If you’re working with autistic folks for the first time, they may have traits you’re unfamiliar with, and you may mistake some of those traits for rudeness, insubordination, having an attitude, etc.
Being autistic doesn’t just mean having a brain that works differently; it means having a nervous system and a body that works differently, as well. If you’re unaware of this, you may be tempted to dress down, write up, or even fire your autistic employee for what amounts to how their different brain affects them physically—namely facial expressions (or lack thereof), vocal prosody, and body language.
Not Angry, Unaware
As an autistic person who was not diagnosed until my mid-thirties, I never even had an inkling that my face could have any emotional effect on anyone. I also didn’t know my default facial expression was blank and flat, and I either looked chronically sleepy, chronically grumpy, or both.
Since I had no awareness of my facial expressions, I had a huge hole in my social awareness that caused, at least from my perspective, people to suddenly and randomly become angry, frustrated, or even hurt by me without ever saying a word to them!
This was baffling, and since it made no sense to me, and nobody I’d worked with came right out and said, “I feel like you’re angry with me because the corners of your mouth are turned down, and your eyes are glaring into your computer screen, and you’re banging on your keyboard way harder than you need to type. What’s going on? Did I offend you?”, I remained confused and ignorant of my unintentional negative effect on others.
Let me explain these behaviors from my perspective:
• “The corners of your mouth are turned down.”
The corners of my mouth are always turned down if I’m not actively micromanaging my facial expressions. That’s how they naturally rest, no matter what emotion I’m feeling. This may be due to a combination of hypermobility and low muscle tone, both of which are common in autistic people.
• “Your eyes are glaring into your computer screen.”
My particular brand of concentration looks a bit like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Just pure, unblinking, Kubrickian eyes boring a hole into the screen. This could be due to poor interoception. Interoception is the sense that tells your brain about inner bodily sensations such as the need to eat, drink water, use the bathroom, blink, etc. Poor interoception is also common in autistic folks.
• “You’re banging on your keyboard.”
In addition to being autistic, I’m also dyspraxic. This means my coordination is off, and my ability to discern how hard or how soft I’m manipulating an object can be a challenge. The deeper into concentration I am, the harder I plunk away at my keys. I’ve always had this issue. Case in point, when I was learning to write, I gripped the pencil so hard that my knuckles turned white, and I regularly gave myself hand cramps!
Ask, Don’t Assume, Your Employee’s Intentions
For someone who doesn’t know me, I can fully understand how the traits I mentioned above could be mistaken for a subtle attempt to indicate I have a problem with someone. However, that’s not the kind of person I am. For better or for worse, I am not subtle.
This may also be the case with your autistic employees. Their expression of deep concentration may come across as anger, their neutral commentary may come across as sarcastic, and/or their heavy-handedness may come across as a passive-aggressive attempt to indicate displeasure, or it may even be perceived as a threat.
Before confronting your employee based on your interpretation of their traits, which can be very confusing and distressing because your emotionally-charged reaction appears to come out of nowhere for them, ask first.
Take the time to connect with your autistic employee in a one-on-one meeting where you can directly state your observations and let them know how you are perceiving them. This way, your employee will have a fair chance to explain their perspective and intentions.
“I’ve noticed that when you come into the office, you clock in, grab your coffee, and immediately start working. You don’t greet any of your cube-mates or even me. Is there something on your mind?”
You may find that your autistic employee is surprised by how their desire to avoid confusing and draining social banter and get straight to work is being perceived by others. No offense was meant, and there was nothing on the employee’s mind other than getting to work–what your autistic employee believes is their primary reason for being there.
“I’ve noticed that you pick up and stack the boxes into the truck very quickly and very heavily and with what looks like gritted teeth throughout your shift. You also hardly talk with anyone else. Are you angry about something or with someone?”
You may find your autistic employee is shocked by how their heavy-handedness and quickness with the boxes are not seen as signs of a solid work ethic and an eager desire to complete their assigned tasks, but as anger because of their gritted teeth, heavy-handedness, and lack of chatter with other employees.
Believe Them When They Explain
I want to add this because one of the problems I’ve bumped into in the working world was when I did explain what I was thinking and feeling (which sometimes differed widely from how I was being perceived), my managers still did not believe me.
I was literal, factual, and logical in my explanations, yet, ironically, due to my autistic traits–my intentions were still not believed. In some cases, my earnest assertions only further solidified their incorrect belief that I had some hidden ulterior motive. This isolated me even more and left me vulnerable to bullying, rumors, and mistreatment because now dishonesty and manipulation were tacked onto my list of “charges”.
When your autistic employee explains their intentions, believe them. Remember, they are not neurotypical, and ascribing neurotypical intentions to autistic traits and behaviors (because you’re used to primarily working with and socializing with neurotypical people) can cause harm.
Avoid assuming you know or understand any of your employee’s intentions, whether they are autistic or neurotypical. Instead, open up a dialogue and create a culture of psychological safety for everyone within your organization. The benefits far outweigh the risks.