Small talk is practically synonymous with working in an office setting, and many neurotypical people enjoy it. It helps them to relieve stress and break up the day by venting frustrations, talking about current events, and catching up on favorite popular TV shows.
Small talk, for neurotypical people, breeds connection and boosts morale in the workplace.
However, small talk can be frustrating and confusing for your autistic employees and co-workers, and while every autistic person is different, many of us find talking about these ‘odds and ends’ such as the weather, sports, and television challenging to navigate.
For the neurotypical person, these are light, easy topics, but for us autistic folks, talking about them may be uncomfortable because we either don’t understand the purpose of the practice, or it just doesn’t feel authentic.
Touch and Go
When corporations first considered this strategy, many weren’t sure if it would succeed. Would workers have access to the right equipment? Did they have a fast enough internet speed? Could they effectively manage their own time? How much was this all going to cost?
Small talk, in and of itself, can be difficult for your autistic employees to navigate even during break periods, lunch, or at the beginning or end of the day, but when it interrupts our hyperfocus, you’ve got a recipe for frustration and reduced productivity.
Many autistic and ADHD people have what is colloquially known as ‘task inertia’, which means it can be really difficult for us to get started on a project, but once we do get started and go into hyperfocus, it can be equally as difficult for us to stop working on said project.
And being interrupted while in hyperfocus is the worst.
Imagine a person sitting in their cubical, working diligently. Above their head, dozens of threads of every different color swirl into a complex tapestry that connects multitudes of thoughts, ideas, and images that all move and flow together in harmony.
Now, imagine someone coming by with a pair of scissors and cutting all the threads, and all those creative images, thoughts, and ideas go dark like the power going out on a city block.
That’s what being interrupted in hyperfocus feels like for an autistic or ADHD person.
If the interruption comes because there’s a fire in the building, the mental pain that accompanies that sudden disruption will be worth it to get out alive. If the interruption comes in the form of a co-worker wanting to idly discuss their plans for the weekend, however, the mental pain that accompanies that sudden disruption will be in no way worth it.
It can take hours for your autistic or ADHD employee who was in hyperfocus to regain the momentum they had. This is why it’s so important to only interrupt them if the situation is dire, or if the information can’t wait.
Small Talk and Masking
Another important factor to consider when stepping into an autistic person’s workspace while they’re in hyperfocus is that while they’re in hyperfocus, they’re probably not masking. This may mean they have a neutral facial expression that’s often mistaken for anger, or they are unconsciously adopting a body posture that’s comfortable for their physiology but seems ‘closed’ or ‘agitated’ when viewed from a neurotypical perspective.
It may also mean they’re so deep into their hyperfocus that they don’t even notice you standing there until you speak and startle them out of their chair!
I speak from experience when I say that having to go from unmasked hyperfocus to masked ‘professionalism’ in three seconds because someone is suddenly at my desk feels like neurological whiplash, and it’s very jarring to my nervous system.
And even if I do manage to get my face and body into a position that seems more in line with what neurotypical people view as friendly and open, just the fact that I near jumped out of my skin at the sound of your voice is probably going to throw you off as my would-be conversation partner, and it will not only upset me but you, as well, as you try to figure out why I don’t like you (which is probably not the case).
Nothing you have to say about your plans for a weekend road trip is worth causing that much emotional upheaval in two people, right?
How to Be More Inclusive When Sharing Information
If it’s not an urgent matter, you can still include your autistic co-workers in discussions by sending an email or an instant message instead of walking up to their desk or calling them on the phone. This way, the person has the opportunity to figuratively pull back their ‘thought threads’ at their own pace (and of their own volition) instead of having them suddenly snapped by the unexpected arrival of another person.
Many neurotypical people view interruptions in their workday as welcome breaks and a chance to connect. Many autistic people, however, find these interruptions jarring and dysregulating.
This doesn’t mean autistic people are asking to be completely ignored, however. Most of us do want to be treated as part of the team, we just need our neurotypical counterparts to be inclusive in the way they include us.