Working with an autism spectrum coworker is a complex topic. This short article offers some possible approaches to interacting with an autistic coworker. No two people on the autism spectrum are identical. What applies to one may not apply to another. This post is not meant to be comprehensive. Rather, these remarks are offered in the hope that they may generate productive dialogue.
People are work. Their behavior can be strange and even scary. To the autism spectrum (AS) person, this is likely to be especially true, possibly to the point of panic. And they are unlikely to have developed the coping skills you have. This is where your sensitivity as a coworker or supervisor has a chance to shine – sort of.
Connect by finding something in common
You’ve hired a person on the autism spectrum, whether this means autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Good for you. Or you find yourself working alongside one. That’s great. In many ways they are a lot like you. Put another way, your AS coworker may have more in common with your neurotypical self than they do with the next AS person they meet. You two may groove on those superhero movies, for instance. Something to talk about and a pretty comfortable way to connect. And it can be.
You may find, however, that their opinions are surprisingly rigid, or that their focus is strangely narrow, or both. They may insist that the movie under discussion violates comic-book canon and condemn it for that reason. Don’t be surprised if you cannot convince them that the movie still works as a stand-alone entertainment. Don’t sweat it; say you see their point and move on.
Give your autism spectrum coworker the chance to talk
The workplace is busy, often hectic and sometimes overwhelming. You’re trying. Your autism spectrum coworker is trying, too. When an AS person fails to connect, however, they are often baffled and hurt. You may find their response to be out of proportion.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of what looks like an overreaction, you might ask your AS coworker what they found so troubling. (It is recommended to avoid using the word ‘upset’ as it strikes the wrong note.) Giving them a chance to talk about themself may ease their distress. It’s not an accident that the word autism comes from the Greek word for self.
Be advised, though: if they do like talking about themself you may find it necessary to remember an important task you simply cannot put off and excuse yourself.
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Set a clear hierarchy of authority~root~>
Having a clear hierarchy of authority will help streamline your day. It should also be of use to your autism spectrum (AS) subordinate. More, it may be necessary to their ability to function. A workplace full of would-be bosses puts a strain on your AS coworker that a neurotypical person may find hard to believe.
When questioned as to why an autism spectrum coworker is doing something, they need to be able to say, “Jennifer, my boss, assigned me this task.” If the questioning party tells them to stop doing that and do this instead, they must be able to say, “If Jennifer tells me to change what I am doing, I will. I have one boss, and that is Jennifer.”
It is likely that, in your AS subordinate’s mind, the person attempting to redirect them is interfering with them carrying out their duties and thus putting their job at risk. In the course of their difficult life, an autism spectrum person hears with dismaying frequency that something they have said or done is not appropriate. Often, they learn of the tacit social convention in question only after they have violated it. Further, they will have found that pointing out the jerky things others have done, and continue to do, often right in front of the supervisor, never helps. So much for honesty being the best policy, they are likely to think.
The realization that the world of ordinary social interaction is a minefield for your AS coworker can open your eyes extra wide as you watch them struggle where you do not. They may be gratified to learn that you recognize, even a little, how hard it is for them.
Set clear policies for everyone
In the situation above, one of the autism spectrum’s coworkers – not their boss – has taken upon themself the prerogatives of a manager, which is inappropriate. Indeed there should be a clearly-stated policy prohibiting such an action in the company handbook, available to all employees. Your AS coworker finds the world of human interaction to be dangerous and uncertain. A clear policy they can point to in a difficult situation will help ease the strain. Structure and boundaries: good for the AS goose, good for the neurotypical gander.
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Be sensitive to autism spectrum coworker’s social cues~root~>
We hear a great deal about being comfortable in the workplace, and how we must take pains to not make others feel uncomfortable. Your AS coworker likely views all these social exertions with disbelief, since the mere presence of other people is a source of discomfort to them. You may not understand why they get twitchy if you try to engage their attention while they are working, or lining up the condiments in the breakroom. “I want to be left alone,” they may be thinking. “Why do they not get this, with all their talk of being sensitive to the feelings of others? Why is it me who has to pussyfoot around?”
Remember that, just as they do not understand a lot of the social cues you put out, so you fail to comprehend much of what your AS coworker is sending. The communication deficit, and the discomfort it can cause, run both ways.
There are no pat solutions. It is hoped that something the reader finds here may generate an ‘Ah-hah!’ moment, and that such a moment may fuel their own insight.
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