I’ve existed as an autistic person in a neurotypical world for over four decades, and it took me well into my third to discover that many neurotypical people view genuine, literal requests for information as an attempt to dodge responsibility, show someone up, or make a social or corporate power grab.
As I’ve explained in previous articles, autistic people ask questions to get answers, that’s it. A question coming from an autistic person has one function, one purpose, one meaning, and that is to learn information they are currently unaware of. There is no hidden social or professional agenda. It doesn’t exist.
The same is true for when your autistic employee says, “I don’t know how to do that” when you give them a task or an assignment. It’s a literal statement with a literal meaning, so when a neurotypical employer responds to this one-meaning, information-giving sentence with anger or offense it’s baffling to the autistic brain!
Your Autistic Employee Wants to Know How to Do That
I understand that for neurotypical people, hearing the phrase, “I don’t know how to do that” in response to a request can appear, on the surface, like an attempt to dodge responsibility or make some sort of power grab because that’s what neurotypical people do; it’s how their brains work.
Furthermore, non-verbal communication, body language, context, social hierarchy, and all of that play into communication between two neurotypical people. However, for autistic people, this is usually not the case. We rely heavily on the literal meaning of words to communicate, so if we say we don’t know how to do something, take a breath, take it at face value, and teach us how to do it!
A Note About “The Obvious” for Autistic Employees
Another related issue that comes up in communication between neurotypical employers and their autistic employees is the concept of “the obvious”.
For example, you may ask your employee to do a task with the expectation in the back of your mind that they will know how to do it because they’ve been with the company for X amount of weeks, months, years, etc., and they will have picked up on what to do from being in the environment.
Hearing, “I don’t know how to do that” in response to something that you, as a neurotypical employer, are almost 100 percent certain they would know how to do can also put your back up.
That’s because there’s a hidden bias in your expectations. Because you have a neurotypical brain that automatically picks up information from simply being in your environment, you automatically believe everyone else’s brain functions the same way.
And to be fair, I have plenty of autistic biases myself. For example, as I mentioned earlier, I had no idea for a very long time that questions and statements about not knowing how to do something had any other meaning other than a literal one to neurotypical people. I had a bias that told me that everybody else’s brain worked like mine!
This is why communication is key, and a big part of good communication is letting go of these hidden biases.
What’s obvious to you may not be obvious to someone with a brain that works differently from yours. For many autistic people, the only way we can effectively learn something is to be explicitly taught. Providing accessibility means training your employees the way they learn instead of expecting them to learn the way you teach your neurotypical employees–and then punishing them when they can’t.
The Benefit of the Benefit of the Doubt
What if you don’t know that your employee is autistic? Why if they themselves don’t know? What if they really are a neurotypical employee shirking responsibility?
Here’s where providing neurodivergent accessibility benefits all employees, not just your autistic ones. Let’s say you have an employee who really is asking questions and telling you they don’t know how to do things in an attempt to be lazy, undermine you, or some other insincere reason.
Giving them the benefit of the doubt, answering their questions, and teaching them what to do is still the best approach because it will negate the problem either way. The person who genuinely needs help will be helped, and the employee who is trying to slack off will realize their plan isn’t working.
Whether your employee is sincere or being a jerk, elevating your approach to managing them will help the ones who need it while weeding out the ones who don’t. Your blood pressure goes down, your profits go up, and you become the next best company to provide a safe and accessible workplace for everyone.