Dear employers ~ How to work with employees “with” Asperger’s / autism ~ Part 2: Creating an autism-friendly atmosphere

This post is a sequel to my last post, in which I mentioned that many companies are becoming increasingly aware of the unique inborn talents and qualities of people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum that make them (us – I’m an “Aspie”, too!) potentially excellent employees.

There will more than likely be one or two follow-ups to this post, the first one covering the application/interview process, and the other conceived in response to a fellow Aspergian/autistic friend who posed the honest question of why employers should care enough to make the changes described in my last post and this one.  The previous post, this post, and the two future posts that I have planned for this series will be tagged under “Hiring and Working With People on the Asperger’s/Autism Spectrum” for easy reference.

For now, I’ll cover the second prong of the material I have, which involves creating an autism-friendly atmosphere.

What’s an autism-friendly atmosphere?

It’s an atmosphere in which people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum can not only survive, but thrive.  An atmosphere in which our positive qualities and advantages can shine through and we can have fulfilling careers and a peaceful, happy, harmonious work life.

In that last post, I listed a few basic characteristics that apply to most people on the spectrum (although I caution everyone never to make assumptions about people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum; there’s just as much variety among people on the spectrum as there is in the rest of the population!)  Also in that last post, I discussed various nuances of support that we might need, and various strategies (which aren’t by any means exhaustive) in terms of creating a palatable office environment.

So what’s the difference between “environment” and “atmosphere”?  Well, to some, very little; these terms are often used interchangeably.  For the purpose of this post series, however, the term “environment” refers more to the physical environment, and the term “atmosphere” refers more to the mental and emotional aspects of working with other people.

This post will focus much more on the latter – creating an atmosphere (or “vibe”, if you will) that is congruent and compatible with people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum.  These strategies can cost absolutely nothing to implement; they simply require minimal-to-moderate, but consistent, effort on the part of management.  Everyone from lower-level managers on up must be on board–this is critical.  We’re not talking here about simple “autism awareness” or “tolerance”; we’re talking about shifting/transitioning to a full-fledged “autism acceptance” and “embrace”, for we have plenty of attributes (listed in the previous post) that you (referencing business owners and managers) do not want to miss out on!

If you’re a little apprehensive, don’t worry.  The strategies that I’m about to discuss will actually benefit everyone in the office, not just the employees on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum.

What qualifies me to even discuss this?  I’m an Aspergian/autistic adult, who realized my Aspie/autistic status a mere eight months ago and obtained a formal diagnosis by a medical professional almost three weeks ago.  I’ve been self-employed for more than 12 years, having started two small-but-successful businesses from scratch without assistance, and I’m already laying down foundational plans for a third business, to come to fruition in the future.

I admit that I have not started, nor managed, a larger business.  Thus, I do lack full awareness of what the implications and ripple effect might be in regards to making accommodations on a large scale.  There are many governmental regulations that our business is exempt from due to its small size (we have one employee and two on-call independent contractors), and thus I can’t relate to larger businesses with full understanding.  But I also realize that larger businesses tend to have more-than-shoestring funding and are typically accustomed to abiding by plenty of regulation.

But more government regulation isn’t what I’m proposing.  I’m not even sure that I support additional forced “intrusion”, other than the requirement to give us a fair shake and comply with legislation already in existence as applicable.

What I’m proposing is actually a voluntary effort; you have the power to set the stage, to start the trends, to raise the bar, to blaze a trail.  You’re cutting-edge.  You’re up on things.  You “got this”.  And if not, then maybe I can help, even if it’s in a tiny way, from my tiny corner of the world.

And so, without further adieu, on with the creation of that autism-friendly atmosphere…

To know where you’re going, it’s important to have a firm knowledge-grip on How Things Are.  And that is this:

