The 101 of how not to manage Autistic employees

Leadership, you need to know this. If you don’t believe you have hidden neurodiverse employees on staff, the chances are that you do.

Neurodiversity and tapping into this resource is a hot topic. According to research, neurodiversity in the general population is between 30% to 40%. With the amount of literature online about autism and neurodiversity specifically at work, I cannot believe I have to write this article.

Managing neurodiversity in a workplace is good management. According to Scheiner and Bogden (2017, pp. 28–29), accommodations for autistic people are incredibly cost-effective. The measures for success are based on cultural changes and minor environmental tweaks.

Scheiner and Bogden (2017, pp. 28–29) explain these measures allow an autistic person to function, and benefits the entire team. As a result, managing neurodiverse individuals should be viewed as good people management, rather than a collection of privileges or changes for a few.

All things that autistic employees require:

  • Clear communication, use concrete language because Autistics are literal thinkers.
  • Flexibility for working at our best, as in styles of work.
  • Complete transparency around workplace culture/practices and business processes. Explain the why.
  • Calm and safe working environments — Look at the sensory. Think of it as an allergy to sound, light or touch (depending on the individual).

Don’t make changes without (some) notice.

We need structure; it’s just that simple. Sameness we crave. It’s safe and reduces our anxiety. Continuing to make nitpicking changes, moving the goalposts for a project, or sudden unexpected changes hurts us.

Rapid change causes severe anxiety, and we cannot cope with it.

It’s not that an Autistic person cannot deal with change, but we need more time to process it. Changes include large and small, and giving us notice allows us to prepare for coming. It will enable an autistic individual to manage.

So please, no last-minute changes. We do not cope.

Use plain language.

Autistic individuals don’t get subtly and struggle with the nuance of language. For this reason, communication must be clear and direct. Otherwise, we do not understand and get confused, raising our anxiety and stress levels.

Clear communication is king. An entire workforce benefits from good communication that manages expectations. This is not unique to neurodiverse people but something all in the workplace will thrive with.

Many autistic people do not understand sarcasm or nuance in communication. It’s difficult for us to process.

Using plain language is an accommodation all benefit from, and for Autistic employees, it is the difference between success and failure within the workplace. Consequently, for neurotypicals, it makes their lives easier at work, so it’s a win-win.

Please, for God’s sake, put instructions in writing.

Autistics need the rulebook or instructions for the game we will play. We need precise and accurate instructions. This is the difference between success and failure on a project. For an autistic, this provides context to which we can refer.

Please think of buying Ikea furniture then trying to assemble it without the instructions. Building the kit would be frustrating and take far longer because you need to decode how everything fits together. The same with autistics; give us the instruction book.

Instructions save time, confusion, frustration and hassle.

Don’t give us books on how to “fit in” or help “our autism.”

Giving an autistic individual a self-help book is offensive. I don’t know how much more to write on this, or more to the point, why I have to write this.

Do not ever do this, even if you believe this is goodwill or advice.

There are medical and mental health professionals who may be assisting the individual. And for some reason, you are arrogant enough to believe your nugget is going to address the problem.

Just no.

What you are saying is that you do not believe them. Your influence is disregarding authoritative health and wellness services. Dispensing your style of mental health advice creates barriers for autistic people when needing to disclose. As a result, an autistic individual will not disclose or ask for help from future workplaces or managers.

Non-disclosure reinforces the problem autistic individuals face with employment and gaining support. There is no recognition because their needs are questioned, challenged and trivialised, thus, compounding the challenge. Autistics stop asking and instead mask, creating a more profound issue for identity, confidence and burnout.

Giving fortune cookie advice disadvantages autistics at so many levels, so please stop it.

Social differences.

Autistics have a different culture and language compared to a neurotypical. In the same way, Japanese culture is not the same as Norwegian culture, and the neurodiverse is not the same.

Social differences include how autistic individuals communicate, their mannerisms and expectations. This is even more pronounced with autistic love language, it is opposite to neurotypical.

For instance, eye contact and literal language are two examples of differences. How neurotypicals interpret these are that we are uninterested or bluntly rude. For an autistic, this is our natural culture we are very open and honest to a fault.

Be aware that while we may look like you, the nuance in culture is profoundly different.

Things that appear to be easy might be a huge barrier for us.

Seemly normal social expectations may challenge an autistic person. It is easy to make assumptions about someone who conceals and camouflages the extent of their difficulties. Masking is a defence mechanism for an autistic person to fit. It means that these people still face problems, but they conceal them.

For example, I constantly get grief for not driving. I do not drive because I am doing society a favour. I cannot distinguish depth, and I am incredibly uncoordinated, I am a danger to others behind a wheel.

As a result, driving is both impossible and terrifying for me. It’s not entirely feasible for me to drive because I would place others in harm’s way. Driving may be easy for the general population, for me, I just cannot.

Though, for a neurotypical who finds something like driving simple, for an autistic person, a task may be impossible. So please do not assume because others can do something; therefore, an autistic person can.

Think about the functioning level.

Stop being an ableist.

If an autistic person has trusted you enough to disclose and you respond with any of the following:

  • “You don’t look autistic.”
  • “I would have never have guessed you are autistic.”
  • “You must be very high functioning.”
  • “You are not a label.”
  • “Are you sure?”
  • “You nothing like X autistic person I know.”

Using these statements is ableist. Ableism reduces the focus on required needs and tokenises effort. It also creates barriers for autistics in the workplace to gain support or raise the profile within a business.

For autistic people, this trivialises their inherent needs and casts doubt on their abilities. Consequently, increasing the level of effort in getting some basic needs met or completely excluding us from basic support.

  • Honeybourne, V 2020, The neurodiverse workplace: an employer’s guide to managing and working with neurodivergent employees, clients and customers, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London; Philadelphia.
  • Scheiner, M & Bogden, J 2017, An employer’s guide to managing professionals on the autism spectrum, Kindle Edition, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London ; Philadelphia.
  • Simone, R 2010, Asperger’s on the job: must-have advice for people with Asperger’s or high functioning autism and their employers, educators, and advocates, Kindle Edition, Future Horizons, Arlington, Tex.