual’s cognitive development and a group’s or a team’s shared construction of new knowledge. This supports the practice in which aspects from both theories are gradually incorporated in collaborative learning and work studies (Leinonen, 2007). Leinonen (2007) cites one of such studies in which Shirouzu et al. (2002) showed how the key in social construction of new knowledge was an individual’s opportunity to monitor the shared problem-solving situation and the perspectives of others. After monitoring and evaluating others’ perspectives, she or he was able to construct a new knowledge representation and again was able to contribute to the discussion about the shared task.


Research on the career lives of persons with AS is new and very few studies have been carried out in this field. Much of what is currently known about career trajectories of this group of persons came from books and articles that relate the personal accounts of persons with AS. (A project is however under way which is aimed at gleaning data from adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) ( These personal accounts are often a tapestry of frustration and anxiety. Their inability to meet the interpersonal and social standards of the workplace imposes severe restrictions on for employment success.

On the other hand, many studies have been carried out on the cognitive and social characteristics of persons with AS. In one study, Chen et al. (2009) investigated the superiority of nonverbal intelligence in children with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome. The result of the study which compared HFA/AS children with chronological age matched peers with typical development found a trend of superior nonverbal performance in Raven’s Test in HFA/AS participants compared to controls, and this “superiority” achieved statistical significance in the HFA/AS subgroup with a FIQ ≥ 90. The result also indicates superior fluid intelligence seemed to exist in individuals both with HFA and with AS.

Whitehouse et al. (2009) researched the relationship between friendship, loneliness and depression in adolescents with Asperger’s Syndrome. Relative to the comparison group, the participants with AS reported poorer quality of best-friendship and less motivation to develop friendships. The findings indicate that increased levels of negative affect may be related to the poor quality of social relationships often reported in this population.

In another study, O’connor (2007) examined the ability of adults with Asperger’s syndrome and age-matched typically-developing controls to identify incongruent and congruent emotional information from the face and voice. The result of the study shows that relative to controls, adults with AS were less accurate at distinguishing between congruent and incongruent expressive faces and voices. Both groups obtained similar accuracy to expressive faces and voices presented in isolation. These findings may partially explain some of the difficulties individuals on the autistic spectrum have with social interaction.

Persons with AS often display impairments in both expressive and receptive communication. They may develop an extensive vocabulary, yet lack affect when speaking or use odd words and phrases. Their enthusiasm regarding topics of interest may lead to monologues or overly talkative encounters which others can find tedious. At other times, individuals with AS may seem at a loss of words especially during times of anxiety. They equally have problems with nonverbal communication and the pragmatic use of language(Bloch-Rosen, 1999; Graetz & Spampinato, 2008). Other difficulties according to (Graetz & Spampinato, 2008, p. 21) “include initiating and sustaining a conversation. While the individual with AS may want to follow a given verbal directive, their difficulties in processing auditory information make this an impossible task. This can be especially problematic when the individual with AS is participating in a group discussion and must shift focus from one member to another while interpreting quick verbal messages”. The limitations in communicative competence of persons with AS has severe negative implications for collaborative teamwork.

A difficulty with socialization is the main defining feature of Asperger’s Syndrome.  Persons with AS often want to socialize with others but find the task overwhelming and frustrating. Though individuals AS are aware of other people and are desirous of friendship, they are often (involuntarily) socially isolated because their approaches tend to be inappropriate and peculiar. Graetz & Spampinato (2008) cited Baron-Cohen (1998) as saying that persons with AS lack a “Theory of Mind”, the ability to understand that others may have different thoughts, feelings and interests. This creates a problem in imagining the state of mind of another and a difficulty in understanding the motives of another’s behavior.  Baron-Cohen (1999) however points out that though  AS individual may be able to correctly describe other people’s intentions, emotions, and conventions, they are nevertheless unable to execute this knowledge in a spontaneous and useful manner. Their lack of spontaneity is accounted for by their rigid adherence to the formal rules of behavior. AS persons are often quite eager to relate to others but lack the requisite skills to do so (Klin & Volkmar, 1995).