  • As mentioned in my last post, we (the people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum) are typically emotionally sensitive.  We may not show it or express ourselves in “usual” ways, but we often internalize put-downs, offhanded remarks, criticism, etc.
  • As also mentioned in my last post, we often interpret communication quite literally.  We say what we mean and mean what we say, and we become confused and sometimes frustrated when others don’t do the same.  We also may be surprised and confused when someone reacts unexpectedly to something we said.  I can say honestly that we’re not trying to be rude–we’re not generally like that–we simply tend to be very direct/straightforward.
  • We may be unsure of “typical” social/cultural norms, unwritten rules, and unsaid cues.  This has usually caused us pain in the past, and thus, we may feel awkward and unsure of ourselves now.  This doesn’t mean we’re antisocial; it simply means we may not be quite sure what to do in a given situation, or we may be unaware of a social custom, and thus commit a faux pas.
  • Not mentioned in my last post is the tendency to sometimes have a tough time understanding verbal directions.  It’s not that we lack intelligence or that we’re mentally/cognitively slower–quite the contrary!–it’s simply a matter of processing, interpretation, and visualization.  We’re visual and/or kinesthetic (learning by doing) learners.  When we receive auditory/verbal directions, we may find it harder to visualize exactly what’s desired or expected.
  • Also not yet mentioned so far is our lack of desire for “making small talk”.  This is because we think differently than most people.  We actually perceive the world differently.  We do see the same things you do; it’s simply–again–a matter of processing and interpretation.  We have different thought processes and different priorities (in general).  Thus, we may not share the same interests, the same intensity of those interests, or the same methods of communication.  We often see small talk as an irrelevant activity, and potentially a time-wasting one (and we dislike wasting time).
  • We also tend not to partake in gossip, and usually do not have a position in the rumor mill.

So here, again, what’s a business owner or company manager/supervisor to do?  How do we go about creating an office environment that is autism-friendly and palatable to all?

(First, remember the mantra that it’s impossible to please everybody.)

Here are a few suggestions.  Although the physical environmental ideas outlined in my last post may have incurred variable costs, these typically do not.  Instead, these revolve more around updating policy manuals, holding staff meetings when needed to ensure that everyone is aware of the changes, and then applying easy oversight efforts to ensure that these policies are being followed.

Training – I’ll repeat here again that we’re often visual and/or kinesthetic (as opposed to auditory) learners.  Our challenges may also extend to reading/written directions; much like with verbal directions, we may have some difficulty interpreting written directions, due to our processing differences.  We may have challenges forming mental pictures in our heads when reading/listening to directions.  It’s not that we’re insubordinate or unintelligent–again, quite the contrary!–it’s all about interpretation and processing.

Expectations – be sure to outline carefully and completely what is expected of each employee; you may have to provide a little more thorough explanation to employees on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, simply because of the tendency toward literal interpretation.  Set clear guidelines immediately, from the first day of training.  These guidelines should include clear explanations of policies, procedures, directions, specifications, parameters, limitations, expectations, deadlines, goals, and metrics.  We don’t tend to do well in situations in which there are gray areas, or when anyone relies on assumptions.

And once these guidelines and expectations are set, enforce them consistently, and try not to alter them too much.  People on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum tend to have a greater need for consistency, and a lack thereof can really throw us off.  We tend to think a bit more in black-and-white than the average person.  We also tend to “install” information in our minds very deeply and thoroughly, so if changes are made (either drastic or frequent changes), that results in a lot of mental adjustment, as we have to “uninstall” the old information and “install” the new information.

Management – many of us are quite content working alone and independently.  While we depend on–and respond favorably to–effective feedback, we often tend to dislike being “micromanaged”.  I recommend spelling out exactly what’s expected, and then letting us have at it.  I also recommend remaining very open to further communication, so that we feel comfortable approaching you and asking questions or seeking clarification/confirmation regarding small details.

Communication/Interaction: General – We’re happiest and most productive in solitude, working independently.  The whole communication issue can be a sticky one for us, as we attempt to interpret what people have said, and ensure that we’re saying the “right” things at the “right” times.  As mentioned above, we prefer straightforward, get-to-the-point conversation.  I recommend keeping communication “short and sweet”.  Since we also tend to function better with a routine, it might be an excellent idea to work a daily or twice-daily (or weekly, etc) communication into the workday.  Perhaps this could take the form of a Monday Morning (weekly) or Morning (daily) email, outlining what you need to communicate with your employees, in one “Reader’s Digest”-esque message.  Alternatively, this could also take the form of a five-minute, first-thing-in-the-morning “huddle/briefing” in a manager’s office.

