“Just get it done when you can.” “It would be great if you could do this.” “The project is backed up.”
The above statements are examples of things supervisors may say to their employees every day without thinking much about it. Unfortunately, these statements are often too vague for autistic people, as we rely on the literal interpretation of words to know what’s expected of us.
Notice I called the words in quotes above ‘statements’ and not ‘instructions’. That was purposeful to illustrate how your autistic employees would likely view, receive, and respond to them.
If you’re a neurotypical person, your brain probably automatically translates phrases like the ones in quotes above as indirect instructions, directions, or even commands–especially if they come from your boss.
The autistic brain, however, will often take them at face value, as literal statements–and this can inadvertently set us up for failure in the office (while also hurting your bottom line).
So, how do we mitigate that?
Social Hierarchy, Context Clues, and Literal Interpretation of Words
I’ve written on these points before, but I feel they bear repeating here.
Neurotypical office culture often relies on a system of unspoken social hierarchy, which creates an underlying assumption that words automatically have a different level of importance (also referred to as ‘weight’) based on who is speaking them.
Therefore, words can have different implied meanings based on the perceived seniority of the person relaying them, and while the neurotypical brain perceives and translates this difference automatically, the autistic brain often does not.
That may sound a bit complex, so let’s look at an example:
Gina (Supervisor – Neurotypical), Nick (Customer Service – Neurotypical), Claire (Customer Service – Autistic), Lydia (Customer Service – Neurotypical)
Gina gives the same project to Nick, Claire, and Lydia with three distinct parts expected to be completed separately by each of them.
Gina: “Get this project done when you have some free time.”
Nick and Lydia give each other a knowing glance as Gina stalks back to her office. Her words may have said “free time”, but her body language, tone of voice, and mannerisms suggest she’s really annoyed and wants the project done right now. Plus, she’s the boss, and her words automatically carry more weight.
Furthermore, Gina’s office door wasn’t closed all the way when she was on that recent call with her boss, and both Nick and Lydia could hear how heated the conversation was. These context clues tell the neurotypical employees that they need to get started pronto or else!
Conversely, Claire, our autistic employee, did not hear anything coming from Gina’s office because was in hyperfocus on her current project, which Gina gave her with a priority deadline the day before. When Gina tells them to get the new project done when they have “free time”, Claire takes the words literally, files the specific words “free time” into her mind, and relaxes back into her hyperfocus flow on the current project.
At the end of the day, Nick and Lydia have turned in their portion of the project, but Gina still hasn’t seen anything from Claire. She marches over to Claire’s desk and demands to know where it is. Claire is startled and confused. When she tries to explain that she took Gina’s words literally and hasn’t yet started on the project, she gets written up for “talking back to a superior”.
To be inclusive to all brains in her office, Gina cannot rely on her words to convey one thing and her body language to convey another. She also should not expect her employees to pick up on unspoken context clues as they are not accessible to all brains.
Everyone, regardless of neurotype, can benefit from clear, concise instructions spoken in a direct manner.
“Alright, team. I know you’re still working on the project I gave you yesterday with a priority deadline, but I’m going to need you to shelve it for this one because it came directly from corporate just now. I’m running into a meeting, but I sent step-by-step instructions to your email. If you still have questions, my assistant is fully briefed on the project, and she can help you. Work together on this, and get it done for me by the end of the day.”
Why This Type of Direct Communication Works
Now, let’s break down what Gina said and why it works so much more effectively:
This gets the attention of the whole team. Gina has something to say, and she lets her team know she needs their focus before giving any instructions.
“I know you’re still working on the project I gave you with a priority deadline.”
Gina acknowledges her team’s effort on the current project and confirms that she did, indeed, say it was the priority just yesterday.
“But I’m going to need you to shelve it for this one.”
Gina clearly states that a change in plans is coming.
“It came directly from corporate just now.”
Gina states the urgency of the project because it came from corporate. (I know this appears to contradict the autistic perception of social hierarchy, but the statement is explicit, either way, so it still works).
“I’m running into a meeting, but I sent step-by-step instructions to your email.”
Gina is explicitly stating she will not be available to sit down and go over the project, but there is an email from which they can obtain their instructions.
“If you still have questions, my assistant is fully briefed on the project, and she can help you.”
Gina acknowledges that she’s dumping an unexpected project onto her employees because it was just dumped on her, but she’s offering backup for questions that may come up and is considerate of the stress an unexpected and tight deadline can cause.
“Work together on this, and get it done for me by the end of the day.”
Gina clearly states what she wants done and when she wants it done by. No guesswork involved.
When giving instructions, frame them as instructions, not statements. “This needs to get done” is a statement, whereas, “I need you to get this project done by 5 PM” is an instruction. “The project is falling behind” is a statement, whereas, “I need you to jump on this project with me in an hour and help me catch up” is an instruction.
Be clear and concise, follow up with emails, check in and answer questions, and assume positive intent.
Giving direct instructions upfront means less time cleaning up after communication breakdowns, and more time making your business a success!