Many of the articles I’ve seen on how to make autistic workers feel more accommodated are aimed at employers and supervisors. While those in management positions need to understand how to accommodate their autistic employees, neurotypical co-workers need to learn how to make us comfortable, as well.
While management provides accommodations, neurotypical co-workers can offer informed awareness and understanding.
Without informed awareness and understanding, an autistic person may feel unsupported in their work environment, even if their immediate supervisor “gets it”. After all, co-workers are who we spend most of our time working the daily grind with, not our managers.
So, here’s how you, a neurotypical person, can make your autistic co-workers feel more comfortable on the job.
Understand Autistic Traits
You may already be aware that many autistic people are uncomfortable with eye contact and have atypical facial expressions, body language, and vocal tone.
While being aware of those traits is a helpful start, a deeper, more informed understanding of autistic traits and their meanings can help you make your autistic co-workers feel safer working with you.
Let’s look at a few autistic traits that get misconstrued when viewed through a neurotypical lens:
Stimming is not a sign of boredom, disrespect, or lack of attention, it’s a way to regulate emotions and reduce sensory overload. It can also be an indication of happiness, excitement, or anxiety–depending on the autistic person.
Stimming can look like hand flapping, finger flicking, tapping a foot or bouncing a leg, squeezing a stress ball, humming, squeaking, and other vocalizations. That’s not an exhaustive list, but it gives you an idea.
One of the easiest ways you can make your autistic co-worker feel more comfortable working with you is to not point out the behavior and/or ask questions about it. Just continue the conversation without focusing on the stimming behavior.
If you’re concerned that the autistic person is getting distressed or overwhelmed, ask in a way that doesn’t directly point out the stim (we may not even be consciously aware we are doing it).
Something like, “Are you feeling anxious?” “Do you need me to slow down?” “Would you like me to email you these instructions instead?”
Being literal is more than just struggling to understand a joke or sarcastic comment. It’s also doing a task the exact way a supervisor assigned it, to the letter, with no variation, not even being aware that flexibility was allowed and even expected. Doing an assignment exactly as instructed is not an autistic person’s way of “kissing up” or trying to “show up” their neurotypical co-workers. This is just how our brains work.
It’s also important to note that your autistic co-workers may reiterate the exact instructions a supervisor gave for a task if it appears to be veering from the original plan, becoming visibly distressed when you attempt to take a different approach.
Understand that this is not an attempt to undermine you. It is just the autistic brain being literal and being anxious about doing the job incorrectly.
Many autistic people learn by asking lots of questions, like an investigator looking for clues. It’s important to take each question as an attempt to gain understanding, not as a way to challenge your ideas. When an autistic person is not allowed to or is afraid to ask questions, this denies accessibility and makes the work environment unsafe.
Enjoying breaks and lunch alone
Your autistic co-workers may prefer to spend their breaks and lunchtime alone to decompress from the job and its social expectations while recharging us for the rest of the shift ahead. Being treated as “anti-social” or “rude” because of this can be very distressing as this is far from our intent.
Saying “no” to office-provided food
You would think having a recognized medical reason for avoiding certain foods (gluten intolerance, in my case) would have been a valid reason to say “no” to cupcakes and other treats brought in by co-workers, but that was not the case when I worked in an office in the late 2000s.
Oftentimes, neurotypical people will become deeply offended when someone refuses their food because it feels like a personal rejection of them. That isn’t the intention on the autistic person’s part. Food allergies and aversions can make indulging in certain foods dangerous and distressing to autistic people.
Don’t take it personally, and don’t punish the autistic person socially for turning down your offer.
Many autistic people can feel physically uncomfortable with gossip and may not engage in it. This can look like a “standoffish” or “above-it-all” characteristic to the unaware neurotypical person, but that’s not the case.
Despite the opposing stereotype, many autistic people are hyper-empathetic and justice-oriented people who not only don’t enjoy getting involved in the rumor mill but feel emotionally dysregulated by the practice.
When autistic traits and behaviors are misconstrued by neurotypical people, it can cause social rifts and a tense work environment. Viewing autistic traits as natural variations in brain function instead of insulting behavior can go a long way in establishing harmony and safety on the job.