Speaking of email, I’m a big fan of communicating by email in general, as opposed to in-person communication.  This offers multiple advantages; we can finish a particular task or thought process and log in and check the email when our brain is ready to receive it.  We can read the email several times, until we’ve processed it sufficiently.  We can carefully formulate a response and proofread/edit before clicking “send”.

A few cautions regarding email – when sending messages, please be sure to state the gist of the message clearly; if an email is vague, confusing, or “all over the place”, it’s less effective.  When reading email or responses from us, please understand that we write much like the way we talk or think: straightforward.  Thus, you may be under the impression that we’re coming across as bossy, rude, passive-aggressive, adamant, etc, when in reality, we’re not behaving that way.  (All of these misconceptions have personally happened to me, multiple times, and at no time was I ever intending to be that way.)

Thus, try not to read too much into the email; read the words that are written, and try not to imply or attach or assume any emotion or other context behind it.  And when in doubt, even if you feel riled up, ask us for clarification.  A neutral, non-defensive, non-inflammatory, “I’m a little confused by [x]; what did you mean by that?  Please elaborate?” goes a long way.

While we tend to like email, we tend to despise the phone.  Most of us would prefer not ever having to use the phone at all.  If at all possible, I recommend delegating phone communication to another employee.  However, if that particular position within the company requires it, I recommend providing (or allowing the employee to write their own) written scripts to use, written out word-for-word, if need be.  Some of us need to plan out word-for-word what we’re going to say, while others of us simply need a bulleted list of short phrases with main talking points to cover.  I definitely recommend opting for email-based communication wherever and whenever it would suffice.

Communication/Interaction: Meetings – meetings can be unusually stressful for us; sometimes it may be challenging for us to follow a verbal conversation, other people can be distracting, and it often interrupts our to-do list for the day and/or whichever task we were engaged in.  Our social awkwardness often comes into play as well, and being around many people at once can be draining or exhausting for many of us.

I recommend limiting several attributes of meetings as much as possible.  These attributes are:

  • Frequency (holding meetings too often cuts into everyone’s work progress and adds stress, likely moreso for people on the spectrum, due to our higher incidence of social anxiety)
  • Size of meetings, pertaining to the number of participants included (the more people in attendance, the more claustrophobic, distracting, and anxiety-inducing the meeting may be)
  • Duration (the longer the meeting, the more it sets workers behind in their regular work schedules, thus adding delays)
  • Number of topics/amount of material covered (too much material or too many topics can be overwhelming to process, especially considering that we often have extra challenges with processing auditory communication; such meetings can become similar to “rambling”, during which our minds can resort to “obsessing” (over-thinking), getting caught up on a particular point, and keeps us from drifting away/disengaging/tuning out–which we try very hard not to do, but can happen beyond our control)

Instead, I highly recommend a conservative approach to meetings, and applying the following characteristics:

  • Occasional (and thus, more significant, since it’s not a frequent event)
  • Involving only the most pertinent people (avoids the feelings of overcrowding and potentially-resulting claustrophobia and potential distraction)
  • Short and sweet; brief (again, this prevents our minds from unfocusing)
  • A clear purpose, clearly outlined goals; straightforward; staying on task (if the meeting leader stays focused, it’s much easier for us to do so as well)

Communication/Interaction: Memos – I highly recommend taking the same approach to memos as I outlined above with meetings.  Keep them relatively infrequent, significant, the main point(s) clearly and well outlined and straightforward, and as brief as possible.  Feeling micromanaged kills morale, and this may be exceptionally true for people on the spectrum.

Social Relations/Settings: General – nothing kills morale (for both people on and off the spectrum) than a hostile, judgmental, cut-throat work environment.  Healthy competition or friendly, good-natured joking around is one thing–as long as one person’s benefit/gain is not another’s victimization/loss.  There is a fine Do-Not-Cross line between an environment that seeks the best from each individual and does so in good fun, and an environment that pits one employee against another or feels predatory or exploitative.

It’s important to bring up the “literal interpretation” characteristic here as well.  Aspergian/autistic people often have a tough time telling the difference between a comment that’s meant to be a joke or a good-natured jab from a comment that is harsh and critical.  Sometimes, the nonverbal context, such as facial expression, etc, gets lost on us.  We may think someone is picking at us when really they’re just joking around in good fun, without meaning any harm.  It’s important to recognize this and keep it in mind, because although we sometimes “get better” at discerning this difference with time and increasing familiarity with our coworkers, it may never completely disappear.  This especially applies to coworkers with drier senses of humor, in which it can be even harder to tell when they’re joking around.

