Autistic people learn and process information differently than their neurotypical counterparts, and this can cause a disconnect between what a supervisor expects from their autistic employee and what they actually get.
When this happens too often, supervisors become frustrated and either reprimand, demote, or outright fire the autistic person. Meanwhile, the autistic person is blindsided and learns nothing that could help them improve in the future.
The good news is, there’s a pretty easy fix for this; be more specific.
Explicit Instructions Help Autistic People Learn
From what I understand, neurotypical people learn implicitly. This means that when they are given instructions, they can take a few spoken words and extrapolate what’s expected of them from their environment and previous experiences and do the task effectively without needing much additional information.
Social context cues such as facial expressions, body language, and social hierarchy rules are also taken into immediate and subconscious consideration when a neurotypical employee is given an assignment.
Autistic people, on the other hand, learn explicitly. This means that when they are given instructions, they may learn best when the person making the request speaks in direct, step-based language that includes all the finite details with nothing left out or left open to interpretation.
Explicit, step-based instructions also reduce anxiety and uncertainty and ensure that the autistic employee can complete projects from start to finish without being expected to “read the minds” of their supervisor and co-workers.
Since reading “between the lines” is not a strong suit of autistic people, expecting them to be able to do so is as unrealistic as expecting a person with poor eyesight to be able to drive without the aid of corrective lenses.
Just like glasses for a short-sighted person, explicit instructions are an essential accommodation for an autistic person.
Vague vs Explicit, Step-Based Instructions
Let’s look at an example of vague vs explicit, step-based instructions:
“Go make copies of this document.”
As an autistic person, I immediately have questions. Do you want me to stop what I’m doing now and go make the copies? Do you want them single-sided or double-sided? Stapled? Color or black and white? Also, where is the copy machine? I’ve never seen one in this building, not even in the mailroom, and I’ve worked here for three months.
Unfortunately, when I’ve asked questions like this, my previous supervisors have taken it to mean that I don’t want to do the task. Not true. I would have had no problem doing the task, I just needed more information than I was offered.
Instead of, “Go make copies of this document”, consider all the variables I mentioned above and be explicit. “I need you to make two identical copies of this document exactly the way it is now. Double-sided, on blue paper, stapled. Please have this done by 3 PM because I need them for a meeting at 4 PM. The copy machine is on the first floor in the mailroom. It’s around the corner on the right from the row of mail slots just out of sight by the green trash can.”
If you believe being this explicit will take too much time and effort, consider that it will take just as much time and effort if your employee has to redo the task several times.
Being explicit upfront can save a lot of time, energy, and emotional labor while helping your autistic employee feel more comfortable and secure in their position and the expectations therein.
For Those Worried About Being “Condescending”
Since neurotypical people communicate primarily through implied meaning, facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, etc., being this detailed with a request can make a neurotypical supervisor feel as though they’re being condescending. Since they don’t want to offend their autistic employee by treating them as though they are “dumb”, they may leave out critical details in hopes that the person will figure it out on their own.
The truth is, what may seem rude or condescending to a neurotypical person is often essential to autistic understanding, which is why it’s important to accept that different brains need a different approach.
Keep in mind, however, that these suggestions are a starting point based on one autistic person’s own lived experience. It’s important to have this information handy, but nothing will take the place of directly asking your autistic employee how they learn best and how you can personalize accommodations around their needs and learning style.
If being very detailed and specific still feels too uncomfortable for you, make the request how you ordinarily would for your neurotypical employees and allow your autistic employees to ask clarifying questions without fear of reprisal. The questions they ask can act as a guide as they will be a strong indicator of the amount of detailed information you’ll need to provide with tasks going forward.
Making these accommodations may seem strange at first, but speaking in a language your autistic employees may better understand will provide them with job security while giving you both peace of mind.