Many autistic employees are, unfortunately, reprimanded and fired from jobs due to what the neurotypical brain perceives as “unapproachability”. Even more unfortunate is that most employers will not explain, in detail, exactly what it is about the autistic employee that makes them feel as though they are unapproachable. They’ll just say the word, thinking it conveys all the necessary information the employee needs to do better.
When I was in the corporate world, I was told I was “defensive” all the time. I was even told that as a child, but nobody explained to me, in detail, what that word meant and how it applied to me. (And looking at the dictionary definition didn’t help, either, as the description didn’t seem to fit me.) It’s the same with the word “unapproachable”; it’s vague, and it leaves too much room for misinterpretation.
If you believe your autistic employee is rude, unapproachable, defensive, or any other descriptor that is having a negative impact on your view of them as a person, even if you don’t write them up or fire them, it may still inform how you treat them, and they’ll pick up on the subtle energy shift, even if you never say a word.
Working in this type of environment decreases feelings of psychological safety while increasing feelings of dread and anxiety, and that takes a toll on employee morale and productivity.
So, what’s missing? Why would an employee who didn’t have a secret dislike of everyone around them seem to be putting off that vibe every time they step into the office? As ever, it’s down to a difference in neurology.
Let’s look at a few specific factors that may lead you to believe your employee is unapproachable, even aggressive:
Flat Facial Expression
Many autistic people have flat facial expressions when our faces are at rest. In fact, many of us mask this trait by manually engaging our facial muscles at all times. This isn’t easy or ideal for us, it’s just a matter of avoiding being ‘called out’ for simply existing as our true selves.
I’ve often said that for many autistic people, our faces don’t tell our brains what we’re feeling. That is to say, I could be happy, sad, annoyed, tired, bored, nauseous, etc., and if my face is at rest, I look pretty much the same all the time. (If I had any idea how to play poker, I’d probably be great at it. lol!)
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, it’s vitally important to not judge your autistic employees by their facial expressions but to instead ask what they’re feeling if you’re unsure, and accept their words at face value (no pun intended).
Not only do I have to consciously move my facial muscles into an expression I believe passes for appropriate based on the social situation, I also have to consciously put tone and inflection in my voice when I speak. It’s very tiring, it consumes a lot of my energy, and it’s not sustainable for prolonged periods of time.
If your autistic co-worker speaks in a monotone voice, it doesn’t mean they are bored, rude, disinterested, etc., they just may not have the energy to mask it, or they don’t or can’t mask it. Masking is never the goal, by the way, some autistic people do it by choice or necessity, but if our neurology was better understood, there would be no reason for it, and it would free up a lot more of our energy to be truly productive without worrying about how we may come across to the neurotypical observer.
Not Greeting Co-Workers
When I was in my 20s, I had no idea that greeting people in the office was expected of me upon arrival. No joke. I had no clue. I had people I’d never even had a conversation with actively dislike me to the point where they would bully me and/or try to get me into trouble.
I don’t even remember who finally told me explicitly that others think it’s rude that I just clock in and go to my desk and don’t greet anyone–but if they hadn’t, I probably still wouldn’t know. (I would say “hello” if someone greeted me first, though, but for some reason, it never occurred to me to be the first one to do it.)
If your autistic employee doesn’t greet his office mates when he clocks in, maybe he doesn’t know it’s a common social expectation, or he’s unsure of how to do it effectively. This may seem strange to a neurotypical person who performs these social obligations automatically, but an autistic person may wonder if they are using the ‘right’ tone of voice, the ‘right’ facial expression, the ‘right’ amount of eye contact, etc., so they may avoid the process altogether because it’s just too much stress–especially at the start of the day!
Distress Due to Interruptions
Another reason your autistic employee may seem unapproachable is because we can get very, very distressed when interrupted. The neurotypical brain seems to be brilliant at flitting from task to task seamlessly like a hummingbird collecting nectar, but the autistic brain is often quite the opposite.
