Do you have verbiage in your job descriptions such as, “Must be a self-starter”? Do you expect all of your employees to ‘just know’ what to do with little to no instruction? If so, you may be unintentionally excluding autistic candidates.
The definition of a self-starter is someone who absorbs information from their environment, their co-workers, and other context clues and then gets to work without needing to be explicitly told what to do.
This expectation can work fine for a select group of neurotypical, top-down thinkers–but when you have that same expectation for everyone (or, even more problematic, when you judge other workers as “lazy” or “unmotivated” if they don’t conform to that narrow standard), you’re doing a disservice to your autistic employees–and your company as a result.
Everyone’s brain, even among neurotypical people, works a bit differently, and everyone’s individual life experience, professional past, education, and socio-economic background will inform how they approach a job.
When you expect individual human beings to conform to a professional standard made up primarily of buzzwords, you miss out on the real, complex, nuanced human being behind the title or name badge that could really be of benefit to your company–even if they approach their job in a way you never would have considered before.
Autistic People Work Best With Explicit Instruction
If you walk into the office one day and see your employee, let’s call him Craig, filing some old paperwork from weeks ago, but his cubemate is struggling with a project due in a few hours, you may be quick to think Craig must be lazy because he didn’t even offer to help. He’s just “coasting by”, right? Really thinks he’s getting away with something, huh?
No, not at all. If Craig is autistic, and neither the struggling cubemate nor you, his supervisor, has told him explicitly that he is expected to help, he probably won’t pick up the non-verbal cues that make those needs so “obvious” to you as a neurotypical person.
Instead of being judged and written off as lazy, Craig needs to be instructed to help with the project and told explicitly what’s expected of him. Just like someone who needs glasses to see or a hearing aid to hear, Craig needs an accommodation, and that accommodation is to always be given clear, explicit instructions.
Let’s say you’re the supervisor of an employee named Wanda. She’s been hired as a hostess, and her job is to greet customers, take phone calls, and make pleasant small talk while clients wait to be seen. While Wanda seems to be doing a good job of this, you notice that, unlike the other hostesses you’ve employed in the past, Wanda doesn’t do any cleaning up during her downtime between customers.
No dusting, no straightening, no putting things away–nothing. In fact, when she’s not communicating directly with a customer, either on the phone or in person, she looks a bit ‘switched off’, her eyes glaze over, her jaw slackens, and her body sits at an unusual angle, but as soon as the next customer comes in, Wanda switches back on again, and she’s perfectly pleasant with customers.
Not only is her lack of initiative annoying to you, but her stance and glazed-over look when she thinks nobody is watching is a bit unnerving. Within a few weeks, Wanda already has a reputation as being ‘strange’, not a ‘good culture fit’, and ‘unmotivated’. She loses her job–the fifth one she’s lost in a year, and she’s no closer to knowing what happened now than she was when it happened the first four times.
The issue here is that Wanda is autistic, and even though the person who trained her performed all of the side duties expected of a hostess in front of her, she never explicitly told Wanda that she was expected to do them, so Wanda, being a literal, bottom-up thinker who needs lots of details and clear, concise instructions, remained unaware of these hidden expectations.
As far as Wanda looking ‘switched off’ between customers, since she’s autistic, regular masking (consciously hiding her autistic traits) and socializing are exhausting to her, so her brain protects itself by taking what I call ‘sensory breaks’.
Between customers, she has no reason to arrange her face in a way that looks pleasant to the neurotypical eye or be conscious of her tone and mannerisms. During these sensory breaks, she can fully be her unmasked self in between visits, which helps her power through the day.
Explicit instructions and being allowed time and space to unmask are accommodations Wanda needs in order to do her job successfully.
You may find yourself wondering, “Why would Wanda take such a front-facing job as a hostess if she’s autistic, and social interaction exhausts her?” A fair enough question on the surface, but that type of thinking can also be problematic because it comes from a place of employment privilege.
Wanda may not realize she’s autistic, and if she does, being a hostess may be the only type of job she can get due to hours, previous job experience, previous job losses, her ability to access an education that understands and accommodates her neurodivergence, the local economy, etc.
Employment privilege is when someone is easily able to get and keep a job in multiple verticals as well as being able to rise through the ranks in that job.
Autistic people are notoriously unemployed and underemployed–which means we often have to take (and keep) whatever type of job is available that will put up with our ‘quirks’.
Accessibility Benefits Everyone
Being explicit and direct in your job descriptions and expectations doesn’t only benefit your autistic employees, it benefits your company as a whole and offers a sense of psychological safety and job security that makes employees feel valued and appreciated as individuals. And when your employees feel valued and appreciated, loyalty, morale, and productivity hit an all-time high–and your output naturally improves as a result.
When you avoid using subtle hints and buzzwords and tell your employees exactly what you need and what is expected of them on the job, there’s no guesswork, there’s no need to spend hours redoing projects, and nobody to blame and ostracize for misunderstandings.
Work just–flows. And what company wouldn’t want to benefit from that?