The Autistic Employee Part 3: Advice for managers

This article is the third in a four part series around supporting autistic people in the workplace to not only deliver great outcomes for the business, but also help us to grow as professionals and reach our full potential. See also The Autistic Employee Part 1: 28 tips for hiring people on the spectrum and The Autistic Employee Part 2: Job hunting advice for my fellow Autistics.

Being the manager of an autistic person can be a challenging experience.

Not because your autistic employee is difficult to deal with or a problem, but rather because so few managers are experienced in what it means to manage someone on the spectrum. Chances are, you’ve never done it before and it can be quite the learning curve.

From the perspective of the autistic person who works for you, here’s my advice based on what I’ve experienced and observed: the good, the not so good and the somewhere in between.

Recognise that no two autistic people are exactly the same

Always remember: if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met ONE autistic person! Autistic traits present differently between individuals and your focus should be more on the configuration of those traits rather than on the severity of their symptoms. In a previous article, I explained that the autism spectrum shouldn’t be viewed as a straight line of severity but rather a highly detailed colour wheel where each hue, tint and shade is a single autistic trait. Each individual has their own collection of colours making a unique palette that fits into the broader autism spectrum.

Let go of any stereotypes you may hold about autistic people because these will only waste time and hold you back. We’re all different and if you want to learn about someone, just talk to them. It may take a few conversations to fully build that understanding, but it really is the only way to do it. I sometimes find it hard to fully articulate my autistic experience on the spot and will often need a second or third conversation to truly convey what I need to. I forget things and I also sometimes forget how best to explain some of my traits or the diagnosis process for example.

Learn about and understand what reasonable adjustments are needed

If you don’t know what reasonable adjustments are, don’t worry you’re not alone. It’s not an easy thing to define but it’s something that needs to be taken seriously because depending on where you live, failing to provide them could be against the law. Not to mention the immeasurable benefits to the experience you’re delivering to your employees.

In Australia, they’re called reasonable adjustments because it’s about balancing the need for the change with the effort and costs associated with making the change. If it’s very expensive or too disruptive to implement, it may not be reasonable but that said, there’s always other solutions.

To give you a good foundation on which to build your understanding, I think it’s best if I provide you with a real life example that could have been approached in multiple different ways.

I’ve previously written about my struggles with Activity Based Work (ABW) environments. Locating and settling in at a new workstation every day was incredibly unpleasant for me and was seriously hampering my productivity. My workplace was amazing and the right reasonable adjustments were made very quickly but for the purposes of this case study, here are four possible pathways they could have taken:

Solution A

Give me my own office.

Reasonable? No. Because: no one has an office in an ABW environment, it’s expensive, requires excessive effort and would disrupt other people working in the office.

Solution B

Set me up with a home office

Reasonable? No. Expensive and my role requires me to work collaboratively alongside a team or client in person.

Solution C

Do nothing.

Reasonable? No. The problem needs to be solved because it is interfering with my ability to perform the everyday tasks of my job and I have a right to be afforded reasonable adjustments.

Solution D

Provide a fixed desk of my choosing in the ABW environment and place a sign on it saying it is an ABW exempt WHS workstation that is reserved for Ashlea.

Reasonable? Yes. Minimal effort, no additional costs and solves the problem.

Solution D is what was implemented and it’s been great! Everyone knows it is my desk and I still pack my belongings up at the end of each day just like everyone else. The difference is, I get to return to the same place each day and that is an enormous help.

When considering what reasonable adjustments may be required, it’s very important to realise that these changes are a very individual thing. Some people will need them and some people won’t. In my last role, I didn’t need any autism related reasonable adjustments. It really depends on the individual and the environment. The best way to find out what’s needed, is to just ask. Have a meeting (or a few like we discussed earlier) with your autistic employee and ask if there is anything they need to be more comfortable or more productive at work. Listen to what they have to say and work together to design and implement reasonable adjustments that help everyone.

Ensure performance based feedback is balanced and constructive

There needs to be balance between business expectations and what is achievable for an autistic person. You need to gain a good understanding of what your autistic employee can and can’t do as a result of their unique neurology and determine what is reasonable from there. You need to work out what the deal breakers are and what you’re willing to live with.

A few years ago I was in a team where my manager was suddenly moved to another area. During the handoff to my new manager, my former manager told my new manager that my ‘behaviour is appalling’ because I disagreed with their opinion once and rarely said ‘Good Morning’ to them when they arrived at work each day. Greeting people doesn’t come naturally to me and I disagreed with their opinion in the course of doing my job (they wanted to make a major design change without doing any user research). My new manager didn’t see either as an issue and was content to just let me be me in regards to opinions and greetings- provided I was respectful which of course I always was. Any time an issue came up with my new manager, they just talked me through alternate behaviours and explained why they were better. It was an easy-going no fuss manager-employee relationship and it worked because it was built on trust.

