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Specialisterne Foundation is a non-for-profit organization that works to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges.

If you have an autistic employee who trains others, you may have noticed that they give very detailed, step-by-step instructions to anyone they’re teaching. Due to a difference in learning and communication style between autistic and neurotypical (non-autistic) people, your neurotypical employees may find their approach offensive.

It Appears Condescending, But That’s Not the Intention

Many autistic people approach teaching others the way they need to be taught. This means step-by-step, highly-detailed explanations of each facet of new information with nothing left out.

This approach, coupled with the autistic tendency to have a flat vocal tone and facial expression, can be read as intentionally condescending to neurotypical people. In addition, the way your autistic employee teaches can also come across as an attempt to show social superiority.

However, most autistic people do not have the same relationship with societal hierarchies as neurotypical people do. We have a more collaborative, everyone-is-equal mindset that causes us to treat and speak to everyone the same way; whether they’re the office temp or a senior supervisor.

By contrast, most neurotypical brains are wired to automatically follow unspoken social norms, especially on the job, and this causes them to subtly change their speech, behavior, and mannerisms according to where the person they’re speaking to falls on the social hierarchy.

These actions are so implicit, so ingrained in their everyday culture, that when an autistic person comes along and speaks and/or conducts themselves in a way that doesn’t reflect this adherence to social hierarchy, things can quickly get confusing and frustrating on both sides.

How different ways of learning can cause misunderstandings

Let’s say we have two people in an office. One is Lucille, an autistic data entry clerk, the other is Beth, a neurotypical data analyst who has been with the company for close to 10 years. Lucille is showing Beth how to work with new software that’s just been implemented company-wide.

Here’s how their first training session goes:

Lucille: “So, first you’ll log in to the program. Click on the link here, put your cursor in the first box, and type in your company email address like I’m doing here. Then, input the temporary password. Click the ‘enter’ button here, and you should get an email with a link to reset your password to something new. I recommend using a strong password generator, so nobody can hack into your account.”

Beth (impatient): “Right. I know all this. We can skip ahead.”

Lucille (immediately losing her train of thought from the interruption and trying to figure out how to ‘skip ahead’): “Sure. OK. Well, we can go into the software. I’ll show you on my screen. See these buttons and tabs here? These are called–”

Beth (annoyed): “I know what they’re called. I’ve been working in systems like these for almost a decade.”

Lucille (confused at the tone in Beth’s voice): “Oh. OK. Um…what do you need to know, then?”

Beth (offended): “Well, there’s no need to be rude!”

Lucille (lost): “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Did I say something to offend you?”

Beth (really annoyed): “You’re talking to me like I’ve never even seen a computer before, and when I told you I don’t need all those details, you said, ‘OK, what DO you need to know then?’ You don’t have to be sarcastic.”

Lucille (hurt with a lump in her throat and tears in her eyes): “I meant that literally. I don’t know what you need to know. What specifically do you need me to show you?”

Beth (frustrated): “You seem to be getting upset. Let’s pick this up tomorrow, OK?”

In the end, Beth requests that someone else show her the software, and Lucille is written up for ‘rude and unprofessional behavior’. Beth gets the answers she needs from someone else, but Lucille remains confused about the interaction and why she’s been branded as ‘rude and unprofessional’ when Beth was the one snapping at her for what seemed like no reason!

We Teach the Way We Learn

As I mentioned above, autistic people usually teach the way we learn. This means very detailed, step-by-step instructions, often complete with visual diagrams, notes, and follow-ups. We tend to be very thorough in our explanations, even if some of the details are things that most neurotypical people would pick up on without being told.

Since we may not know or pick up on those same details without being explicitly told, and we have no way of knowing what our neurotypical counterpart would automatically know, we offer every single piece of information available. Being asked to summarize can be a near-impossibility because that’s just not how our brains are designed.

Furthermore, many autistic people also think and learn in a linear way. This means we start at the beginning and work, step-by-step, to the end. Being asked to start in the middle can throw us off track to the point where we will get stuck and not be able to go on.

Accommodate Needs on Both Sides

You can accommodate the autistic person’s need for detailed, linear instruction by having them write out the steps first before both parties sit down together. This way, the non-autistic person can sift through the written instructions and let their instructor know exactly where they need to start during a training session.

For example, if your neurotypical employee needs to start on step 5, have the autistic employee work through steps 1 through 4 on their own before the neurotypical employee sits down to join them.

The non-autistic employee won’t be drained by listening to extraneous details they don’t need, and the autistic employee will still be able to follow the steps through so they can stay on track during the lesson.

The Takeaway

An autistic instructor who appears to over-explain during a training session isn’t trying to be condescending, unprofessional, or rude. They’re just teaching the way they learn. To mitigate misunderstandings, be clear and specific about what you already know and what you need to learn before a session begins.

Being aware of these common misunderstandings and learning how to navigate them can go a long way in saving time, energy, and feelings while boosting morale and productivity all around!