The Autistic Employee Part 4: 50 things to know when working with Autistic people
This article is the final piece 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, The Autistic Employee Part 2: Job hunting advice for my fellow Autistics and The Autistic Employee Part 3: Advice for managers.
Autistic people bring a very different perspective to a team but in order to get the best out of us, you need to understand us.
That isn’t always an easy thing to do. So I’ve pulled together a list based on my observations and experiences throughout my working life starting from my very first job working in a doughnut shop at the age of 15 all the way to the present day. Some experiences have been good, some have not been so good and some have been downright hilarious (see 25).
In my current role, I work with an amazing group of people who understand me and accept me as I am. I’ve written the following list from my perspective simply because I don’t speak for the entire autistic community. We are a large group of diverse voices and this one is just mine.
Here you go.
1.Small talk feels weird to me. I usually only talk if I have something to say and ‘good morning’ isn’t one of them.
2. I take things quite literally and am usually the last to get a joke.
3. Same goes for sarcasm- if you tell me not to invite Bob to the meeting, it’s highly likely Bob is going to be left out in the cold.
4. If I offend you, it’s not personal and I probably have no idea I’ve upset you.
5. I do care about you but it’s not always easy for me to communicate it in a way that makes sense to you and I don’t always know how to articulate it.
6. There’s always several conscious thought processes running through my mind and sometimes I get lost in them.
7. Please do invite me to social gatherings like team lunches and the Christmas party but don’t be offended I leave early. Events with lots of social interaction are hard work for me and sometimes I’ll take breaks and walk around the block or hide out in the bathroom for a little while.
8. I have a hard time matching faces to names. There’s a guy in my office who wore a killer Christmas themed suit to the Christmas Party last year but I can never remember his name. Just the suit and that he was nice to me.
9. My eye contact is unusual- I will usually look at your hairline, glasses or ears and if I don’t know you very well, I may not look at you at all.
10. I really struggle to follow the flow of a conversation and will often miss the middle of a conversation.
11. I don’t always know when it’s my turn to talk and tend to interrupt- I’m not trying to be disrespectful, I just get these thoughts that I need to get out before I forget them.
12. My short term memory is about as functional as a screen door on a submarine. I use Trello to manage my to-do lists and I write things down on post its a lot.
13. I need detailed step by step instructions that clearly indicate priority order because my brain cannot take in that information and organise it properly.
14. Loud sounds rattle me.
15. I wear headphones to help me focus.
16. I have lunch at the same time each day (12:20)
17. Please stop asking me about Rain Man.
18. Don’t withhold work because you don’t know/think I can do it- just talk to me about your concerns and we’ll work something out together.
19. I’m really bad at reading body language. If you’re stressed/unhappy/worried/about to go postal- just tell me.
20. Direct communication works best- I cannot read between the lines.
21. Let me talk about my focused interests — because colouring in is awesome!
22. If I walk quickly past you without saying hello or making eye contact, please don’t think I’m ignoring you. I do care about you, I’m just focused on something else.
23. I fiddle a lot — it’s called stimming (self-stimulation) and it makes me feel calm. I even own jewellery that was designed for that very purpose.
24. I can be quite direct or blunt. It’s not personal I promise- I just lack what a colleague of mine calls ‘social lubricant’.
25. Unwritten social rules don’t make any sense to me — I once used nasal spray at my desk and couldn’t understand why that was a bad idea.
26. Please don’t move or remove anything from my desk. Everything is exactly where I need it to be and changing it will throw my focus. For a few hours.
27. Instead of forcing conformance, meet me halfway. Most autistic people work damn hard to thrive in this neurotypical world but it takes a lot out of us and frankly it isn’t fair. If everyone does their part, we’ll all be free to be ourselves and that’s when the real magic happens.
28. Travel takes a lot out of me.
29. Don’t mistake my silence for disengagement or annoyance- I just don’t have anything to say!
30. Keep in mind that autistic symptoms are clinically significant for a reason — if I could change, I wouldn’t be autistic!
31. Sensory overload is a very real and very painful thing that can cause me to shut down and retreat temporarily.
32. If I ask a question that has a seemingly obvious answer, just humour me by answering the question because if I ask, it means I genuinely don’t know and want to find out.
33. I’m not suffering and my needs are not ‘special’.
34. Use identity first language. Say ‘autistic person’ instead of ‘person with autism’. It sits at the very core of my identity and isn’t something I carry around with me in my purse. It’s not an affliction either.
35. A ‘meltdown’ is what happens when an autistic person temporarily loses control of their emotions. It isn’t a word that should be used to describe a celebrity tantrum or a bad day.
36. I prefer written instructions and briefings but also need a very quick ten minute chat to confirm my understanding and ask questions.
37. Autistic people aren’t broken, tragic or seeking a ‘cure’. Autism cannot be cured because it means we have a different brain. We operate differently at the deepest possible level.
38. Weekends are when I recharge and when I tell you I didn’t do anything over the weekend, I mean it. Sometimes people think I’m being cagey or hiding something, but I really am that boring! :)
39. My cat is my best friend.
40. Don’t tell me not to stress- that will actually make me even more anxious because then I worry I’m annoying you! Instead, acknowledge the issue, be empathetic and help me solve the problem.
41. I laugh at inappropriate times. Meetings with senior executives, from the front row of a conference keynote (true story) and hearing controversial opinions whether I agree with you or not. Everything is hilarious.
42. My differences and I have been on the receiving end of countless acts of bullying and I find it really hard to trust people.
43. I miss social cues and will often fail to notice when someone wants to end or change the direction of a conversation.
44. Office politics and hierarchies make no sense to me and I don’t ‘play the game’.
45. No two autistic people are alike. The symptoms and traits present differently every time, that’s why it’s called a spectrum.
46. Don’t tell me I ‘don’t look that autistic’ or that it ‘must be mild’. Autism is autism and mild is not a word that comes to mind when I try to describe my existence.
47. Don’t think of autism in terms of severity- think of it as a brain that works and communicates differently.
48. Ableism is never ok.
49. I’m proud to be autistic.
50. Learn about what it means to work alongside an autistic person- having read this article is an excellent start! Next step: set aside some time for a conversation with the autistic employee in your workplace.