Your autistic employee will take your feedback very seriously and you need to ensure that comments or observations are specific, detailed and are accompanied by actionable suggestions for improvement. It has to be usable and useful.

Also keep in mind that context is everything. Give your autistic employee a chance to offer up their thoughts on the feedback and don’t view their efforts to educate or provide additional information as defensiveness or disagreement. They’re not trying to argue with you or make your life hard. It’s in fact the opposite- they’re trying to help you better support them.

Regular catch ups go a long way

This is not a licence to micromanage but rather a communication style that I’ve found useful. Brief, regular check ins with your autistic employee can be really helpful because it provides an opportunity to test our thinking and ensure we’re on the right track. It doesn’t have to be long, formal or detailed- just a quick ten minute chat at an appropriate interval. For example, when I’m on a project, I now implement two ten minute daily catch ups: one in the morning and one at the end of the day. Also, twice a week, I have a ten minute chat with my HR manager just to see how I’m going. These chat times aren’t set in stone and can changed to fit in around other meetings and work. It’s about flexibly determining what will work best based on what I’m doing and how much support I need at that particular time.

Be aware of and be prepared to deal with ableism

Ableism is more of a problem than you might think. Ableism is the belief that people who are not disabled are superior to people who are. It’s essentially the disability equivalent of racism or sexism. It comes in many forms: direct, indirect, verbal, behavioural, conscious and unconscious. Sometimes people don’t actually realise they’ve said or done something ableist or they just think the recipient is being ‘too politically correct’ or is ‘overly sensitive’. You yourself may have actually thought, done or said something ableist without even knowing.

Through my observations and experiences as an autistic person, it seems to happen a lot to people with invisible disabilities. Examples of ableism towards autistic people in the workplace include and are not limited to:

  • Forcing us to attend Emotional Intelligence (EQ) or social skills training
  • Failing to make reasonable adjustments
  • Mocking us for our differences
  • Asking us to change aspects of our neurology that are beyond our control eg. forcing us to make eye contact
  • Asking us to mask our autistic traits by telling us to ‘act normal’
  • Telling us that autism is ‘an excuse’ and that we should ‘try harder’

A former employer sent me to EQ training once. It was a fascinating experience. I failed every single body language exercise, argued with my training team over why we should rescue a single parent from a hypothetical volcano over a scientist and retained nothing other than the knowledge that people are motivated by one of two things: love or fear. It did not have the intended effect of magically turning me into a socially acceptable human being. It was pretty much just a waste of 8 hours that could have been spent doing actual work.

Another time, I found myself banned from conducting user interviews out of fear that I would do or say something inappropriate despite being significantly more experienced and more qualified than the person who took my place. Much to the irritation of my replacement, I tried to have this decision reversed and came up with alternate solutions such as sharing the facilitation and note taking roles but I was unsuccessful. I was however permitted to greet participants in the foyer as they arrived. Later on, my replacement made a point of patting my arm in front of her manager while loudly announcing “Ashlea practiced her social skills today!”

Ableism is never ok. When it happens to me I feel marginalised and small. It makes me feel like I’m not safe to be myself. The arm patter’s comment and behaviour hit me like a slap in the face and made me feel like I had nothing to contribute. Everyone has a right to feel safe and comfortable at work and people need to understand that invisible disabilities are just as valid as visible ones. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t real or permanent. Autistic people are born with a different kind of brain and short of a lobotomy, it isn’t going to change.

Keep any ableism of your own in check and be prepared to deal with it as your autistic employee experiences it from others. I wish I could say it won’t happen, but we’re talking about human beings here. They’re not perfect and sometimes they say stupid things. Some people are simply blissfully unaware of how ableism affects autistic people and would be absolutely horrified to find out. Some people sit somewhere in the middle in the land of plain ignorance and lastly, some people are genuine pieces of work and are probably better known as the office bully with talents for belittling extending far beyond ableism. The first two groups usually respond well to education, empathy building and a little patience. As for the last group- if that’s going on, you may have far bigger problems than you realise.

The right attitude is more important than perfection

You’re going to screw up from time to time. You’re not always going to get it right but what matters is how you deal with it. I’ve previously spoken about the support plan I have in place at work. From the outset, we approached it as an iterative thing. We try something and if it doesn’t work, we learn from it, we make changes and we move on. It’s flexible, informal, ever evolving and it works.

Managing an autistic employee can be challenging, but I hope with these tips in mind, you now feel more equipped to be the kind of manager that an autistic person can trust and learn from because one day they will be in your shoes. It’s a relationship like any other and it takes work- just a different kind of work.

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