“We just don’t think you’re a good fit for this organization.”
This sentence followed by being suddenly fired has been plaguing autistic people for decades, and it’s not only disheartening, it’s misleading–at least to the autistic brain. Autistic people are literal in the way we process information, so, upon hearing this, we may automatically think it means we don’t fit the position requirements, which is why we’re being let go.
However, this is often not the case. When a non-autistic supervisor says this to their autistic employee, they often mean that their employee is not seen as a good fit socially with their neurotypical counterparts. Since neurotypical people are not wired to be this direct (and they can also get in legal trouble if they are), autistic people don’t pick up on the inference that, although they’re doing fine in their actual job, they are not ‘fitting in’ because they are not acting like their neurotypical coworkers.
Autistic People Don’t Act Like Neurotypical People–And That’s OK
The concept of ‘fitting in’ is based on conformity. When one is expected to ‘fit in’ with a group, they are expected to dress, act, behave, and express themselves the way the group does. Since these professional social expectations are inferred, and everyone is expected to be aware of them, deviance from this conformity is viewed as a purposeful act of insubordination.
Because of this, an autistic employee, simply existing as an autistic employee, may be labeled as a “troublemaker”, “difficult”, “anti-social”, “rude”, “abrupt”, etc. by their coworkers and supervisors. The autistic employee may notice that they are being treated differently, but they can’t figure out why.
Autistic people don’t act like neurotypical people because we are not neurotypical people. Our brains are wired differently. We think, feel, and experience the world differently than our non-autistic counterparts, and what our neurotypical coworkers perceive as “rude” or otherwise offensive is just us being ourselves.
Here are some examples of autistic workers being themselves that are often misinterpreted:
Autistic people are usually direct in the way we speak. There’s not a lot of small talk or preamble. We just say what we mean and mean what we say, and efficient information exchange is often the goal of our conversations, especially in the workplace.
When an autistic person asks a question, it’s because they need more information to be able to do their job effectively. That’s it. They are not questioning your authority, your intelligence, or your reasoning. They just need more information.
Incongruent facial expressions
Autistic people often appear to have a ‘blank’ facial expression or a facial expression that is incongruent with their emotions or the current situation. When someone reacts suddenly to our facial expressions, it’s confusing because we don’t know what they are reacting to, and this causes distress.
Incongruent vocal tone
Talking in a ‘monotone’, speaking too loudly, or having an atypical speech pattern are often misinterpreted as purposefully offensive, and, just like our facial expressions, when someone has a sudden and negative reaction to them, it’s confusing and distressing because we don’t know what they are reacting to. This is why it’s very important for neurotypical people to listen to our words and not the way we say those words.
Taking things literally
Autistic people interpret things literally, so we may miss slang, inference, sarcasm, etc., and perform a task exactly as instructed, which can look like sarcasm, insubordination, or even like we are messing with someone’s head. This is hardly ever what’s really happening. Just as we speak plainly and directly, we also need others to speak plainly and directly to us. This significantly reduces miscommunication and lost productivity.
Masking Is Harmful and Significantly Reduces Productivity
When an autistic person tries to ‘fit in’ with their coworkers, we have to do something called “masking”, which is a highly-exhausting process of suppressing our natural autistic traits while simultaneously trying to copy the behavior, tone of voice, inflection, mannerisms, and conversation topics of the people around us.
While this may make interacting with us a bit more comfortable for our neurotypical coworkers for a short period of time, it is incredibly taxing on our mental health, and the mask always breaks down because it’s not who we really are.
In addition, masking takes all the energy we have, which significantly slows our productivity. When we have to concentrate every bit of effort on appearing to be like everyone else, we have barely anything left over to do the job we were hired for.
Belonging Fosters an Environment of Inclusion
When a company focuses on belonging instead of fitting in, everyone benefits, not just autistic or otherwise neurodivergent people. Even neurotypical people come from different cultures, creeds, and socioeconomic backgrounds, which will inform how they interact with those around them.
If the focus remains on the behavior of the person and how well they are emulating those around them instead of how they are doing their job, critical elements such as trust, productivity, and longevity with the company will be affected.
No matter where a person comes from in their lives, if they are in a work environment that consistently makes them feel pressured to conform, they won’t stay with that company unless they have no other financial option–and, in that case, they will never have the opportunity to rise to their full potential.
When an employee is comfortable, included, and free to be themselves, their productivity and your employee retention will greatly improve. Don’t shy away from diversity, champion it, and watch your metrics soar!