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Autism in the Workplace. Honestly. Really Honestly.

I think it's why I lost that job. Because I was honest. It was about a year later that I lost the job, so there's no direct link, but things changed after that moment. And they didn't have to.

I was in the office, talking with a superior about the design of a particular application. The solution he was proposing had holes in it; I had found them earlier (which is why I had asked for the meeting). After he went over his approach again, I said:

“But it won't work, the security's rubbish.”

He stopped, tilted his head back. “Who do you think you're talking to?”

“[ his name ]”, I replied, confused as to why identity is being brought into the technical discussion.

You see, for me, and for many of my fellow autistics, when you're discussing a particular application design, or project, or idea — the point is the same. It's the concept being discussed that's the focus. Anything else is a distraction, unimportant.

The security was rubbish. Saying anything else would have been false (and we autistic people don't like inaccuracies). Wrapping the statement in some nicety would have been (or so I thought) a waste of time. All that sort of thing does, to my autistic mind, is introduce irrelevant distractions.

Workplace discussion
Workplace discussion

For the most part, neurotypicals (those of you who are not autistic, dyslexic, ADHD, etc.) have an easier time incorporating the sociopolitical nuances into their interactions. And because of that — because neurotypicals are in the majority — it is the norm to expect a certain level of sophistication with regard to those sociopolitical nuances.

If you are serious about your diversity and inclusion strategy, if you want to make neurodiversity work where you work, then you have to question that norm. You have to ask yourself what blending in the subtlety of social interaction adds to the immediate task at hand, to solving the problem.

Nothing. The software isn't going to respond faster because everyone holds hands during Scrum. The project isn't going to get done faster because Gantt chart was created with deference. The idea isn't a better idea because it was presented politely.

“But! Aha!”, you say. “What about a smoothly running team? Don't the social niceties, the soft skills, help to make that happen?” Yes, absolutely. But why limit yourself like that?

When faced with a brutally honest assessment from an autistic colleague, don't focus on the form. Focus on the content.

If someone gets offended because a criticism is presented in a bare-bones, no-frills manner, what's really going on? I'll tell you, and it's a short answer: Ego. Stop for a minute and think about it. Anything you can dress it up with — respect, seniority, hierarchy — at the end of the day it all boils down to the same thing. Ego.

Listening on the sofa
Listening to other team members

Let your ego go. (Wow. Did I really just write that? I can't be the first, but I really should be the last.) No, I mean it. Put your ego aside for a moment. Tell it to sit in the corner and be quiet for a bit. Be patient. Make sure it's sitting obediently, then think again, carefully, about the application design, the project, or the idea. Does it not seem clearer now? Can you not see all of the bits and bobs in finer resolution? Isn't it easier to see the different ways everything can (and can't) fit together? (Side note: I see the “fitting together” as shapes.)

That's often how it is for those of us on the spectrum. Clear away anything that doesn't have to do with the problem in front of you and you can find a better, more efficient solution, and faster. Neurotypicals take note: if you work at it, you too can achieve these wonders of focus and concentration. (And I'm only partly kidding.)

The honest comment doesn't indicate a lack of respect for any individual but in fact a great deal of respect for the project.

When faced with a brutally honest assessment from an autistic colleague, don't focus on the form. Focus on the content. The content is more than likely an honest (very honest) attempt to add value to the project, or possibly save it from disaster. There's nothing personal about it; the focus is on the project. If you let the style of delivery dominate your thoughts — if you let your ego do the listening, rather than your reason — then you might well miss the best suggestion offered.

Let's put this together. You can see the value in minimizing the input from your ego when you're brainstorming, exchanging ideas. Good. You understand that there's nothing personal about an unadorned criticism from your colleague on the spectrum. Great. So, remind me: how does the stripping away of sociopolitical politeness necessarily hamper team building?

Giving your ego the side-eye
Giving your ego the side-eye

When you look at it from this perspective, it doesn't. The honest comment doesn't indicate a lack of respect for any individual but in fact a great deal of respect for the project. Nevertheless, if your ego tries to get up from its chair in the corner, you might feel a lack of respect. Give your ego the side-eye and move on. If your team is built right, then contributing solid ideas — regardless of politeness — should rank pretty high in what commands respect in the team.

The jaw-droppingly honest comment respects the project. Respect the honest comment. Any program that embraces neurodiversity inclusion — and this is true for any disability inclusion — will truly succeed only with awareness, understanding, and accommodation. Once you're aware of what is and isn't behind that honest comment, then the way the comment is or isn't wrapped becomes irrelevant. And the application runs faster, the project gets finished sooner, and the idea improves.

Neurodiversity inclusion can be a win-win proposition. Don't you want to win?


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8 thoughts on “Autism in the Workplace. Honestly. Really Honestly.

    1. rwatkins

      And such an important conversation it is! Also have a look at the article linked just above this comments section, "How To Create A Successfully Neurodiverse Workplace". And should you need more help working on an inclusion strategy, do get in touch.

      Reply
  1. Beverly

    Have a friend who was promoted and promoted because she was so truthful....she worked for a company owner who wanted truthful perspectives as they were crucial to helping him stay competitive in the market place.....a Nashville, TN graphics design company....

    Reply
  2. Audra G.

    Spot on. My supervisor was considerably late for a meeting. This was a meeting concerning a potentially volatile topic and the clients had very little time in their schedules to meet with us. The supervisor had not communicated that she would be late. Not wanting to leave the client waiting and turn a potentially bad situation even worse, we conducted the meeting without her after waiting an appropriate period of time. It went very well.
    Do you think she appreciated us taking care of this unexpected situation? Do you think she apologized for her lateness and lack of communication?
    Nope. Quite the opposite took place. We were chewed out for taking initiative. 'We should have called her. We should have waited on her.'
    I am goal oriented and my goals are good customer service and putting forward a professional image on behalf of my employer. I did not undertake that action to show disrespect to her position or authority. She is habitually late and did not want to endanger negotiations. It was done to get the job done. I'm with you. Ego be damned.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Mindfulness: A Practical Asset for Working Autistics • autistic.ly

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