I recommend firmly implementing (and strictly enforcing) the very minimum guidelines in order to foster a supportive and encouraging working atmosphere:

  • Zero–and I mean zero–tolerance for harassment or bullying; this includes belittling, as well as all personal attacks
  • Zero tolerance for judgment (i.e., being judgmental) and prejudice
  • Zero tolerance for rumor mills and gossip
  • Ensure that the role that we play in the company/business is well-suited to our individual strengths, and minimizes the incidence of our challenges/difficulties/weaknesses
  • Refrain from snide comments regarding the employee and/or their spectrum condition
  • Maintain sensitivity, awareness, and acceptance ALWAYS
  • Foster friendliness, encouragement, and support
  • Provide an accommodating, understanding, and semi-nurturing environment for the employee to come to you if they’re having a problem with a coworker.
  • If a problem does arise, do listen to that person and take them seriously; part of the job of a manager/supervisor or owner is to set rules and guidelines, enforce them effectively, provide a good example, be an effective role model, settle disputes between coworkers, eliminate “problem” (caustic or unproductive) workers, and maintain a smooth working environment.  As a manager/supervisor/owner, it is your duty and responsibility to make that call.  In addition, try to refrain from the temptation to assume that the employee on the spectrum is being “oversensitive”

In addition, I recommend the following strategies:

  • Genuine periodic check-ins that are not ambushes-in-disguise (i.e., looking for information that may be used against the person later), but genuinely to see how the employee is doing
  • Objective metrics that are well-disclosed and minimal in subjectivity, regarding work performance and duties, expectations, etc; these should be written and the employee should be given a copy of these for their personal records.  This is especially important if these work performance metrics are used during annual reviews to determine raises and promotions
  • Perhaps a “suggestion box” or other (ideally anonymous) method for providing feedback and submitting ideas – we often have a lot of ideas, and they make a lot of sense!  Of course, it logically follows that this box should be checked and reviewed regularly.  I recommend setting this up on a recurring schedule.  This suggestion box could be a physical box in a specific location, or perhaps a specific type of email.
  • Genuine consideration and reception of those ideas
  • Genuine consideration and sensitivity to employees who give feedback, have a dilemma/problem to solve, or request help or support
  • Please refrain from making assumptions about what an employee can or cannot do, based on their outward/surface appearance or presentation
  • Avoid making the assumption that just because the person “looks ‘normal'” or is “able-bodied” or is of “normal intelligence” that they can perform what is typically considered to be a “mundane/everyday” task or skill.  Although Asperger’s/autism itself might be argued to be a “different ability” rather than a flat-out “disability”, there is indeed a disability element, in which we may appear able-bodied and cognitively-normal, but not always able to perform all “regular” activities.  (Example: talking on the phone)
  • Please don’t assume that because an employee on the spectrum could perform a particular task yesterday, that they can today.  Our abilities and non-abilities (as well as ease/difficulty and/or energy requirements) may change or vary from day to day, or perhaps between morning and afternoon.
  • Please keep in mind that if we say we cannot do something, we’re typically NOT simply making excuses.  Chances are that before admitting to someone else (especially a manager or supervisor) that we can’t do something, we’ve tried several ways to make it happen, tried to “psych” ourselves up for the task, tried to “wrap our heads around” performing that particular task.  Here, again, we aim to please, and we’re definitely not going to take it lightly that we can’t do something that day.  In fact, we may feel a certain shame and self-criticism of our own, which occurs largely internally.  If we’re coming to our managers to ask for help or to attempt to delegate a task to another employee, it’s typically a very last–and always dreaded–resort.
  • Always operate from the position of respect, be generous in giving the benefit of the doubt; no one truly understands the perspective of anyone else; no one else has walked in another’s shoes.

Social Relations/Settings: Events – according to my (non-scientific, but still valuable empirical data-providing) survey, about 98% of us are introverts.  This means that simply being around people can be exhausting.  It’s a stubbornly-persistent myth that we can’t interact with or relate to people at all; we certainly can.  However, it just takes additional energy, depleting our available energy rapidly.

