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Asperger's Syndrome, OCD, Wellness at Work

What is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Asperger’s syndrome is a form of autism. People with Asperger’s Syndrome are very often of high intelligence but have difficulty understanding how to interact socially, which can lead to social isolation and eccentric behaviour. A person with Asperger’s syndrome may also display:
  • difficulty making friends
  • difficulty reading or communicating through non-verbal cues such as facial expressions
  • difficulty understanding social cues.

What are the causes of Asperger's Syndrome?

Most people communicate naturally and instinctively. However, communication is actually a very complex process and requires the automatic co-ordination of a number of different functions.
  1. Verbal communication - to speak naturally and effortlessly requires that the cerebellum has hard wired the process of turning our thoughts into speech easily.
  2. Listening skills - to understand what we are hearing requires that what we hear is automatically turned into comprehended thoughts.
  3. Reading Body Language - reading body language accurately requires that we learn and automatise the meaning of non verbal cues, for example smiling or frowning.
  4. Emotional controls - to be comfortable socially requires that we learn how to control our emotions and use them in a way appropriate to the circumstance.
For people to be “natural” the above skills need to be fully developed and “automatised” - this process is determined by the development of the appropriate parts of the cerebellum – the skill learning centre of the brain. With Asperger's Syndrom, one or more of these skills are not fully developed so sufferers will find that they are ‘overloading’ their working memory and not be taking into account all of the various information required for completely natural social interaction.

For example: when someone is having to work extra hard just to process what they are hearing they are unlikely to also be processing the change in intonation and so are far more likely to take words or phrases in a literal sense. If listening skills aren’t automatic then more effort is required to focus on verbal communication leaving few resources to take in non-verbal information.

Identifying Asperger's Syndrome

Asperger's syndrome is mostly a 'hidden disability'. This means that you can't tell that someone has the condition from their outward appearance. The characteristics of Asperger's syndrome vary from one person to another but are generally divided into three main groups:

Difficulty with social communication
For many people with Asperger's syndrome, understanding conversation is like trying to understand a foreign language. Sufferers have difficulty understanding gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice and often have difficulty knowing when to start or end a conversation and choosing topics to talk about. Jokes and sarcasm cause particular problems as does slang - for example, a person with Asperger syndrome would be confused by the phrase 'That's cool' when people use it to say something is good.

Difficulty with social interaction
Many people with Asperger's syndrome want to be sociable but have difficulty with initiating and sustaining social relationships, which can make them very anxious. They often struggle to make and maintain friendships because they do
not understand the unwritten 'social rules' that most of us pick up without thinking. For example, they may stand too close to another person, or start an inappropriate topic of conversation. They also often find other people unpredictable and confusing.

Difficulty with social imagination
People with Asperger syndrome can be imaginative in the conventional use of the word. For example, many are accomplished writers, artists and musicians. But people with Asperger syndrome can have difficulty with social imagination. For example they may be unable to imagine alternative outcomes to situations and find it hard to predict what will happen next. They also have difficulty
understanding or interpreting other peoples thoughts, feelings or actions. Some children with Asperger syndrome may find it difficult to play 'let's pretend' games and prefer subjects rooted in logic and systems, such as mathematics.

Helping with Asperger's

There are over half a million people in the UK with an autism spectrum disorder such as Asperger's Syndrome - that's around 1 in 100. People with Asperger's Syndrome come from all nationalities, cultures, social backgrounds and religions. However, the condition appears to be more common in males than females; the reason for this is unknown.

