As an autistic person, there are many things that confuse me about neurotypical social norms and expectations. While there are some I’ve come to understand with age and experience, others remain baffling. The one that puzzles me the most is the neurotypical view of and response to questions.
From what I understand of neurotypical social expectations, especially in the workforce, the question “Why?” is viewed as a challenge to authority. For autistic people, however, it is simply a request for more information.
Autistic People Ask Questions Like a Detective Looking for Clues
Regardless of neurotype, when someone is new to a job, they will have a lot of questions. However, autistic people will ask questions more often and, in more depth, than their neurotypical counterparts because multi-part questions serve a very specific purpose for the autistic brain.
Let’s say you’re explaining a new procedure to your autistic hire. Since many autistic people struggle to process verbal instructions, they will likely ask a lot of clarifying questions to aid their understanding. Although it may be irritating to be interrupted, understand that stopping to answer these questions is paramount to your new hire making sense of and being able to carry out the task you set for them.
For example, when I’m given verbal instructions, I assimilate only 25% of what I’ve heard. However, once I ask the first set of clarifying questions and receive clear, concise answers, I understand about 50%. Once I ask another set of clarifying questions, I’ll understand about 75%. I then continue asking clarifying questions until I understand the instructions 100%.
The more clarifying questions autistic people ask, the clearer the picture of what’s expected of us forms in our minds.
Understanding the ‘Why’ Helps Autistic People Understand the ‘How’
In my experience, one of the most disliked questions by neurotypical supervisors is “Why?”, as it is seen as disrespectful. A neurotypical person who is in a position of authority over the autistic employee may be insulted by this question thinking, “Wait. Who are you to question me? I have all the experience. You’re new! You should just listen.”
When an autistic person asks you a question, they are not questioning you as a person or as a professional. They are attempting to gain understanding. For many autistic people, understanding the ‘why’ of certain procedures and rules helps us make logical sense of them and create a mental map of the expectations and duties entrusted to us.
Oftentimes, without the ‘why’, it’s like there’s a large missing chunk of a puzzle, and we can’t see the whole picture, so we end up making mistakes that further frustrate our employers that could have been avoided if our questions had been answered in clear, concise detail.
Furthermore, the stress induced by being accused of being “rude” or “insubordinate” when asking questions diminishes our ability to learn the information you’re trying to present. I know from my own experience that when employers reacted to me in this way, I was too busy trying to puzzle out why they snapped at me to absorb any more information that day, so I missed a lot!
Autistic People Have a Different View of Social Hierarchy Than Neurotypicals
For many autistic people, there is no inherent difference between the CEO of a company and its janitor. This means we treat everyone the same regardless of “social status” because some of us aren’t even aware that there is a chain of command.
This could translate to an autistic employee emailing the Board of Directors with a question they couldn’t get the answer to from their boss. Again, this is not insubordination or an attempt to undermine anyone. If never faced with a situation like this before, they may have no idea that it’s considered inappropriate to “go over their boss’s head” when they need help.
They just want to keep their job.
More Helpful Accommodations to Help Aid Understanding
In addition to allowing your autistic employees to ask as many clarifying questions as they need to perform their job effectively, it’s also a good idea to allow them to take notes in a way that makes sense for them and to use visual aids whenever possible. Furthermore, chunking information (reducing the amount of information given at one time) can help a person who processes information more slowly better understand what’s expected of them and carry out their tasks effectively.
Autistic people are overwhelmingly unemployed and under-employed, and this often has a lot more to do with the differences in neurodivergent versus neurotypical communication than skill or ability. When you make accommodations, you help level the playing field and give autistic people access to job security and career success!