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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.

Let’s say you have a new autistic employee who has been with the company for a few months. They’ve been provided with what they need for maximum accessibility, they’ve learned the ins and outs of day-to-day operations, and they have fallen into an impressive groove in their routine work.

Everything seems to be going well, but you’ve noticed they’re still asking many questions and hesitating to start new projects. Maybe they’re just nervous due to past jobs not working out or getting into trouble for misunderstanding instructions, you think. Perhaps they just need a little encouragement.

So, you encourage them, but they continue to come to you with the same questions! Not only that but even their routine work, which they had been producing at a higher and more efficient rate than their neurotypical counterparts, is now headed into rapid decline.

What is going on?

Autistic People Ask Questions to Get Answers

I talked about this in a past article entitled, Your Autistic Employees Need to Be Allowed to Ask Clarifying Questions.

While neurotypical (non-autistic) people ask questions to get answers, they may also ask them to challenge authority, dodge responsibilities, put someone else on the spot, and indirectly ask for encouragement.

Autistic people ask questions to get answers. That’s it. No hidden agenda. Are there exceptions to this? Certainly. Everybody is different. However, since the primary reason autistic people ask questions is to get answers, it is best to treat each question as a genuine need for information and provide that information.

404 Error – Does Not Compute

When I ask questions, and I’m met with responses such as, “You can do it!” or “I trust you to use your best judgment” or “I’m sure you’ll do fine!” something like a 404 Error code pops up in my brain.

I don’t understand what they’re responding to, but it’s not the question I asked, so I’m just left staring awkwardly, my brain spinning in an endless loop as I try to work out whether to ask the question again and risk annoying them now or try my best to guess what they want, turn in the project done incorrectly, and annoy them later.

Unfortunately, my experience tells me that these are the only two options in this scenario, and if it happens often enough, it’s only a matter of time before I’m fired.

This is unfortunate because it’s not a lack of ability to do the work, it’s a communication barrier that can be remedied through education and awareness.

What Encouragement in Response to a Question Sounds Like to Me

The difference between what I’m asking and the response I get is so stark and jarring to me that it’s like being in another dimension where people speak my language but the context is all wrong.

For example:

Autistic Employee: “I’m not sure how to complete this step of the project, how would you suggest I complete this part?”

Neurotypical Supervisor: “You can do it. I trust you. You’ll be fine.”

This response makes as much sense to my literal brain as:

Autistic Employee: “May I borrow your stapler?”

Neurotypical Supervisor: “The shoes are green.”

Huh??

Autistic People Thrive on Details and Structured Tasks

As an autistic person, I am a bottom-up thinker. This means I need as many details as possible to form a complete picture of what’s expected of me. I also need structure and clearly-defined parameters for a project. Unlike my neurotypical counterparts, who are naturally skilled at decoding ambiguity and subtext, my brain does not do that well.

So, telling me that you trust me and know I can do it, while well-meaning, unintentionally sets us both up for failure. Providing encouragement instead of direct answers to my questions also (indirectly) places expectations on me that my neurology makes me incapable of meeting.

When I turn in the project based on my own (likely incorrect) interpretation of your meaning, you’ll be frustrated and disappointed. I’ll be confused and defeated, and we’ll both be annoyed because we have to start over again.

This approach rarely works out well and often results in unnecessary loss of money, time, and productivity.

Clear Communication Benefits All Employees

The type of communication that seems to work best for me is what I call “front-loaded” communication. It means clear and direct communication with all the details and expectations laid out at the start of a project. Questions are allowed, answers are given, clarity is a liberally-used commodity, and regular follow-up is built into the process.

The Takeaway

There’s nothing wrong with encouraging your employees as it can be a great morale booster and make for a friendlier work environment. But it’s equally important to learn the strengths and communication style of each employee and offer the tools they need for both individual and company-wide success.