Good Workplace Communication Isn’t a Special Need
What the needs of autistic people tell us about how to improve workplace communication for everyone
There’s a lot of information available for employers who are motivated to recruit and retain neurodiverse employees. That’s a good thing.
Around one in 100 Australians is autistic and this is in line with figures in many other countries. Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects the way people process and interact with their environment.
In Australia where I live, the unemployment rate for autistic people is 31.6%, almost six times the rate of people without a disability. For those who are employed, many are working less hours or in less challenging jobs than they would like. It’s far from an accurate reflection of the skills and capacity of autistic people.
Autistic people face additional barriers in obtaining and staying in employment due to recruitment practices and workplace environments that are designed for neurotypical people. Medium writer Hannah Hottenstein wrote about how recruitment processes can be adapted to better meet the needs of autistic people here.
There’s still a lot of work to be done to increase understanding of autism among employers. Information provided in an attempt to dispel myths sometimes manages to reinforce it. There’s always a risk that describing common characteristics can be overgeneralised and reductive. It goes nowhere near capturing the diversity of experience of autistic people. Very little of it appears to be grounded in the reality of lived experience.
It’s not as simple as describing typical autistic behaviours, for example that autistic people are ‘literal’ or don’t understand idiom or tone or are overly blunt. Autistic people have worked hard to fit into a neurotypical world by copying the behaviours of neurotypical people. We learn to use our intellect to make sense of human interaction where intuition fails us.
Some of the better advice stresses the importance of listening to and learning from the autistic person and not making assumptions. It points to the need to communicate with the employee to determine what their needs are.
As an autistic person who has been in the workforce more or less continuously for the last 30 years, I can provide some insight into common issues. But it comes with the caveat that every autistic person’s experience is different.
The range of experiences of autistic people in the workplace is vast. The experience of an adult who like me, discovers they are autistic well into their working life is quite different from someone who was diagnosed as a child. There’s less support for those already in the workforce, the assumption being that they have been able to get there on their own. Often getting there has required a lot more effort than for the average person.
I’ve been in my current job for a a few years and while there are areas in which I thrive, there are others in which I struggle. Getting a diagnosis has given me clarity about why certain things are difficult and what I need in order to manage them.
Generally speaking, employees with a disability are entitled to obtain reasonable adjustments from their employer to enable them to do their job. Adjustments may be minor in operational terms but significant for an autistic person. Some quietly go about adapting their workplace to suit their needs.
Workplace adjustments that autistic people need tend to be less tangible and obvious than for other disabilities. In many cases, sensory needs can be readily addressed by measures such as dimming the lighting, wearing headphones and having access to a quiet space. The increase in remote work arrangements due to COVID-19 has provided more scope for people to control their working environment. It’s the more subtle vagaries of communication and workplace interaction that present ongoing challenges.
The invisible nature of autism means that an employee may be disclosing it to their employer for the first time. For late-diagnosed adults who have masked our autism for most of our lives, there may not be anything to signal our difference. It’s more likely that the feeling of being different is internalised whilst maintaining an outward appearance of fitting in. Many employers won’t know that they have an autistic person working for them and that person may not even know they’re autistic.
Much of the information for employers about autistic people and communication is based on a notion of individual pathology. This approach holds that the individual has particular deficits in communication that require the employer to make special adjustments to the way they communicate with that particular employee.
In attempting to fit into a neurotypical world, I have internalised a lot of my communication difficulties as deficiencies; ways in which I have fallen short. I’ve assumed that if I’m having problems with communication it’s down to me. When this dynamic plays out in a workplace, autistic people end up providing the mental labour in communication: explaining, interpreting and carefully responding. They work a lot harder than their neurotypical colleagues just to survive.
The communication deficit doesn’t just lie with the autistic person. It shouldn’t be their responsibility to bridge the gap between their needs and the demands of a workplace that isn’t designed for them. There’s a substantial load on the autistic person who finds themselves having to explain the fundamentals of autism along with the particular impact on them in the workplace. It is even more frustrating when you feel that what you are really doing is explaining how to communicate properly.
Adapting workplace communication shouldn’t be about making special provision for an autistic person as much as examining the usual way that things are done in the neurotypical world.
Employers need to broaden their approach to communication to accommodate the scope of neurological variation. It needs to work for people whose ability to process input from their environment is compromised for other reasons such as trauma or stress or cultural background. More thought needs to be given to how to what effective communication means in a diverse workforce.
When I think about what I would like to change in the area of workplace communication, much of it amounts to good, sound communication practices. No-one benefits from communication that is vague, ambiguous and incomplete. If managers put effort into communicating in a more mindful way, everyone benefits.
These are some of the ways in which communication can be improved and supported.
Clear instructions and questions
Many times I open an email to brace myself for the process I’m about to embark on. I have a knack for deriving at least three potential interpretations from a sentence. After puzzling about what they could possibly mean and realising any conclusion would only be guess work, I try to craft a question that will extract the information I need. I agonise over the tone of my email and how it will be received. The sender in the meantime hasn’t given it a second thought after the three seconds it takes for their thought bubble to work its way to the keyboard.
It’s probably like the feeling many people have in the unfamiliar days of a new job before they absorb the context. But I go through it every day with people I am familiar with in a job I have worked in for over three years.