Meyer (2001) listed some negative work characteristics of persons with AS. It should however be noted that the list is neither exhaustive nor universal to persons with AS;

  • Difficulty with teamwork
  • Discomfort with completion, poor reaction to loosing
  • Difficulties in handling relationships with authority figures
  • Difficulties in receiving and giving criticism and correction
  • Reluctance to accept positions of authority
  • Difficulty in negotiating conflict situations and poor self advocacy skills
  • Perfectionism
  • Too much concerned about order and appearance of personal work area.
  • Daydreaming
  • Easily forgetful of the position and location of items and tools
  • Low awareness of danger to self and others
  • Difficulty starting a project
  • Attention to details
  • Slowness at work
  • Unorthodox work routine
  • Enjoyment of routine and repetitive tasks
  • Strong reaction to changes in persons, working condition and environment
  • Low motivation to perform task of no immediate personal interest
  • Unpleasant reaction to interruption, noise and other distracting elements
  • Difficulty in writing and making reports
  • Strong discomfort with unstructured time and priority
  • Punctual in attendance.


Levine and Moreland defines a work group, as a group of three or more persons who regularly interact to perform a joint task, who share a common frame of reference, and whose behaviors and outcomes are interdependent (as cited in Leinonen, 2007). This definition can be applied to the concept of “team” in which case the team members who work together to construct new knowledge. It involves the skillful combination of appropriate individual talents with a positive team spirit to achieve results. Salama (N/V)

To describe this kind of team in more detail, conceptualization of a ‘negotiation team’ follows. According to Devine (2002), members of a negotiation team are especially engaged in an intellectual task which is usually fairly structured. To solve their shared task the members of a negotiation team may have critical debates for various reasons, such as their different understandings considering their common goal. In a negotiation team, the primary uncertainty associated with their shared task stems from not knowing how the other team members or the team will act or respond during collaborative activities.

An understanding of collaborative teamwork will also be aided by an understanding of collaborative learning, in which an explicit goal is to build knowledge that helps answer an initial question posed by the group’s shared task or provide group members with a deeper understanding of a topic they are working with. This also applies in a collaborative teamwork context, where a common goal is the aim of two or more persons and who work together to construct new knowledge (Leinonen, 2007).

In collaborative teamwork, is expected that learning occur as a result of the collaboration. The new knowledge that occur presupposes that “participating individuals share their own point of views, internalize others’ presented point of views, contribute to discussions with new points and draw together conclusions about their shared understanding of the problem at hand” (Leinonen, 2007).


Though we were not able to find any study that addressed the benefits of teamwork for persons with AS, few case studies on workplace learning for persons with similar disabilities supports this. In two of the case studies carried out by National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE, 2010) on the work-based learning of persons with Pervasive Development Disorders under which AS falls, cited participators as reporting that they “enjoyed working as a team with everybody and also being able to do things independently of others”. In some cases, they are encouraged to buddy up so that they can support one another

The paucity of empirical studies about the work lives of persons with AS makes this work a little more difficult. However, ideas from the personal accounts of adults with AS, their known characters and the well researched benefits of collaborative teamwork will provide insight in this regard.

It is rather ironic that individuals with AS do not like teamwork. Nevertheless, their dislike of teamwork stems from their experience of misunderstanding and sometimes, outright dislike by other people. It may also be as a result of negative self-concept that developed as a result of their communicative and social incompetency. Thus for collaborative teamwork to be mutually beneficial, individual team members must try to understand and respect the individual differences of one another especially, their atypical team member. If this is done, the team member with AS who wants to talk and make friends, but is limited in his or her ability to do so will be encouraged to associate and socialize within the work context. This is one way in which collaborative teamwork benefits persons with AS.