Thus, we especially tend not to enjoy big gatherings.  This especially pertains to office parties and other after-hours events; please don’t make their attendance mandatory, and please don’t hold it against us if we don’t come.  Believe me, it’s hardly ever personal; it’s nothing against anyone; it’s simply fatiguing, which is something we can’t control.

Social Relations/Settings: Group Work/Projects – as I mentioned earlier, we’re most productive in solitude, working independently.  In addition, our scholastic/academic backgrounds may include incidents where we were forced to work in groups and it did not go well; usually, we’ve felt obligated to pull the weight of the group, because their production was substandard.  Or, maybe everybody started socializing and we wanted to stay on task and get the work done but felt outnumbered and outvoted.  Either way, we usually cringe at the mere mention of “group”-anything.

In a situation where teamwork is necessary (which, I understand completely, is common), one solution might be to delegate a specific task or set of tasks to the Asperger’s/autistic employee and ask if they would prefer to work somewhere else, in (often-welcome) isolation, away from the crowd.  In this instance, check-ins or collaboration might be done over email or perhaps printed memos delivered to each others’ physical inboxes.

A variation on the theme might include brief weekly meetings with the rest of the project team regarding progress, updates, changes, etc.

However, please avoid the assumption that the employee wants to work alone; to make this assumption might feel like exclusionary “outcasting” in which the employee is waved away or dismissed, and this can feel personal, as though the person is unwanted.  Be clear that this is not the case, and continue to treat that person with open arms, an open mind, an open door, and human respect.  When in doubt, always ask that person!  They will appreciate being asked and having the opportunity to be heard.

In summary:

  • Ix-nay on any and ALL maltreatment, harassment, belittling, bullying, or intimidation – zero tolerance
  • Provide constructive criticism – the “sandwich” approach of [something positive] – “work more on this” – [something else positive] can go a long way for some (as long as the compliments are genuine and not contrived), while others simply prefer constructive criticism by itself
  • Minimize rumors/gossip
  • Be clear in communication, expectations, goals, procedures, policies, deadlines
  • Please ask (seek input, opinions, ideas, suggestions, solutions, feedback)–and then listen–and then take the response seriously–and finally, ACT, in a timely manner
  • Be a manager–manage!  Set the example, be the role model, flex your muscle against “problem” people when needed
  • Never assume anything–ever (when in doubt, ASK)
  • Avoid micromanaging
  • Match the job description with our strengths
  • Be consistent, objective, and fair
  • Exercise understanding when it comes to social interaction (meetings, gatherings, office events, holiday parties, or group work)
  • Please try not to make us use the phone

This post may give the impression that we’re “delicate flowers” or “special snowflakes”.

That’s simply not true–at all.

A good, productive, healthy working environment already has these attributes, whether it includes people on the spectrum or not.  Adopting and firmly implementing these strategies is good morale for everyone involved, and ultimately, good for business! 🙂

The next two posts will be dedicated to the application/hiring process and why your company should bother taking all of the extra steps mentioned in this post series (and what you’d be missing out on if you didn’t!) 🙂

PS: Those next two posts can be found here (Part 3 ~ Interviewing, Hiring, and Promotion) and here (Part 4 ~ Why (should companies) Bother? Here’s Why).

🙂

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5 Comments

  1. Good God I wish I ever could have got my workplace to follow your guidance on meetings! I had a particularly awful experience for a while when I asked for this structure, was denied it (apparently it might make other people feel uncomfortable…), but then was obliquely and relentlessly criticised for my autistic behaviours in trying to cope and navigate those settings (“it’s so disappointing … think about the impacts of your behaviour …” etc). They have to either accommodate the need or tolerate the coping mechanisms – right?!

    But on the “feedback sandwich”, I sort of disagree. I think this is quite a personal thing, either you love it or you hate it – and personally I hate it. It seems a shame to waste genuine positive feedback on padding, and if it’s not genuine it rings hollow. I’d rather just hear the negative feedback directly in a constructive way, being specific on what went wrong and focusing on how I could do better in the future.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I definitely agree with you on your take on the “feedback sandwich “! 😊 The compliments have to be genuine in order to “count”, and sometimes I also prefer the constructive criticism by itself as well! For me, I think it depends on the mood I’m in 😊❤️

      Liked by 1 person

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