What helps is clear, unambiguous language, detail and structure.
- Specific questions are better than vague open-ended ones: Instead of “Can you give me an update on your project”, tell me what it is you want to know, otherwise you’re likely to get an information dump on every aspect of the project so can be sure I’m covering all bases.
- Instructions that set out the steps and the relevant detail are preferable to those that collapse everything into one vague directive. Breaking down larger tasks into smaller manageable tasks is also helpful.
Accommodation of visual learning
It needs to take as a given that people have different learning styles. A preference for visual learning isn’t unique to autistic people. It is commonly cited that 65% of the population are visual learners yet so much workplace communication is based on auditory learning.
It’s not surprising that there’s a preference for written over verbal communication among many autistic people. Verbal communication is more difficult because the information needs to be processed in real time. There’s usually no way of slowing down or taking a break from the flow of information. Visually communicating information allows people to process it in their own time. Email can be an effective and less stressful means of routine communication.
The use of visual support tools can make a big difference for autistic people in the workplace. Information can be communicated through tip-sheets, charts and infographics. Resources such as online calendars and whiteboards are readily available in most workplaces . I find all these things deeply soothing to my relentless need to map things out in my mind at work and home.
Meetings can be fraught with anxiety for many people but the way they are managed can make a difference. It helps if they can be structured with a clear purpose, agenda and time limit. Important information and action items should be clearly minuted. Impromptu meetings should be avoided so that there is time to prepare and to integrate it into the day.
The need to manage meetings is even more acute now with many being conducted through video conferencing platforms such as zoom. The extra sensory processing demands are particularly gruelling for autistic people.
What Zoom Fatigue Feels Like When You’re Autistic
Dealing with the cognitive load when you already have sensory processing difficulties
Careful management of change
The fact that bigger employers take change management seriously is acknowledgment can impact adversely on employees if not managed properly. The uncertainty and anxiety generated by change can be difficult for autistic people. Yet, the change itself needn’t be problematic if it’s communicated in a way that gives employees space to process, adjust to it and and prepare for it.
The early stages of COVID-19 were an anxious time for everyone. Fortunately, the senior leadership of my organisation adopted a highly co-ordinated approach. They understood how important accurate and timely information was for all staff. The CEO provided daily updates by email and on the staff intranet. There was a process in place for manages to be briefed regularly and filter information to to staff.
I contrast this with other changes in my workplace that although less significant, have been more problematic because they haven’t been communicated to me properly. If I don’t understand how decisions will affect my work, I’ll feel like I’m losing control which makes me anxious.
Support in understanding the unwritten rules of the workplace
Workplaces can be a labyrinth of unwritten and even unspoken rules. There’s rules about what you wear, what you talk about, the kind of social interaction that is appropriate. There’s office politics and gossip. There’s what I like to call workplace folklore — the vast unwritten body of knowledge about how things are done that can never be traced to a written source like a manual. The problem is compounded by everyone having their own version of what the rules are. This can be a nightmare for an autistic person looking for certainty and predictability.
Sometimes the best way is to navigate these rules is to have someone explain it to you. Some employers have acknowledged this by providing mentors for newly appointed autistic employees. Of course once the autistic person learns the lay of the land they’ll probably have a red hot go at codifying and standardising the disparate workplace rules.
Less expectations about social interaction
The workplace functions on assumptions about normal social behaviour so behaviour that departs from it is seen as aberrant. Someone who doesn’t want to participate in a workplace activity is ‘not a team player’ or if they do their thing at lunch they are a loner. Some jobs require networking, a nightmare for many autistic people due to the unstructured and unscripted blackhole that it is. The reality is these kinds of activities are difficult for many people who are not robust extroverted types.
There are particular aspects of social interaction autistic people find difficult because of the sensory processing involved. Direct eye contact can be intense and facial expressions don’t automatically reflect our thoughts, leading to the dreaded ‘smile it may never happen’ type comments.
Reciprocity in conversation isn’t something that comes naturally to autistic people. It can manifest in a feeling of being out of sync; of oversharing or not sharing enough. It can be difficult to anticipate the flow of conversation: when to interject, when to change the subject, when to finish.
Autistic people in the workplace often develop strategies to cope with the demands of social interaction and work hard to develop good relationships with colleagues. Employers need to acknowledge the effort autistic people put into what others would consider relaxed socialising and adjust their expectations accordingly.
It can be difficult for autistic people to gauge how we are doing without some kind of objective indicator. I tend to feel unsure of what is expected of me so put in extra effort so there can be no room for doubt. We need regular, specific and constructive feedback. Not praise, but a reliable indicator of how we are actually going and what we need to do.
Autistic people can be great communicators
When an autistic person finds their niche, there are opportunities to shine. We enjoy sharing the expertise we have developed and our ideas about how problems can be solved. Presentations, webinars, fact sheets and papers can be great ways to showcase knowledge and insight for the benefit of colleagues and others.
Attention to detail and affinity for grammatical structure can make us great editors and proof-readers, the go-to person for transforming raw content into a polished work. Language is a tool for precision of expression.
Being autistic affects the experience of being in the workplace in ways that are far-reaching and profound. But accommodating the needs of autistic people needn’t be an onerous or expensive undertaking for employers. Much can be achieved by being mindful of how communication is carried out and how it can best meet the needs of a diverse group of people.