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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.

One of the defining characteristics of being autistic is taking things literally, and it often causes misunderstandings and social rifts in our personal and professional lives. However, it’s important to note that when an autistic person takes your words at face value, it is not a purposeful attempt to be a “smart aleck”, as it is sometimes perceived; it’s just another example of how the autistic brain takes in and processes information differently than our non-autistic counterparts.

The good news is, there are some things you can do as a supervisor to help your autistic employees understand your meaning while also improving the experience of everyone in your employ, regardless of their neurotype!

Unspoken Expectations Can Lead to Difficult Misunderstandings

Let’s say you’re a supervisor, and you’ve been called away on an emergency an hour before an important meeting you were planning to head. On your way out the door, you instruct your administrative assistant, Carol, to call and cancel the meeting without giving any further explanation or instruction.

If Carol is autistic, here is how this might play out:

Carol senses your anxiety and feelings of urgency as she sees you rush out to your car, quickly blurting out instructions over your shoulder. Her brain will switch to task mode to do what you’ve asked. She will call each person who was supposed to attend the meeting and tell them the meeting has been canceled, and the sense of urgency will stay with her until the last phone call has been made and the task completed as asked. Once this is accomplished, it is filed as “done” in her mind, and she will go back to working on the project she was engaged in before you asked her to cancel the meeting.

A few minutes later, you get several calls from the meeting attendees complaining about the sudden meeting change and asking several questions that you believe Carol should have answered.

From your past experience with other administrative assistants, you believed Carol would automatically know that she was expected to explain the reasoning behind the canceled meeting and then reschedule it while also apologizing for the inconvenience and soothing any possible hurt feelings.

But this was not explicitly instructed.

Therefore, if you, as the supervisor, now call Carol in a state of agitation and reprimand her for not doing these unspoken things, she will be taken aback, confused, and hurt, and she will lose trust in you and confidence in herself because even though she did exactly as instructed, she still, somehow, didn’t do it right according to your expectations.

The Importance of Clearly-Defined Protocol for Every Employee

From reading the example above, you may think autistic employees are the only ones who take instructions literally and don’t see unspoken inference. Not necessarily! It’s important for supervisors to remember that their employees not only have different neurotypes, but they also come from different cultural, industry, and generational backgrounds that all influence the way they communicate and relate to others.

Assuming everyone communicates the same way can cause a lot of unnecessary frustration for everyone, not to mention lost business and productivity. This is why I highly recommend developing a clearly-defined protocol for every employee across the board. If you, as a supervisor, have a specific idea of how you want your department to run, a clearly defined set of instructions that are both written out and visual can go a long way in preventing misunderstandings.

While no business can prepare for every contingency ahead of time, it can be helpful to look at miscommunications that have happened in the past and use them to build a framework for better understanding and improved inter-office communication.

Assume Positive Intent to Build Trust and a Supportive Environment

As I’ve mentioned in past articles, autistic people are often greatly underemployed and unemployed, and this is often due not to lack of skill but our communication differences being misinterpreted as lack of respect, sarcasm, laziness, or rudeness. Since many autistic people have also experienced trauma due to sudden and unexpected job losses in the past, when a new supervisor also misunderstands their intent and reprimands them, it can bring back those unpleasant feelings and experiences, and trust can be quickly lost.

As a supervisor, assuming positive intent instead of sarcasm when your employee takes your instructions literally can go a long way in making them feel safe and supported while also improving the overall morale of your company.

The Takeaway

Clear, concise instructions and expectations across the board don’t just help autistic people; they help reduce confusion and frustration while improving productivity and morale for everyone, and that’s a win-win!