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Specialisterne USA

Specialisterne USA Inc., a charitable not-for-profit 503(c) American organization, focused on building a bridge between neurodivergent job seekers and employers. We support employers to tap into the talents of a neurodiverse workforce and build inclusive organizations through education, training, and advisory.

Specialisterne Foundation

Specialisterne Foundation is a nonprofit organization that works to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges.


“Did you go over my head to discuss this problem?!”

The first time I’d ever heard of the ‘chain of command’ concept was when I was in my 20s and working for an insurance company. I had an issue, and I didn’t get along well with my direct supervisor (let’s call her Elaine), so I figured, in my literal and logical mind, that the best course of action would be to avoid talking to her and to speak with another supervisor in the department I felt more comfortable with, and that’s exactly what I did.

This supervisor (let’s call her Gertrude) was kind and understanding. She listened to my problem, and, if I remember correctly, she helped me out. Ironically enough, she was the manager most people avoided because they thought she was too abrasive, but I liked her because she was straight and to the point, which meant I never had any trouble understanding what she expected of me.

Within a day or two of that incident, I was called into a surprise meeting with both Elaine and Gertrude. Elaine was furious with me, but Gertrude seemed kind of bemused by the whole thing.

Here’s how that meeting went:

Elaine: “Did you go over my head to discuss this problem?!”

Me: “‘Over your head’?” What does that mean?”

Elaine: “It means you went to my supervisor instead of me.”

Me: “Gertrude is your supervisor?”

Elaine: “That’s the chain of command.”

Me: “What’s a chain of command?”

Elaine: “You know, the way you talk to me puts my back up.”

Me: “What does that mean?”

Elaine: “I mean the way you talk to me sets my teeth on edge.”

Me: “What does that mean?”

At this point, Elaine was too incensed and furious to continue speaking. I was completely lost and had no idea what Elaine’s ‘teeth’ had to do with anything or why I was even in that meeting in the first place.

Thankfully, Gertrude, who had a bit of a knowing smirk on her face the entire time (I now wonder if she had an autistic or neurodivergent person in her life), gently explained everything.

I still had lots of questions about what a chain of command was, why it existed in an office–it sounded more like a military thing to me–, and what should I do if Elaine couldn’t help me next time (or refused to). But patience had worn out for both of them by that point, and I was sent back to my desk, my head still spinning by all the new phrases and concepts I’d learned in a short meeting originally meant to write me up for insubordination.

Autistic People Don’t View Social Hierarchy the Way Neurotypical People Do

The intuitive concept of social hierarchy that neurotypical people seem to learn and fall into as children doesn’t appear to happen the same way for autistic folks. Instead of learning implicitly through our environment and social interactions, many of us seem to need to learn this concept explicitly by being taught.

For many autistic people, everyone is equal until we are told otherwise. And even then, since the concept is so unnatural to us, we may forget and continue to speak to people who are assigned a higher social rank (teachers, grandparents, clergy, etc.) as though they were our social equals.

This often continues into adulthood as we meet more people and become a part of larger and more complex social groups that require at least a basic understanding and adherence to hierarchical rules.

Since the autistic way of thinking and relating to others is naturally more collaborative, literal, and direct, we, as adults in the working world, can often cause offense where none was meant. This can lead to us being spoken to, written up, looked over for promotions, demoted, and fired–all while not fully understanding what happened or how to prevent ourselves from being seen as “rude”, “disrespectful”, and “insubordinate” in the future–either within our current place of employment or the next.

Reframe Your Thinking About Your Autistic Employee’s Intentions

The best way to combat social misunderstandings as a result of neurotype differences is to assume positive intent. If you, as a non-autistic manager, believe your autistic employee is being rude, condescending, or acting or speaking ‘above their station’, understand that this is likely not their intent. They are simply speaking and acting in a way that is natural for their brain type.

In cases like this, providing your employee the benefit of the doubt goes a long way.

If you feel offended by something your autistic employee has said or done, assume positive intent, and get curious. Ask yourself, “What could I be missing here?”. Then, set up a one-on-one meeting with your autistic employee to discuss the misunderstanding. And frame it in your mind as just that, a misunderstanding. Go in with the intent to get clarification, not to reprimand your employee and/or reinforce a hierarchical structure. Remember, your autistic employee may not think or operate with the same concept of social hierarchy that you do.

Be Clear About Your Conduct Expectations for All of Your Employees

In addition to being clear and concise when giving instructions on how to perform job duties, it’s equally important that you clearly state what you’re looking for in terms of social expectations. If your employee is expected to report to one supervisor and one supervisor alone, state this and offer clear instructions on what to do if that supervisor is not available in a time of need. If there are exceptions to any of your office’s primary social rules, explain them. Furthermore, advise your employees of the proper channels they are expected to utilize should they have a concern or complaint–before a problem arises.

The Takeaway

When you have a brain that doesn’t automatically adhere to the unwritten rules of social hierarchy within a team structure, you can often feel stifled, uncertain, and afraid to make the wrong move–all the time, and that’s exhausting. Lift the burden of guesswork and uncertainty for all of your employees by providing clear and explicit instructions about conduct expectations, so your employees can use their energy and unique abilities to propel your business into its next leap forward!