When we talk about neurodiversity inclusion, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not only about ‘allowing’ autistic people into your workspace, it’s about making them feel included as individuals and valued as team members.
Being aware that autistic people think and communicate differently and accommodating those differences are helpful first steps, but to build genuine rapport, where neurotypical and autistic employees have a good understanding of each other’s feelings, ideas, and communication style, actions are important, and consistency is key.
In this article, I’ll give a brief rundown of the most common ways you can build rapport with your autistic employees. Each suggestion is based on a longer article I’ve written on the subject that you can check out when you have the time.
- Be direct in your communication.
When you want something done, tell your autistic employee in clear, concise, and direct language. No hints, no non-verbal cues, no sarcasm, no double-speak. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
Ineffective: “It would be great if someone could get that report on my desk sometime today.”
Effective: “Henry, I need you to get that finance report finished and on my desk by 5 PM today.”
- Avoid making assumptions about feelings and intentions.
Autistic employees often have what is referred to as a ‘flat affect’, where our facial expression seems blank, and our voice sounds monotone. This can cause our neurotypical counterparts to ascribe emotions to us that we aren’t feeling based on their own internal biases. Instead of reacting to what you believe your autistic employee feels or intends, ask them directly.
Ineffective: “Wow, Melanie! I just told you my father is in the hospital, and I can tell you don’t care with that blank face! Am I boring you or something?”
Effective: “Melanie, I can’t read your facial expression. Can you tell me how you’re feeling?”
- Give explicit and detailed instructions.
Many autistic people are bottom-up thinkers. This means we need as many details as possible to form a complete picture in our minds. Without all the details, the picture remains incomplete, and we’re unsure where to start. Give detailed, step-by-step instructions, and don’t leave any information out, even if you think it’s minor.
- Allow and answer questions.
When there aren’t enough details, and we can’t form a complete picture or idea of what’s expected of us in our minds, we are often unable to get started on a project. This is where questions come in and why they’re so important. From the neurotypical perspective, questions may appear as a challenge to authority, but from the autistic perspective, each answer fills in a different gap in our understanding until the entire picture ‘clicks’ together, and we’re then able to do the task!
- Take words at face value.
Taking words at face value is another important step in building rapport with your autistic employees. While the neurotypical brain relies heavily on subtle, non-verbal communication, the autistic brain relies heavily on the literal meaning of spoken or written words. If your autistic employee has a facial expression that appears to say one thing but their words say the opposite, your safest bet is to believe their words.
- Reduce social expectations.
The autistic brain creates 42 percent more information at rest, so our brains are constantly thrumming with activity, and while that’s great for creativity and innovation, it can be exhausting and leave little energy left over for socializing.
Therefore, another empathetic way to build rapport with your autistic employees is to reduce social expectations and eliminate the professional consequences that often accompany a lack of attendance at these social events.
- Understand the autistic spiky profile.
Many autistic folks have what is known as a ‘spiky profile’, meaning our abilities range from exceptionally good at some things to outrageously bad at others.
For those unfamiliar, it can cause a marked disconnect between professional expectations and the reality of what the autistic employee is capable of doing. It can even lead employers to (incorrectly) assume that their autistic employees are faking their inability to do something deemed ‘easy’ in an attempt to dodge responsibility.
When your autistic employee says they don’t know how to do something, believe them, be patient with them, and provide clear and detailed instructions on how to do the task.
- Be aware of fluctuating energy levels.
Remember that 42 percent more information thing that our brains do at rest? This, coupled with sensory processing differences and a more substantial likelihood of physical health problems such as migraines and digestive disturbances, can cause fluctuating energy levels.
Oftentimes, we have our own built-in coping mechanisms for this, such as stimming, taking frequent breaks, working from home, and structuring our day and tasks around our most productive hours.
While this way of doing things may not fit into your usual idea of a corporate schedule, allowing us to find and follow our neurodivergent flow state is not only a great way to build rapport, it virtually ensures you’ll get the best of what our unique brains have to offer!
- Remember the intention behind strict rule adherence.
Many autistic people tend to be strict rule-followers who are also highly justice-oriented. We’re also quite literal thinkers who may (if given the opportunity) read our employee handbook from cover to cover and follow it to the letter.
For those of us just starting out in a neurotypical-dominated corporate world, the fact that rule-bending is not only common but expected is as unsettling as it is confusing to us.
Strict rule adherence isn’t an attempt to “kiss up” to the boss or “show up” other employees, it’s just the way our minds work, and being punished or passed over for that is just, well—unjust, don’t you think?
- Refrain from unnecessary interruptions.
While neurotypical employees often relish the idea of being interrupted for a quick chat during a monotonous task, autistic employees may have the exact opposite feeling about it.
Getting into a flow state can be difficult for autistic employees, so when we finally do achieve it and go into hyperfocus on a task, we need to keep that momentum going or risk losing our train of thought and ability to continue said task.
If there’s a fire in the building, by all means, interrupt us, but if it’s just to tell us about your family’s annual ski trip, skip it–that’s no reason to cause a derailment.
- Evaluate employees based on professional ability and skill, not personal likability.
Neurotypical and autistic people think, socialize, and communicate differently, so it’s unfair to evaluate your autistic employees on their personal likability because what’s viewed as ‘likable’ is different for each neurotype. Instead, base your performance reviews on your employee’s professional ability and skill.
- Resist encouraging your employee to ‘fit in’.
And finally, build rapport with your autistic employees by celebrating their authentic attributes, not encouraging them to ‘fit in’ with their neurotypical counterparts.
Create a sense of belonging by encouraging each employee, regardless of neurotype, to bring their unique perspective and experience to the job instead of expecting all of your employees to behave like cookie-cutter facsimiles of one another.
Building rapport with your autistic employees makes them feel safe, valued, and secure in their job, and when people feel that way, their work reflects it, and your business reaps the rewards!