Autism in the Workplace. Honestly. Really Honestly.

I think it’s why I lost that job. Because I was honest. It was about a year later that I lost the job, so there’s no direct link, but things changed after that moment. And they didn’t have to.

I was in the office, talking with a superior about the design of a particular application. The solution he was proposing had holes in it; I had found them earlier (which is why I had asked for the meeting). After he went over his approach again, I said:

 “But it won’t work, the security’s rubbish.”

He stopped, tilted his head back. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”

“[ his name ]”, I replied, confused as to why identity is being brought into the technical discussion.

You see, for me, and for many of my fellow autistics, when you’re discussing a particular application design, or project, or idea — the point is the same. It’s the concept being discussed that’s the focus. Anything else is a distraction, unimportant.

The security was rubbish. Saying anything else would have been false (and we autistic people don’t like inaccuracies). Wrapping the statement in some nicety would have been (or so I thought) a waste of time. All that sort of thing does, to my autistic mind, is introduce irrelevant distractions.

For the most part, neurotypicals (those of you who are not autistic, dyslexic, ADHD, etc.) have an easier time incorporating the sociopolitical nuances into their interactions. And because of that — because neurotypicals are in the majority — it is the norm to expect a certain level of sophistication with regard to those sociopolitical nuances.

If you are serious about your diversity and inclusion strategy, if you want to make neurodiversity work where you work, then you have to question that norm. You have to ask yourself what blending in the subtlety of social interaction adds to the immediate task at hand, to solving the problem.

Nothing. The software isn’t going to respond faster because everyone holds hands during Scrum. The project isn’t going to get done faster because Gantt chart was created with deference. The idea isn’t a better idea because it was presented politely.

“But! Aha!”, you say. “What about a smoothly running team? Don’t the social niceties, the soft skills, help to make that happen?” Yes, absolutely. But why limit yourself like that?

If someone gets offended because a criticism is presented in a bare-bones, no-frills manner, what’s really going on? I’ll tell you, and it’s a short answer: Ego. Stop for a minute and think about it. Anything you can dress it up with — respect, seniority, hierarchy — at the end of the day it all boils down to the same thing. Ego.

Let your ego go. (Wow. Did I really just write that? I can’t be the first, but I really should be the last.) No, I mean it. Put your ego aside for a moment. Tell it to sit in the corner and be quiet for a bit. Be patient. Make sure it’s sitting obediently, then think again, carefully, about the application design, the project, or the idea. Does it not seem clearer now? Can you not see all of the bits and bobs in finer resolution? Isn’t it easier to see the different ways everything can (and can’t) fit together? (Side note: I see the “fitting together” as shapes.)

That’s often how it is for those of us on the spectrum. Clear away anything that doesn’t have to do with the problem in front of you and you can find a better, more efficient solution, and faster. Neurotypicals take note: if you work at it, you too can achieve these wonders of focus and concentration. (And I’m only partly kidding.)

When faced with a brutally honest assessment from an autistic colleague, don’t focus on the form. Focus on the content. The content is more than likely an honest (very honest) attempt to add value to the project, or possibly save it from disaster. There’s nothing personal about it; the focus is on the project. If you let the style of delivery dominate your thoughts — if you let your ego do the listening, rather than your reason — then you might well miss the best suggestion offered.

Let’s put this together. You can see the value in minimizing the input from your ego when you’re brainstorming, exchanging ideas. Good. You understand that there’s nothing personal about an unadorned criticism from your colleague on the spectrum. Great. So, remind me: how does the stripping away of sociopolitical politeness necessarily hamper team building?

When you look at it from this perspective, it doesn’t. The honest comment doesn’t indicate a lack of respect for any individual but in fact a great deal of respect for the project. Nevertheless, if your ego tries to get up from its chair in the corner, you might feel a lack of respect. Give your ego the side-eye and move on. If your team is built right, then contributing solid ideas — regardless of politeness — should rank pretty high in what commands respect in the team.

The jaw-droppingly honest comment respects the project. Respect the honest comment. Any program that embraces neurodiversity inclusion — and this is true for any disability inclusion — will truly succeed only with awareness, understanding, and accommodation. Once you’re aware of what is and isn’t behind that honest comment, then the way the comment is or isn’t wrapped becomes irrelevant. And the application runs faster, the project gets finished sooner, and the idea improves.

Neurodiversity inclusion can be a win-win proposition. Don’t you want to win?



About the Author

An autistic self-advocate and Neurodiversity Ambassador, Robert Watkins is reinventing the workplace with and for autistic people. His writings on http://autistic.ly focus on increasing awareness, understanding and accommodations for people on the spectrum so that they can contribute their best and lead fulfilling working lives. Robert, on the board of the Atlanta Autism Consortium, lives in Atlanta with his Aspie wife, two Aspie and two neurotypical teenagers, and their cat.

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