The Life Autistic: What Your Coworkers on the Spectrum Want You to Know

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If you work with people, some of them are going to be different. You’ll feel it, sense it, but you might not be able to put a finger on it. Autism doesn’t just scream the kind of difference that anyone would pick up, and chances are, we’re trying hard to mask it.

But we’re concerned about reactions like:

I can’t tell if he’s engaged or not; he’s barely looking at me when we talk.

She gets really frustrated during these brainstorm sessions, so I might have to stop inviting her. 

I don’t know why he feels the need to show off his impressive vocabulary.

We’re pleased with her work, but we don’t know how she’d handle stress like this.

Here’s what your coworkers with autism want you to know:

We love structure

Who doesn’t? If you ask me, people aren’t structured enough! Order is our comfort, so we’re going to feel better in work environments that are run clearly, transparently, where there are predictable cadences. If you throw us in a meeting that’s too long, lacks a clear agenda, and doesn’t have specific actions — we’re not going to enjoy that.

We hate surprises

I’ve told people that I wouldn’t attend my own surprise party, and that’s 100% true. Things happen by surprise, sure, but you can help. If you need to “speak with us” out of the blue, it helps to tell us why. (Don’t: “Hey, can I speak to you for a minute?” Do: “Hey, I wanted to offer you some feedback on that presentation. Can we talk for a minute?) If you’re in a spot to offer context and explain a why, please do!

We don’t hate people

Social interactions are a “high-spend activity” for us. I know — I KNOW — it’s hard to tell if we just “want a friend” to come up to us and save us the trouble of making social effort. Personally? I enjoy that, even if I can’t always summon the energy. Sometimes we can! We’re not sitting off to ourselves because we don’t like you — we’re just careful about our social energy, and it’s hard for us to expend that.

We don’t always see our quirks

Until someone told me that I run my hand through my hair a certain way before making a point, I’d have never known I do that. That’s pretty innocuous. But when it’s using oddly elevated vocabulary, not reacting to something that calls for emotion, or being abrupt in conversations — we’re not trying to be jerks; it might just be quirks.

We care about our work and others, in quiet, different ways

On my latest work trip, I realized that I’m going to be more well-respected than well-liked. That’s ok. It’s a downer, but it’s reality for many of us. We might not be the ones you can go drinking or late-night dining out or enjoy a lot of free time with. Work gives us a framework to show our qualities in a different way: by helping others, sharing our expertise, finding ways to solve problems, or even expressing timely gratitude and lightening tension.

 

 

 

The Life Autistic: Working for a Boss on the Spectrum

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Having an autistic co-worker is one thing, and it’s probably a more common experience than you may think.

But what if it’s your boss?

I spent years of my Apple career in management. People management. Actual, living human people.

Not only that, but I went from managing employees directly to managing their managers, with a business unit of over 115 awesome front-line agents and six stellar team managers. I was a bona-fide organizational leader.

I found my footing in the role, and I feel I did well for my people and their people. Before you shake your head and wonder “What the heck was Apple thinking?” — mind you, I wasn’t bad at the gig!

But I was different. 

And if you have one of those “different” bosses like me, here’s a few things I’d like you to know:

1) We care, even if we have trouble showing it

Expression doesn’t always come naturally to us, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I had to make reminders to thank my people and highlight their work – otherwise I’d get lost in observing work and fail to recognize the worker.

2) We’re cyborgs, not robots

Routine and ritual are our R&R – if we’re in management, it’s because we’ve likely made the best use of rigid actions and processes to get things done well. Don’t let that intimidate you – we’re just wired that way.

3) Bring a dictionary and a cushion for conversations

If your boss is anything like me, he or she may have affinity for labyrinthine conversations, extended analogies, prolix prosody, and extended stays in the forges of rhetorical wordsmithing. Apologies in advancewe’re honestly not trying to confuse you!

4) . . . or, get ready for blunt feedback

Mind you, we’re not talking “brutal” or “hurtful” – being direct and to-the-point isn’t because we’re malicious. We just don’t always catch the emotional impact of our words. Sometimes our tone is off, sometimes it’s a statement of fact in our minds and nothing more. I’m still working on handling it gracefully.

5) Find the positives

I wasn’t a perfect manager. Most aren’t.

If your manager is genuinely on the autism spectrum, they’re bringing a different mix of imperfections.

They may bring some commanding strengths, too.

Attention to detail. Intense focus. Unassailable determination. Unflinching support. A cool head. A keen eye on your work and ideas to make it better.

It’s a different experience.

And if it’s your experience – I do hope it’s the good kind of different.