Navigating the work environment or work-related tasks can prove to be a challenge for many autistic people. However, there are some ways that employers and colleagues may be able to help provide a more supportive environment for autistic employees.
Unplanned or Last-Minute Changes
Having to navigate last-minute changes to a project or schedule can add to the stress and anxiety an autistic employee may already be experiencing. Switching tasks in the middle of what we’re doing or being interrupted to do something else can be very difficult for many autistic people. It can cause us to feel overwhelmed, often leaving us to scramble to conserve our energy or spoons.
Many of us rely heavily on our routines and put a lot of time and effort into planning out our days. If we have an idea of what our day or a particular project may look like and then that idea shifts without us being the one to alter it, it can really throw us off.
This may especially be the case if we thought a project was completed, we’ve already moved from one task to another, and we don’t have the time set aside to make any changes or add any details. This can impact every other project or task we may have on our plates. It can force us to move everything on our schedule, including meetings and tasks that we’ve already started working on or have planned to do. It can also lead to us feeling social anxiety, particularly if we rely on scripting for meetings or other tools that enable us to most effectively do our jobs.
Sometimes, changes in the workplace are simply unavoidable, but sometimes these changes may be more in line with personal preferences than things that may actually make for a more effective project. When changes are necessary or when employers or co-workers anticipate that changes may potentially occur, it’s helpful to inform autistic co-workers as quickly as possible and with as much detail as possible. Ask yourself if the changes you’re making are really necessary and if you’ve clearly outlined these changes and why they’re needed. This can help us to avoid feeling too overwhelmed.
Many autistic people have difficulty following and interpreting verbal instructions, particularly when instructions contain multiple steps. We might get distracted while someone else is giving us verbal instructions, we may have difficulties with auditory processing, or we may not fully understand what the other person is asking of us. It’s often helpful for autistic employees to be provided with written instructions. This can provide us with more detail about what exactly we need to do. It also provides us with something to reference later on, should we forget or are unclear about what we should be doing.
Meaning What you Say and Saying What you Mean
Honesty is something that’s of great importance to many autistic people, both in how we communicate with others and how they communicate with us. Because we tend to be open in our communication, and answer questions honestly, we expect the same from other people. We usually accept what people say as truth, especially in the workplace, and we generally don’t mince our words or appreciate ‘word games.’ If a colleague makes a commitment to work on a particular task or tells us they will do something, we will generally believe them. While it’s understandable if someone thinks things may go a certain way and they go another, if they’re intentionally dishonest, it can really mess with our heads and it can take a while to earn our trust back. It’s particularly important if you have an autistic employee or co-worker, that you mean what you say and say what you mean. We value knowing exactly where we stand.
Autistic people experience sensory differences in comparison to our neurotypical peers. We may need certain items such as headphones, fidgets, etc. to be most productive. We may also find it beneficial to have a quiet space in which to retreat, with minimal sounds and lighting. Being open to learning the coping tools others may use is beneficial to everyone in a workplace environment.
Facial Expressions, Tone of Voice, & Emotions
Neurotypicals often assume that people feel a certain way based on their body language or behavior, but autistic people’s facial expressions and body language don’t necessarily match how we may be feeling inside, and they might not even match each other. For example, we might feel content or happy, but our facial expression may look angry or sad. Or we might be gesturing to indicate a particular emotional response, but our facial expression appears to be the opposite of what our body language is indicating. As a result, our feelings or intentions may be misinterpreted.
We may also have difficulties with prosody or regulating our tone of voice. For example, we might speak loudly when we feel excited, but the loudness we’re exhibiting may actually come across as being ‘too intense.’ Or, we may be happy about something, but our tone seems to say we’re unenthused. We might genuinely have no clue whether we’re racing through a conversation, basically yelling at someone in our excitement, or whether our speech is practically inaudible because we’re speaking so softly. This can make it difficult for co-workers to understand our intentions.
Autistic people also often experience difficulties related to alexithymia or difficulties identifying our emotions and relaying what we’re feeling to others. This can pose challenges when we aren’t sure how we feel about workplace issues and we know we want things to be different, but we might not be able to explain why or how.
It’s important for colleagues and employers to recognize that everyone communicates differently, and we aren’t trying to be rude, manipulative, etc.
Figuring Out Who’s Talking
Due to processing issues or prosopagnosia (face blindness), it can be hard to decipher who may be speaking during meetings, particularly in virtual meetings. Video calls can be a lot for autistic people as it is, let alone when we are trying to take notes and we can’t figure out who is speaking, either because we struggle to recall their voice or because we have difficulty recognizing and remembering faces. This doesn’t tend to be as much of an issue if we know the other people in the meeting well or if it’s a smaller group of people, but if there are a lot of people present, it can be a real challenge and can prevent us from being fully present and absorbing the meeting’s agenda. It can be helpful for people to raise their hand or use the ‘raise hand’ function and state their name before they begin speaking, so we can more easily track who is saying what.