Collaborative teamwork also has the potentials of improving the work habits of persons with AS. Once in a context where there is mutual trust and acceptance, the AS persons tend to be more open to correction and criticism and also feels free to offer advice and suggestions. Since collaborative teamwork does not emphasize competition but cooperation, the AS person will be able to work at his or her own pace while the motivation for collaboration will encourage him or her to complete assign tasks on time. Moreover, technical deficiencies in work if any can be corrected within the team in a manner that is supportive rather than evaluative.

Furthermore, a good team-spirit will encourage the AS person to freely share his or her insight about the task at hand with colleagues thus contributing to the team’s shared knowledge. Since collaborative teamwork provides a working context for trial of ideas, the AS person feels free to share his or her ideas which can be tested against those of other team mates. Particular work characteristics of AS persons that could be beneficial for collaborative teamwork are the attention to details and derive for perfection. The team can explore these to ensure that the final output is of acceptable quality.

Finally, collaborative teamwork encourages close relationships and friendships. The more people work together with a common goal, the more they get to know and appreciate one another. For the AS person, the opportunity of having people who understand and accept him or her will open up the social dimension of learning which hitherto was closed as a result of his or her disability. This will equally go a long way in attaining his or her career potentials.


Anderson, J., Greeno, J., Reder, L., & Simon, H. (2000). Perspectives of Learning, Thinking, and Activity. Educational Researcher, 29(4), 11-13.

Bloch-Rosen, S. (1999). Asperger’s Syndrome, High Functioning Autism, and Disorders of the Autistic Continuum. Retrieved on 25-11-2010, by 18.08, from

Chen F., Planche P., and Lemonnier, E. (2009). Superior Nonverbal Intelligence in Children With High-Functioning Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 4 (3), 457-460.

Devine, D. J. (2002). A Review and Integration of Classification Systems Relevant to Teams in Organizations. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 6(4), 291-310.

Foden, T. J. (2008a). Adults with ASDs: Where are They Now? Retrieved on 25-11-2010, by 8.54, from

Foden, T. J. (2008b). Adult Employment: Strangers in a Strange Land. Retrieved on 25-11-2010, by 8.56, from

Graetz, J. E. & Spampinato, K. (2008). Asperger’s Syndrome and the Voyage through High School: Not the Final Frontier. Journal of College Admission, 198, 19-24.

Gruber, H., Palonen, T., Monika, R., & Lehtinen, E. (2007). Understanding the Nature of expertise: Individual knowledge, Social Resources and Cultural Context. In Gruber, H. & Palonen, T. (eds.) Learning in the workplace – New Developments.

Hakkarainen, K., Palonen, T., Paavola, S. & Lehtinen, E. (2004). Communities of Networked Expertise.Professional and Educational Perspective. London, Elservier.

Leinonen, P. (2007). Interpersonal Evaluation of Knowledge in Distributed Team Collaboration. An unpublished PhD Thesis presented, with the assent of the Faculty of Education of the University of Oulu.

Matson, T. L. & Rivet, T. T. (2008). Characteristics of Challenging Behaviours in Adults with Autistic Disorder, PDD-NOS, and Intellectual Disability. Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, 33 (4), 323-329.

McMahon, B. T., Roessler, R., Rumrill, P. D., Hurley, J. E., West, S. L., Chan, F. & Carlson L. (2008). Hiring Discrimination against People with Disabilities under the ADA: Characteristics of Charging Parties. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 18 (2), 122-132.

Meyer, R. N. (2001). Asperger Syndrome Employment Workbook: An Employment Workbook for Adults with Asperger Syndrome. London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. (2010).  Developing Blended Learning Tools for NVQ Assessors and Developing Support for Learners with Learning Difficulties and Disabilities in Work-based Learning. Retrieved on 25-11-2010, by 21.15, from

O’Connor, K. (2007). Brief Report: Impaired Identification of Discrepancies between Expressive Faces and Voices in Adults with Asperger’s Syndrome.  Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37(10). Retrieved on 25-11-2010, by 8.32, from

Pijnacker, J., Hagoort, P.,  Buitelaar, J.,  Teunisse, B. & Geurts, B.(2009). Pragmatic Inferences in High Functioning Adults with Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. Journal of Autism Development Disorder, 39, 607 – 618.