Once we are in hyperfocus on a task, it’s like there are tendrils rising from our brains and into the air with thought bubbles attached. When we work at our own pace, we can slowly reel those thought bubbles back in when we’re finished, and then move on to the next task. When we are interrupted, however, it’s like someone has come along with a pair of sharp scissors and hacked into the delicate tendrils holding our thoughts and focus together.
If your autistic employee snaps at you because you stopped by their desk for a “chat” or to ask if they want coffee because someone is going on a run for it, please know that, for them, this interruption feels like the equivalent of being woken up out of a deep and peaceful slumber with an air horn. They’re not short with you because they’re rude, they’re short with you because you’ve not only made them lose their train of thought, you’ve triggered their fight-or-flight response!
Being a literal thinker can also make your autistic employee look unapproachable because they may not laugh at a joke you’ve made. You may think they’re undermining you on purpose when they really just didn’t catch on to your double meaning. Or, they genuinely don’t think the joke is funny, which is valid, and it’s really hard for them to convincingly fake a polite laugh like a neurotypical person could.
For many autistic people, being in a world made up of and for neurotypical people can be incredibly exhausting. A large majority of us use the energy we have to do the jobs that keep us alive so we can pursue our focused interests in our leisure time. For autistic people who are in a job that involves their focused interests, social exhaustion can still be a factor because we are surrounded by people who frequently misunderstand our intentions. Many of us also feel a lot of pressure to mask, as I described above, and that can take a lot of energy, as well. All of this may mean we avoid socializing outside of work. We’re not trying to be rude or unapproachable, we’re just trying to conserve what little energy we have.
If you ask your autistic employee a question, you’re likely going to get a direct, literal answer. We say what we mean, and we mean what we say, but since neurotypical culture revolves around subtle communication, autistic communication can look aggressive by comparison (and even insubordinate when addressing a supervisor). However, this is rarely the intention.
Better Ways to Approach Your Autistic Employees
Unless otherwise specified by the autistic employee (and you should always ask), written communication is ideal for a couple of important reasons. One, it’s not nearly as startling as a phone call or walking directly up to a desk or into an office, and two, written communication allows time for processing the information and formulating a response that can be edited before it’s sent.
Another approach could be to schedule weekly check-in meetings. This way, both you and your employee have a set time to check in and see if everyone is still on the same page and if any clarifications or adjustments need to be made.
As a neurotypical person, there are certain traits that automatically translate as rude or unapproachable to your brain. You can’t help that. It’s just how you’re wired. Before you react to it, however, take a deep breath and remember there is a whole other person involved in the interaction who may think and process the world much differently than you.
Ask questions, get clarification, and always assume positive intent. The neurodivergent mind can be an incredible asset to your company, and the more you learn about it, the less often you’ll be offended and the more you’ll be able to broaden your horizons and take your business to the next level.
I appreciate that you highlight such issues. I would say this article is generally true of how I act as well. I take two issues with this article.
Frist this article feels subtly apologetic, I accept that people must learn things at different times, but I prefer not work with others who see me as another or an outsider, I am unapologetically another variety of human. I ask that people consider saving their deep breaths and learn to accept us as equals in society.
Second the article does little bridge the knowledge gap of why we act this way. I am not asking for much more than a sentence or two about contributing factors. For example, Autism is mostly a set of sensory processing differences that lead to difference preferences and social challenges. For example, I struggle with hearing processing issues that developed into language processing issues, so it takes extra energy for me to say hello first thing in the morning, so I wave instead. If someone lost a leg you would not expect them to walk upstairs. Autists act the way we do since we are working with one or multiple sensory processing issues. It is common in humanity to have such sensory issues, in which they find ways to work around every day. Accept that the other person is trying to do their best with what they have.
Please “Ask questions, get clarification”, it is generally a good rule for interacting with all people.
I appreciate this article but wish it included a note that these factors do not necessarily apply to ALL autistic people. Moreover, these ideas apply to ALL people and we don’t always know who is or is not autistic.
I appreciate this article as well as the comments raised by Michael and CK. I’m learning a lot from all of you. Thank you.