As you know, when an autistic person gets on a subject, we get on a subject! When I wrote my first article for Specialisterne on the trauma of suddenly being fired, I wasn’t planning on turning this topic into a series of sorts, but here we are. The good news is, this is my final word on the subject–I think?
My most recent article on this topic showed the blunt reality of how being fired affects autistic people versus how it affects neurotypical people. While the piece got mostly positive feedback, one person thought that I was trying to say that employers should never fire their autistic employees, no matter the circumstance. That wasn’t my intention.
So, in case anyone else was left with that same impression, I wanted to write this addendum to bookend this series that I (unintentionally) created.
Sometimes a Job Really Isn’t a Good Fit
No matter a person’s neurotype, sometimes a job really isn’t a good fit. I know when people are let go, they often hear the dreaded phrase, “It’s just not a good fit”, which can be frustrating because it’s such an open-ended and confusing statement.
However, sometimes that really is the case. A person simply is not compatible with the job, and that’s OK. In that situation, it’s probably in everyone’s best interest if that person finds work better suited to their talents.
Unfortunately, that phrase and other ‘canned’ phrases such as “It’s just not working out” are used to cover up and smooth over the real reasons someone is being let go, and while I understand there are legalities involved, in my opinion, it’s just plain unfair. Especially for autistic people whose brains seek concrete, literal reasons for being let go, so they can improve or compromise where applicable in their next position.
Don’t Fire Someone Just Because You Don’t Like the Cut of Their Jib
I love this phrase; I heard it recently, and it’s been stuck in my brain, so I figured I’d be extra autistic in this article and work it in. “I don’t like the cut of his jib” is a very old-fashioned way of saying you don’t like someone’s general look, appearance, or demeanor–and, sadly, as I’ve stated in previous articles, this is often what it comes down to when autistic people are fired.
It’s not because they can’t do their job, and it’s not because they’re going against company policy (many of us actually will read that employee handbook cover to cover), it’s because of their autistic traits–even if the person doing the firing isn’t consciously aware of it.
So, if you’re planning to let someone go, really think about what your reasons are, deep down. Sit with it. Is it because they spoke to you in a direct manner that you found offensive? Is it because they ask lots of questions? Is it because they avoid social functions? Is it because they appeared to ‘ignore’ your non-verbal social cues?
If so, you’re firing someone because of their natural autistic demeanor.
5 Steps to Take Before You Fire Your Autistic Employee
If the reasons you’re thinking of letting your autistic employee go are more than their natural mannerisms and demeanor, here are some things you should do before you drop the proverbial axe:
1. Directly tell your autistic employee there is a problem.
Autistic people communicate directly, and they need people to be direct in their communication with them. As a neurotypical person, you may be used to using a combination of words with multiple meanings, gestures, tone of voice, and body language to convey your needs and wants, but this way of communicating can sail directly over the head of your autistic employee.
You may think you’re really telling them something, but they aren’t picking up on it at all. When they don’t do what you’ve indirectly “asked” them to do, you believe they are shirking responsibilities when their brains just can’t read that type of neurological language.
If there is a problem, don’t let it fester, address it right away, and be direct with your feedback and expectations. You may be surprised to learn that even though you thought you were giving obvious clues, your autistic employee didn’t know anything was wrong until you said it directly.
As I frequently say, “Your last straw is often our first clue”.
2. Work together to bridge communication gaps.
If you discover that your autistic employee wasn’t even aware that something was amiss, you’ll need to backtrack and rethink your approach because everything you believed about them up until now is probably inaccurate.
Once you realize there’s a gap in communication and nothing is being done out of malice, you can work together to figure out the best way to communicate with one another, so you both get (and stay) on the same page.
3. Make the work environment more accessible.
Accessibility for autistic people isn’t just allowing your employee to wear noise-canceling headphones or work from home 3 times a week; it’s about understanding how autistic people think, communicate, and approach their jobs.
For example, thinking literally could be seen as trying to be sarcastic or start a problem, direct communication can be mistaken for purposeful rudeness, and hyperfocus plus doing more work than their colleagues can look like an attempt to curry favor.
In order to be truly inclusive, it’s vital you understand not only that each of these beliefs is false but what those false beliefs do to an autistic employee’s reputation over time–all without them being aware of it!
4. Shift your focus from social differences to job skills.
Before you fire your autistic employee, ask yourself, is it because they don’t socialize the way you’re used to, or is it because their skills aren’t a match for the job? If it’s the former, try shifting your focus to how well they do their job, and base your decision on that. Autistic people will always socialize differently from neurotypical people, and they should no more be penalized for that than an employee with a different cultural background.
In fact, if you really want to take your diversity and inclusion to the next level, don’t judge any of your employees on their ability to be charming and witty and say what you want to hear.
None of those things are the true measure of a human being anyway (and they can all be faked).
5. Be aware of your own hidden biases.
When you’re part of a majority neurotype, it’s easy to be unaware of your biases until you come across someone whose brain functions differently from yours. The first time you talk to an autistic person, you may think them odd, rude, antisocial, and/or awkward, but that’s because you’re judging their behavior and communication style through a neurotypical lens!
Unlearning hidden biases can be difficult at first, but it’s possible. Immerse yourself in autistic culture for a bit. Read a few books written by autistic authors, follow some autistic creators on social media, and, most importantly, learn about your own autistic employees.
Get to know them as individual human beings. Even amongst autistic people, we’re all different.
Nobody, regardless of neurotype, is a mind reader, and no matter how clear you think you’ve been with your non-verbal communication, your employee may have no idea anything is amiss until they’re being escorted out of the building, box in hand, tears in their eyes. And that’s a terrible feeling.
If your employee really isn’t suited to the job, that’s one thing, but if you’re thinking of letting someone go because they don’t communicate like a neurotypical person, take it as an opportunity to check your emotional response and educate yourself about neurodiversity.
I’ve been down that road several times so I know how anybody else in this predicament feels.