There are many approaches, therapies and interventions, which can improve an individual's quality of life. These include communication-based interventions, behavioural therapy and dietary changes. Information about many of these can be found on The National Autistic Society's website at: www.autism.org.uk/approaches. As understanding of the condition improves and services continue to develop, people with Asperger syndrome have more opportunity than ever of reaching their full potential. Forest Therapeutic Agency firmly believe that with the right support and encouragement, people with Asperger's syndrome can lead full and independent lives.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a serious anxiety-related
condition that affects as many as three in a hundred people – from young children to older adults - regardless of gender and social or cultural background.
  • It is listed amongst the top most debilitating illnesses by the World Health Organisation, in terms of loss of income and decreased quality of life.
  • In the UK, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is thought to affect 2-3% of the population.
  • Many sufferers go undiagnosed for many years. This is partially because of a lack of understanding of the condition, and partially because of the intense feelings of embarrassment, guilt and sometimes even shame associated with what is often called the ‘secret illness’
  • OCD can take many forms, but, in general, sufferers experience repetitive, intrusive and unwelcome thoughts, images, impulses and doubts which they find hard to ignore. These thoughts form the obsessional part of ‘Obsessive-Compulsive’ and they usually (but not always) cause the person to perform repetitive compulsions in a vain attempt to relieve themselves of the obsessions and neutralise the fear.
  • The illness can have a totally devastating effect on work, social life and personal relationships.

What are the common symptoms of OCD?

Common obsessions include:
  • contamination and germs,
  • causing harm to oneself or to others,
  • upsetting sexual, violent or blasphemous thoughts,
  • the ordering or arrangement of objects and
  • worries about throwing things away.

Sufferers try to fight these thoughts with mental or physical rituals, the compulsions, which involve repeatedly performing actions such as washing, cleaning, checking, counting, hoarding or partaking in endless rumination.

Avoidance of feared situations is also common; however, this often results in further worrying and preoccupation with the obsessional thoughts.

Most sufferers know that their thoughts and behaviour are irrational and senseless, but feel incapable of stopping them. This has a significant impact on their confidence and self-esteem and as a result, their careers, relationships and lifestyles.

To sufferers and non-sufferers alike, thoughts and fears related to OCD can seem profoundly shocking. It must be stressed, however, that they are just thoughts – not fantasies or impulses which will be acted upon.

What does 'Compulsive' mean?

Compulsions or compulsive acts can be defined as repetitious, purposeful actions in which the individual feels compelled to engage according to their own rules or in a stereotyped manner. Typically, the individual experiences a sense of resistance to the act but this is overridden by the strong, subjective drive to perform the action. Most often the principal aim behind the compulsive act is to generate temporary relief from the anxiety caused by a preceding ‘obsession’. Compulsions can be overt or covert.

Overt compulsions typically include checking, washing, hoarding or a symmetry of certain motor actions.

Covert compulsions, or ‘cognitive compulsions’, as they are sometimes referred to, are mental actions performed, as opposed to physical actions. Examples include:
  • mental counting,
  • compulsive visualisation and substitution of distressing mental images or ideas with neutralising alternatives.
Practical examples would be a sufferer who feels compelled to silently repeat a string of words over and over on experiencing a negative or violent thought or the need of a sufferer to transpose negative words or images which may intrude into consciousness with positive ones e.g. feeling compelled to mentally substitute the word ‘hell’ that pops up, either as a thought or as a mental visual image, with the word ‘well’.

Another obsession considered to be part of the ‘OCD spectrum’ is the inability to discard useless or worn out possessions, commonly referred to as ‘hoarding’. More recent research suggests that hoarding may be different to other forms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and that standard OCD treatments may not necessarily address.

Who is affected by OCD?

To some degree OCD-type symptoms are probably experienced at one time or another by most people, especially in times of stress. It would also be fair to say that most individuals, at some stage in their lives, have come into contact with the phenomenon of obsessional or intrusive thinking and/or succumbed to the seemingly nonsensical need to perform an odd, and often unrelated, behaviour pattern in order to avert a real or imagined danger (e.g. touching a certain item of furniture before going to bed in order to ‘ward off’ a nightmare, or checking several times that the door and windows are locked before leaving the house when going on holiday).

