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Specialisterne Canada Inc., a charitable not-for-profit Canadian organization, focused on building a bridge between neurodivergent job seekers and employers. We support employers to tap into the talents of a neurodiverse workforce and build inclusive organizations through education, training, and advisory.

Specialisterne Foundation

Specialisterne Foundation is a non-for-profit organization that works to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges.

Have you ever had an autistic employee go from being articulate and verbose in their speech to barely being able to form a sentence in certain situations? This is known as situational mutism, and it’s common in many speaking autistic folks.

Unfortunately, sudden silence, stuttering, and struggling to find words are often viewed as suspicious, as though the person is lying, feeling guilty, or trying to cover something up.

Moreover, not receiving an answer to a question right away can be mistaken for purposeful disrespect or insubordination, which can get the autistic employee in immediate trouble that they cannot verbally defend themselves against, thus escalating an already tense situation.

What Situational Mutism Feels Like

In my experience, situational mutism feels like a sudden disconnect between my brain and my mouth. The words are in my head, and it’s like they’re screaming to get out, but I cannot make the muscles in my throat and mouth push them out verbally, no matter how hard I try.

When this happens, my entire body tenses up, my breathing quickens, and my eyes widen. I may open and close my mouth like a fish out of water, but I still can’t get more than a few wordless sounds out.

Furthermore, demands, prompts, repeated questions, and accusations make my temporary inability to speak 100 times worse. Knowing my situational mutism is being misunderstood and judged on the spot only heightens my anxiety.

Common Triggers of Situational Mutism

1. Unprepared to Speak

Let’s say I’m at the office, and I’ve been working alone for several hours. I’m deep into hyperfocus, and my body and mind have gotten used to the mellow feeling of uninterrupted flow. Suddenly, a co-worker comes over and starts asking me about my weekend.

My autistic brain and nervous system automatically react to this as though a fire alarm has been pulled. I wasn’t prepared to speak, and now I must, and I must do so quickly and with the expected vocal tone and facial expression, or this is going to get awkward fast.

Where neurotypical (non-autistic) folks have brains that automatically adjust to changes in their environment quickly and seamlessly, the autistic brain often does not. We have to process everything manually. The change, the noise, the social demand, the question itself, formulating a response, etc., are all separate tasks that require conscious effort and concentration.

If I’m not prepared to speak, I may ‘lag’ a bit as I process everything, and, if my co-worker is unfamiliar with how my brain works, she may take my silence, stammering, or blank facial expression to have hidden social meanings that aren’t intended.

2. Interrupted During Task

When I’m in a hyper-focused flow state, it’s as though there are tendrils of thought coming out in all directions above my head, and those tendrils are attached to thought bubbles containing (and juggling) all the information I need to continue with my task.

If my supervisor announces an emergency meeting, it’s as though they have come along with scissors and cut those thought tendrils, leaving them to snap painfully back into place like rubber bands.

This can cause me to be unable to speak temporarily as my brain struggles to catch up with the sudden interruption and change. If my supervisor tries to talk to me on the way to the conference room, my face might remain blank, and I might not respond verbally (or even fully process that I’m being spoken to).

To someone unfamiliar with how the autistic brain works, this can also be mistaken for rudeness or insubordination.

3. Confused By Emotional Reactions

Another reason your autistic employees may experience situational mutism is when they are confused by sudden emotional reactions. For example, they have said or done something that their neurotypical co-worker finds offensive, and their co-worker fires back with a hurtful or angry retort.

The autistic employee, having an innocent or neutral intent behind their words or actions, cannot connect their behavior to the response they are receiving, as it seems to be “coming out of nowhere”. The sudden change in mood coupled with scrambling to figure out what went wrong can make speaking difficult.

In addition to being confused, the sudden emotional reaction from their co-worker might trigger a fight-or-flight response in the autistic employee, further hindering their ability to speak.

4. Burnout

The autistic brain produces 42 percent more information at rest than the non-autistic brain, which can lead to quicker and more frequent burnouts in these neurodivergent folks (Perez Velazquez & Galan, 2023). A common sign of approaching burnout for many autistic folks is reduced speech or wavering speaking abilities. In other words, their ability to speak may vary significantly from day to day or even hour to hour.

Accommodating Situational Mutism

The first step to accommodating your autistic employee experiencing situational mutism is to understand that it is not something they’re doing on purpose or something they can control. Reduced ability to speak is something that happens to autistic folks, not something autistic folks choose to do.

The second step is to avoid taking situational mutism personally or placing social motives that aren’t there on someone experiencing it. Again, it’s not a purposeful act, and it has no hidden agenda.

The third step is to prioritize the autistic employee’s sensory needs. For example, allow them to wear headphones, work uninterrupted in an empty room, use sensory aids (fidget spinners, stress balls, etc.), take a longer lunch break, and/or work from home a few days a week.

Moreover, allow them to communicate via email, messenger, or text when they are unable to speak without judgment, questions, or demerits.

Remember, accommodating your autistic employees not only benefits them, it provides a sense of psychological safety, which strengthens your business overall.