Gary, a neurotypical supervisor, repeatedly checks his watch while power-walking to a morning meeting that’s already 10 minutes behind schedule. The VIP client waiting in the conference room is getting impatient, but the meeting can’t start because Roger, one of Gary’s employees, has the presentation on his computer, and he’s late–again. Just as Gary is about to reschedule the meeting begrudgingly, Roger bursts through the office door.
Gary (annoyed): “Why are you late?”
Roger (breathless and frazzled): “Traffic was backed up for a mile on the highway. I got off at the exit before my usual one to get around it, but I ended up getting stuck on the backroads anyway. I called 4 times, but nobody picked up. I left a voicemail, though. Also, did you know the elevator isn’t working? Yeah. I had to climb four flights of stairs, so that tacked on another 5 minutes. Then, wouldn’t you know it but Marina stopped me in the hall to ask me about the Wilkins project, so that added another 10 minutes. Man, it’s been a rough morning.”
Gary (offended): “I don’t want to hear your excuses.”
Roger (confused): “But–you just asked why I’m late?”
Gary (enraged): “That’s it! I’m writing you up!”
Roger (baffled and nervous): “What???”
Your Autistic Employee Takes Your Questions Literally
As I’ve written in the past, when an autistic person asks a question, they’re asking to receive an answer to that question. The same applies when an autistic person is being asked a question. Our brains will read it as a direct request for an answer, and we will give you an answer.
There’s no intention of being condescending, rude, or making excuses. We are simply giving you what we believe you’ve asked for. So, when you respond as though we’ve insulted you, we may explain even further to try to rectify the misunderstanding, and that can make you feel even more insulted if you’re not aware of how autistic people think and communicate.
If you say, “Why are you late?” to your neurotypical employee, their brains will automatically translate the question into a statement of annoyance based on your tone of voice, facial expression, body language, past interactions with you, and where you are in the social hierarchy. They will know that you expect them to respond with deference and treat the ‘question’ as an admonishment, not a sincere question that requires an explanation, and respond with something like, “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
If you ask, “Why are you late?” your autistic employee, our brains will pick up on the literal words and respond to them with an explanation. We may not be able to read your facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice.
This is why, even if you are power-walking to a meeting with a scowl on your face, when you ask your autistic employee, “Why are you late?” they will stop to provide you with a detailed explanation. You may think you’re clearly indicating you don’t have time for that through your body language and facial expressions, but your autistic employee can’t read that.
Now, let’s circle back to the expected response of, “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” For a neurotypical person, those words mean taking accountability for holding up the meeting, project, other co-workers, etc. It doesn’t literally mean it won’t happen again.
For an autistic person, however, saying, “It won’t happen again” doesn’t make sense because we are literal, and since we can’t literally guarantee we won’t ever be late again, it feels like we’re telling you a blatant lie!
Detailed Explanations Can Be a Way to Show Respect
While your neurotypical employee may show respect by deferring to you as an authority figure, autistic people don’t usually operate in this way. Instead, your autistic employee is more likely to show they respect you by one, not lying to you and saying, “It won’t happen again” when they can’t guarantee it, and two, by explaining their intentions so you know that what they did wasn’t out of disrespect or a power grab.
Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say
If when you say, “Why are you late?”, you actually mean, “You’ve come in late three times this week, and it’s starting to get on my nerves. It’s making me think you don’t actually care about your job or your co-workers”, say that. This gives your employee the literal meaning without any of the guesswork. You may still get an explanation, but it won’t be an excuse–and you both can work on a solution or an accommodation together.
When it comes to your autistic employees, explanations are not excuses. They are a response to a literal interpretation of words combined with a desire to be respectful and considerate.
Unfortunately, answering questions when they are actually meant as statements or admonishments has gotten many confused autistic employees reprimanded, written up, and fired, and that can be devastating.
Keep in mind that autistic folks speak a different social language from you, so assume positive intent, and remember to always say what you mean, and mean what you say.