Autistic people often find change to be emotionally distressing and confusing due to the way our brains are wired. While neurotypical people can more easily accept and process changes in command, procedures, and policies, your autistic employees may need additional support.
Routine and Mental Mapping
Before we dive into how best to explain and process change for your autistic employees, let me talk a bit about routine and mental mapping. As an autistic person myself, routine is critically important for me to maintain emotional and mental equilibrium. This is due to my brain categorizing instructions and expectations into what I call a ‘mental map’; or a rule book for my brain.
When I’m given new instructions, I don’t take the information in as a whole and see the ‘big picture’ right away. Instead, I absorb it little by little, piece by piece, until my brain eventually builds each of the pieces into a cohesive whole. This is what is known as “bottom-up” thinking. In other words, I take in and process the details to arrive at a conclusion, whereas neurotypical brains utilize “top-down” thinking, which involves relating prior knowledge to current circumstances and proceeding with all the information they need from there.
Since I need to implement details from multiple sources in order to arrive at a conclusion, I cannot effectively do my job until all the pieces are in place. Once they are, however, I can do my job in the exact same way each time without having to use nearly as much mental energy as I would have when I was first learning.
The problem occurs when a change is introduced.
If you were to picture my ‘mental map’ as an actual map with clearly defined roads, bridges, highways, etc., I, as an autistic person, could not simply add a bridge (say, a new instruction) or a road (say, a new way of interacting with a new supervisor) to the existing mental map. If I tried to, the entire map would no longer make sense to me, and I would be lost. I’d have to start from the beginning and redo everything, which requires a change to be introduced and explained to me in a different way.
The Well-Worn Path in the Woods
In case the way my autistic brain works is still a bit confusing to you as a neurotypical person, let’s think of it in terms of hiking in the woods. The first time you hike a new trail, you go slowly, watching out for rocks, roots, and depressions in the ground that may cause you to lose your balance, stumble, and fall. You can’t look up as much to enjoy the nature around you because you’re too intent on making sure you don’t injure yourself.
Over time, however, you develop muscle memory, and you’re able to anticipate and dodge the obstacles that would have tripped you up before, leaving you free to enjoy the beautiful views around you rather than concentrating so completely on where you’re placing your feet.
When your familiar hiking trail changes drastically, however, you have to spend more time and effort to re-learn the new terrain so as not to stumble, therefore, your ability to walk on autopilot while enjoying nature is once again hindered.
That’s what it’s like for me when changes are introduced into my ‘mental map’. It’s like the entire trail has changed, and someone has asked me to walk it blindfolded for good measure.
Explain and Process Change With Your Autistic Employees
Even minor changes in policies and procedures can be distressing and confusing for your autistic employees because now their entire ‘mental map’ needs to change. This is why it’s important to schedule one-on-one time to explain changes and how each change directly affects that employee so they can make a new ‘mental map’.
While minor changes are often sent out via memo or email in a business setting, almost as an afterthought, it’s important to check in with your autistic employees to see if they have any questions or need clarification about an upcoming change.
If there will be a change in supervisor, give your autistic employees as much notice as possible, and, if applicable, a chance to meet the new supervisor in front of the trusted and known former supervisor. This helps the new supervisor better understand your autistic employee’s needs and way of communicating, which can help mitigate dreaded misunderstandings.
If there is a policy change, address this change with your autistic employee directly and be open to questions. You may believe something is ‘obvious’ about the change that your autistic employees may not even consider until you point it out in a direct, specific, and literal way.
Change is difficult for everyone, regardless of neurotype, but it can be especially distressing for your autistic employees because of our brain wiring. Taking the time to explain and transition each of your employees through change, autistic and neurotypical alike, offers stability, improves morale, and provides a clear path forward for everyone.