For neurotypical people, bending (and even breaking) workplace rules is not only commonplace–but expected. By and large, neurotypical people are aware of rules they are expected to follow and ones they can get away with breaking (depending on the situation and who they are interacting with).
Furthermore, there are “hard” and “soft” rules and everything in between, and a big part of navigating these rules is understanding and correctly responding to a combination of implied meaning and social hierarchy.
Autistic people have an entirely different way of interpreting and responding to rules, and this disconnect can lead to a lot of discomfort and frustration in the workplace.
For Autistic People, All Rules Carry the Same Weight
- No smoking on company grounds
No smoking on company grounds means no smoking on company grounds. As I illustrate in the story example below, it doesn’t matter if it’s the janitor or the CEO of the company, an autistic employee will take these rules literally and speak up if they are broken by anyone.
- No jeans except on Fridays
No jeans except on Fridays means if your autistic employee notices that one of their co-workers is wearing denim leggings with a dressy top, they may point out the employee is breaking the rules in an attempt to spare them from trouble. Unfortunately, this may look like nit-picking or superiority on the receiving end.
- No discussions of religion, politics, or sex
Your autistic employees would likely take a rule like this very seriously and be confused that many of their co-workers break this rule all the time! To make matters worse, even though this is often a rule clearly stated in employee handbooks, if the autistic employee doesn’t engage in conversations like this, they may be bullied by their neurotypical co-workers.
- No personal calls on company phones
Again, this is a common rule that an autistic employee will likely follow to the letter, so when their co-workers take and make personal calls regularly but don’t get into any trouble for it, it’s baffling! And, if an autistic employee does happen to mention to their boss that their co-worker spends a lot of time on personal calls, the autistic employee is often seen as an untrustworthy “snitch”, and they are disliked by both the employee AND the boss from then on in.
- No personal chatting unless you’re on break
As an autistic person who used to work in an office environment, I can tell you that I have told co-workers who came up to my desk that I couldn’t make small talk because it wasn’t a designated break time. I even want so far as to gently remind them of the rules. Did they appreciate it? Oh, no! They thought I was a snob and avoided me completely. In taking the rules literally, I didn’t see nuance and couldn’t understand how I’d offended co-workers trying to make conversation with me.
For Autistic People, Rules Apply to Everyone Equally
Let’s say, for example, there is a rule that there is no smoking in or around the office building. Even signs posted outside clearly state that it is a no-smoking environment. Now, let’s say your autistic employee is a smoker, but they have been obeying the rule of not smoking in or around the office for the six months they’ve been employed there.
In fact, they’ve made it a point to go off grounds on their breaks to smoke in their car down the street. One day, when they pull back into the parking lot after a smoke break, they spot an employee they’ve never seen before lighting up right outside the back door.
The autistic person, wanting to be helpful and be sure nobody else gets in trouble for breaking a rule they didn’t know about, walks right up to the smoker and says, “You can’t smoke here. You’ll get in trouble.” The employee then points to the no-smoking sign, which they figure the smoker just didn’t see.
The smoker looks the autistic employee up and down for a minute, laughs, and then continues to smoke. This confuses the autistic employee who repeats his warning a bit louder in case the smoker is hard of hearing. The smoker’s eyes narrow and his mouth curls into a sneer.
“Who do you think you are?” The smoker asks.
The autistic employee has no idea where that question came from or what its relevance to the current conversation is, but they answer honestly.
“I’m Tim. I work in accounting.”
The smoker, stamping out his cigarette, sneers again at Tim from accounting and walks inside. Thoroughly puzzled, Tim goes back to his desk to work only to be called into his supervisor’s office a few minutes later and told that he should not have told the owner of the company not to smoke on his own grounds!
Tim explains he had no idea that the man he was speaking to was the owner of the company, but he still didn’t understand why it was OK for him to smoke on the grounds when nobody else could. As he tries to explain that to his supervisor, he is dismissed as being argumentative and told to go back to his desk and mind his own business from now on.
Since many autistic people struggle with understanding neurotypical social hierarchy, these types of scenarios can be not only confusing for the autistic employee but result in them being reprimanded or fired for following the rules!
Autistic People Are Often Justice-Oriented
The fact that some people are expected to follow rules to the letter while others can flout them with no consequences is not only confusing to someone whose brain doesn’t automatically conform to neurotypical social hierarchy norms, but it also feels morally wrong. In other words, many autistic people are highly justice-oriented, and not following a rule can actually make them feel physically uncomfortable and even sick.
Make Rules Accessible to Your Autistic Employees
As a neurotypical person who takes a nuanced approach to communication, you may not realize how many unspoken exceptions your rules have unless you look at them through the eyes of an autistic person who takes them entirely at face value.
If your company rules are expected to be followed by some employees and not others, this fact must be defined and explained to your autistic employees in clear, concise language. Furthermore, if there are some rules that need to be followed by everyone all the time but other rules are more relaxed, explain that in clear, concise language, as well.
Taking the guesswork out of how and when to follow rules makes a more accessible and accountable work environment for all.