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Specialisterne Canada

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.

“If you were confused about what to do, why didn’t you ask me?”

This is the type of question that can make me, as an autistic person, stop breathing. Why? Because the sudden realization of the disconnect between what I thought I understood and what was actually meant makes me feel like I’ve fallen through a frozen lake and sunk to the bottom like a stone.

You may think that sounds a bit dramatic, but let’s look at processing differences from the perspective of an autistic person in this generic office scenario:

Harry – Senior Manager, 54, neurotypical. Rochelle – Intern, 25, autistic.

Harry gives Rochelle instructions for a new, multi-step project. He knows she’s autistic and needs accommodations, so he offers her step-by-step instructions with literal language and visual aids.

After giving her a brief, verbal rundown of his requirements, he follows up with an email containing the same information. Rochelle seems happy and relaxed as she gets started on the project.

A few days later, Harry checks in with Rochelle to see how the project is coming along. The intern beams with pride as she shows him she’s not only completed the project, she’s finished it a full two days before the deadline.

Harry is impressed, but when he looks more closely at his employee’s work back in his office, he notices it’s not done the way he asked. The pages that should have been signed off on by Quality Control are blank, and the final report is hundreds of words longer than is workable for the presentation!

Harry goes back to Rochelle’s desk.

Harry (annoyed): “It’s a good thing you turned this project in early because you’ll have to do it over again.”

Rochelle (shocked): “What do you mean?”

Harry (more annoyed): “I mean this project wasn’t done correctly.”

Rochelle (distressed and pulling up the instructions her boss gave her): “Y…you said to do this, this, this, and this. I checked all of the boxes as I went through each step.”

Harry (frustrated): “Yes, you followed the step-by-step instructions, but you didn’t check in with Quality Control, and they haven’t signed off on anything. Also, your report is two pages too long. I can’t use all of that. It needs to be much more succinct.”

Rochelle (wide-eyed, heart pounding): “I’m so confused.”

Harry (baffled): “If you were confused, why didn’t you tell me?”

Rochelle (starting to shut down): “I…I didn’t know I was confused.”

Harry (frustrated, baffled, and annoyed): “How can you not know when you’re confused?”

At this point, Rochelle is on the verge of tears, and Harry doesn’t know what else to say. He asks Rochelle to fix it, but now she’s afraid to do anything because she followed the instructions exactly the last time, but her work still wasn’t correct.

She tries to ask more questions, but Harry doesn’t seem to have the time or patience to explain anymore, and he doesn’t understand how literal, step-by-step instructions could have been confusing for anyone.

Rochelle Wasn’t Confused, She Processed the Instructions Differently Than Intended

I’ve said, “I didn’t know I was confused,” many times in my life, but the truth is, I wasn’t explaining myself correctly. It wasn’t that I felt confused and didn’t seek out clarification, I didn’t feel any confusion.

When I was doing the task, I felt nothing but confidence and believed with every fiber of my being that I was doing exactly what was asked of me. It was only when I turned in the project that I had an inkling that I didn’t do what was asked of me, but what my brain interpreted as what was being asked of me–which were often two very different things.

In the fictitious example I presented above, Harry accommodated his autistic employee by providing literal, step-by-step instructions, but some assumptions were made that caused a miscommunication that could not have been discovered by either party until a mistake revealed that miscommunication.

For example:

  • Rochelle has been expected to go to Quality Control for signatures on previous projects, but not all of them. During times when she was explicitly told to do this, she did. This time, checking in with them was not included in the instructions, so she didn’t think of it.
  • For Rochelle, writing is her strong suit and how she best expresses herself, so she tends to be prolific. Furthermore, her autistic brain views every aspect of a project as important, so she includes every detail because she doesn’t want to leave anything out. Also, since she wasn’t given a word limit, it did not occur to her that there was one.

The Importance of Checking for Understanding

Providing literal, step-by-step instructions with visual aids can be of immense benefit to your autistic employees. It reduces the mental strain of trying to decipher hidden meanings so they can focus their energy in a much more productive way–on the project itself!

However, even clear, detailed instructions can sometimes be processed differently than how you intended them, so before you leave them to it, check for understanding. Hearing your instructions repeated back may help you discover a gap you weren’t aware of because, in your mind, that particular step “goes without saying”.

Moreover, when you stop to check for understanding, you’ll have the opportunity to insert the instruction or tidbit of information that may have been lost in translation and stop a miscommunication before it becomes a frustrating mistake.

The Takeaway

Your autistic employee may turn in an assignment wrong even after you’ve provided step-by-step instructions, visual aids, etc., and this can be due to processing differences, hidden expectations, and invisible knowledge gaps.

This is why, in addition to making your instructions accessible, it’s important to check to see if those instructions have been accessed the way you intended by checking for understanding.

Someone who processes information differently isn’t “purposefully obtuse” or trying to be difficult. They simply process information differently, and that’s all there is to it.

When you check for understanding, you’ll not only prevent mistakes, you’ll have a unique opportunity to learn more about the autistic brain, which helps build lasting mutual trust.