Have you ever given your autistic employee a verbal list of instructions, and instead of responding with words or going immediately to do the task, they’ve looked at you with a slightly furrowed brow? I get that look on my face often, and in the past, supervisors have taken my blank stare and furrowed brow as a sign of either insolence or anger. It was neither.
My brain simply wasn’t able to process all of the information it was receiving through my ears. I have delayed auditory processing as well as a faulty working memory. Therefore, if I’m given more than two or three verbal instructions at a time, my brain will have to fight tooth and nail to hang on to them while also trying to process their meaning.
And, if anything interrupts that herculean attempt (such as asking me if I understand, since I’m not answering fast enough), every word will go right out of my head, and the person instructing me will have to start all over again.
Frustrating for me, frustrating for them.
The good news is that there are plenty of ways you can make information more accessible to your autistic employees if they also have delayed auditory processing.
Here’s what I recommend:
- Avoid attaching social meaning to delayed processing time.
A big part of providing an accessible workplace for people of all neurotypes is resisting the urge to attach neurotypical social meaning to autistic traits. As I mentioned above, my blank stare, lack of immediate verbal response, and furrowed brow when exposed to verbal instructions made my supervisors respond to me as though I was being insubordinate or rude.
In reality, I was confused and desperately wanting clarification. But I had learned the hard way that clarifying questions were also viewed as insubordinate and rude in the eyes of former employers. So, when I didn’t understand something, I could almost feel myself shutting down because I didn’t know how to indicate my confusion without offending someone.
It turns out, my confused face was offending people without me ever even opening my mouth!
Employers, please avoid attaching social meaning to delayed processing. Instead of discouraging clarifying questions, encourage them, and answer them thoroughly, because doing so creates an accessible workplace.
- Stick to one request or topic at a time.
If you’re in a hurry, you may be tempted to walk up to your employee’s desk, rattle off a list of things that need doing (so you don’t have to carry the weight of them anymore), and jet off to your next meeting.
However, this can cause confusion. Since your employee will likely avoid asking clarifying questions because of how they’ve been treated for asking them in the past, the work will probably not get done the way you want, or steps will be missed, and it will have to be done over again anyway.
Instead, stick to one request at a time if you’re giving instructions verbally. If you have a list of things that need to get done, send it in an email and allow your employee to set up a meeting with you when you have the time available to clarify your needs and expectations.
- Follow up verbal requests in writing.
For every set of instructions or chunk of information you give your autistic employee, send that same set of instructions or information to them in an email. This way, they can refer to it as they move along through the project without needing to get in touch with you for the next step.
However, always allow for clarifying questions. Remember, many autistic people are bottom-up thinkers, and we need lots of details to form a complete picture in our heads of what is expected of us. Answering those questions without reprisal provides a safer, more accessible working environment.
- Check for understanding.
Once you’ve given your instructions, followed them up with an email, and allowed for clarifying questions, you should check for understanding. This can be as simple as asking your employee to either say or write back to you what you’ve asked them to do in their own words. Therefore, if there are any misunderstandings, they can be caught and clarified before the work begins.
For example, let’s say you’ve given your employee a task with seven steps. You’ve told them those steps verbally, you’ve sent them an email to follow up, and you’ve allowed for clarifying questions (if they have any). At the end of the email, say something like:
“Just to be sure we’re on the same page about the project, will you paraphrase, in your own words, what needs to be done? This way, if anything got lost in translation, we can course-correct before we move forward.” I really appreciate your help in making sure we get this done as effectively as possible the first time around.”
- Avoid interrupting your employees during a task.
Listening to the instructions, processing the information, setting up a plan of action, and attending to the task can take a great deal of energy, and once your autistic employee gets going, they can be incredibly productive and do the job efficiently and accurately.
However, unlike their non-autistic counterparts, many autistic people find it very difficult to regain that momentum once they’ve been interrupted. If your employee is in that flow state of hyperfocus, let them stay there unless it’s urgent.
An employee who needs extra processing time isn’t trying to be difficult, rude, or insubordinate. Their brains work differently from those of your non-autistic employees.
You can provide an accessible and safe working environment by resisting the urge to attach social meaning to delayed processing, focusing on one topic at a time, following up with written information, checking for understanding, and avoiding interrupting your employees unless it’s an emergency.
While it may seem like more work in the beginning, think about how much time, energy, and resources you’ll save when projects come out right the first time!