Salama, R. (date not available). Motivation towards Teamwork.    Retrieved on 25-11-2010, by 20.12, from

Sharma, M. (2005). Reifying Capability Theory in Disability and Rehabilitation Research. Asia Pacific Disability Rehabilitation Journal, 16 (2), 125.

Volkmar, F. R., & Klin, A. (1995). Validity and Neuropsychological Characterization of Asperger Syndrome: Convergence with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities Syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 36(7), 1127-1140.

Whitehouse, A. O., Durkin K., Jaquet E. &  Ziatas K. (2009). Friendship, Loneliness and Depression in Adolescents with Asperger’s Syndrome. Journal of Adolescence, 32(2), 309-322.



  1. Hello, Neat post. There is a problem along with your web site in internet explorer, might test this? IE still is the marketplace chief and a good part of people will pass over your fantastic writing due to this problem.

  2. This article was very interesting to read, especially I liked collaborative teamwork because I realised that AS person could be beneficial for collaborative teamwork and it was new for me!

    The different studies helped me to understand how Asperger people behave, but of course there are differences between them. You involved a lot of research which is good in order to have a wide overview of this problem.

    The structure is very good and I also liked it that you wrote the definition at the beginning. Although you said that is more suitable for Psychology and Special Education audience I have learned a lot reading this article and I am going to be a teacher.

  3. Firstly I must say that I really liked the article! The organization of it makes it easy to read and understand. Moreover, I find the topic so interesting.

    In the article we can see that Meyer (2001) listed some negative work characteristics of people with AS, such as difficulty with teamwork, slowness at work, difficulty in writing and making reports or difficulty in negotiating conflict situations and poor self advocacy skills. But we must say that the characteristics of people with AS are very heterogeneous. Because each individual is different and has different characteristics.

    According to the article collaborative teamwork is an ideal workplace practice for persons with AS. I think teamwork is important in all spheres of the life, but even more in workplace. And taking into account that people with AS have some difficulties, it is more important for them having a team which support them and in which they can learn from other partners.

    Finally, I would like to say that I didn’t know anything about the Sen’s Capability Theory and I found it very interesting. As it is said in the article and in this theory, having capability is fundamental for once freedom. And for people with AS having freedom is important for the acceptance of their personality.

  4. To start with, I must say that I found it really interesting to read this article, as I have always been interested in Asperger syndrome. However, I have always analyzed it in the school context, and I found it interesting to get a new view of it at workplace.

    In relation to the social relations of persons with Asperger, we can say that many people prefer to be alone rather than staying with other people and it can be a problem at workplace due to the fact that they will prefer to work individually and not in group.

    In addition, it is likely that they could feel uncomfortable if they realize that anyone can invade their space and this can end up in a problem as this rapprochement would be an unconscious and normal performance for the rest of the people at the workplace.

  5. I have to say that this article is so nice and it contains the most important information about this Syndrome.

    Even If I find the entire article very interesting the section that caught my attention has been “Benefits of collaborative teamwork for persons with Asperser’s Syndrome” because last year I worked in a school with a student who had a similar syndrome and I saw how working in groups helped him improving his social skills. Even if there are not so many studies about the benefits of the teamwork for people with Asperger I think that this can help them to alleviate some symptoms.

  6. An outstanding share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a collleague who was doing a little homework on this.
    And he in faft bought me lunch simply because I stumbled upon it for him…
    lol. So allow me tto reword this…. Thankk YOU for the meal!!
    But yeah, thanx for spsnding the time to discuss this issue here on your blog.

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