However, the key difference which segregates these little ‘quirks’ from the disorder is when the distressing and unwanted experience of obsessions and/or compulsions impacts, to a significant level, upon a person’s everyday functioning – this represents a principal component in the clinical diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

The incidence of OCD can be traced historically, cross-culturally and across a broad social spectrum and does not appear to restrict itself to any specific group of individuals. On the contrary, increased availability of information shows numerous examples of OCD, and its occurrence in the lives of various well-known figures. For example, the eminent evolutionist Charles Darwin suffered from it, as did the nineteenth century pioneer of nursing and reformer of hospital sanitation methods, Florence Nightingale. More currently, Academy Award-winning writer, actor and director Billy Bob Thornton, actress Jessica Alba and football stars Paul Gascoigne and David Beckham have candidly discussed their battle with the disorder.

Perhaps most famous of all was the twentieth century billionaire aviator and entrepreneur Howard Hughes (“The Aviator”) who, in spite of his immeasurable financial wealth, spent his final days both mentally and physically incarcerated by his own contamination terrors and elaborate cleaning rituals.

OCD and Gender

OCD affects males as frequently as it does females, and on average begins to affect people in late adolescence for men and early twenties for women. However, it may take individuals 10-15 years or even longer to seek professional help.

Wellness at Work - Beating Work Related Stress?

Managing stress levels in the workplace has become a key business skill as the pressure to perform continues to increase.

While pressure is a normal part of most work, and in moderation, can help a person to be motivated, difficulties tend to arise if the pressure becomes excessive. Work related stress illnesses are recognised as being on the increase in our modern society. However, stress in the workplace is NOT JUST related to workload and pressure and the Health and Safety Executive have identified 6 key areas which research shows are important in affecting employees’ levels of stress. These include:
  1. The demands placed upon employees in terms of workload, work patterns and the work environment
  2. The control people have over how they do their work
  3. The support people have to enable them to do their job from the institution, line management and colleagues
  4. The quality of relationships at work
  5. The work role, its clarity in terms of responsibilities etc
  6. Change in the workplace and how this is managed and communicated within the institution

What to do if you are experiencing work-based stress

1. Read through the following list of questions to identify particular issues in relation to work which could be sources of stress. The questions look are common problems relating to Control, Support, Relationships and
Change management
and can be used as a starting point for you to analyse possible sources of stress.

Try to answer Yes / No / Sometimes and be as honest with yourself as possible.
  • Do you feel that your workload is appropriate?
  • Do you feel that your skills are being well-used?
  • Are you able to have a say about the way that you do your work?
  • Are you able to use your initiative as appropriate in your job?
  • Do you have any control over your work patterns?
  • Are you able to take breaks at appropriate times of the day? (e.g. mealtimes)
  • Are you encouraged to develop your skills?
  • Do you receive adequate information from your manager to enable you to do your job?
  • Do you receive adequate information from your colleagues to enable you to do your job?
  • Do you get adequate support from your manager?
  • Do you get adequate support from your colleagues?
  • Do you know how to find the support you require?
  • Do you know how to access the resources you need to do the job?
  • Do you receive constructive feedback about your work?
  • Do you feel that you have good working relationships?
  • Do you feel that any conflicts at work are dealt with appropriately?
  • Do you feel that you are subjected to unacceptable behaviour? E.g. harassment and bullying
  • Have your role and responsibilities been made clear?
  • Do you feel that you have conflicting responsibilities?
  • Do you receive adequate and timely information about proposed changes at work?
  • Do you have the opportunity to comment on proposed changes which will directly affect your work?
  • Do you receive training, where necessary, to deal with any changes to your work?

2. Talk - to your manager, to a member of staff from Human Resources or Health and Safety. Find out what options are open to you.

3. Where you feel that the effects of stress are having an impact on your confidence or general well being, you may also wish to consult one of our advisers. We can help you develop a range of stress management techniques and skills to maximise performance in a sustainable way. You can request an appointment by emailing us at foresttca@btinternet.com or by ringing 020 8502 4674.

Forest Therapeutic Counselling Agency
Tel: 020 8502 4674