Because of the way our brains work, autistic and ADHD people are often mistakenly perceived as being ‘inflexible’ or ‘rigid’ in the way we do our jobs, and this can make our neurotypical counterparts believe we are acting in bad faith. Needing time and warning to transition between tasks is not an attempt on the neurodivergent employee’s part to be difficult or self-centered, it’s simply a reflection of our brains’ unique wiring.
While your neurotypical employees may be able to quickly and effortlessly stop one project and start another as the need arises, your neurodivergent employees may struggle with this. As an autistic person with ADHD, I’ve experienced this firsthand. When I become involved in a project, I’m all in and very deeply focused. My senses will sometimes block out extraneous information to the point where I might not even hear my name being called or realize the office has gone quiet as people leave for the day.
When someone interrupts this exclusive, laser-sharp concentration, it can be very jarring and unsettling for me. Not only am I startled by the sudden interruption as I am so deeply focused, it also takes time for my brain to transition from ‘working’ mode to ‘listening’ mode if I need to focus on new instructions. Furthermore, if my supervisor is stressed and comes to me with that energy while also giving me rapid-fire instructions, I won’t be able to focus at all. I’ll still be trying to catch up to the present moment while they are speaking, and since this takes time, the supervisor, who is already frazzled, will have to explain themselves all over again.
While this may be frustrating for the neurotypical supervisor who is already feeling the pressure, being forced to switch projects with little to no warning can cause emotional and mental dysregulation in the neurodivergent person, and our reactions may come across as insubordination or intentional rudeness as our brains scramble to keep up with the sudden change in expectations. Multiple interactions of this type can result in loss of productivity and loss of trust on both sides, which are not conducive to a safe and comfortable working environment for anyone, regardless of neurotype.
The Benefit of Time and Warning Between Tasks
Autistic and ADHD folks work more effectively when given clear, concise instructions with expectations of how tasks are to be completed laid out plainly. In addition, we also benefit from having time to transition from one task to another. If you work with autistic and/or ADHD employees, build in a brief respite period between tasks and give them time to ‘come back’ from their intense focus before assigning another task.
When priorities shift quickly, and another task must take precedent over the current one, send an email or message and ask the person to get to a good stopping point in their work because they’ll need to start something new–instead of walking up to their desk and plunking down a new file. Again, offer a five or ten-minute break for your employee to regain their bearings. Instead of telling them what the new task is in that same email or message, offer them the option of contacting you after their brief respite period, so you both can be on the same page and ready to work.
Something as simple as “there’s going to be a change in what you’re doing in the next half an hour” can go a long way in helping your neurodivergent employees mentally prepare themselves to move from one task to the next with minimal discomfort.
Comfortable Employees = Happy Customers = More Net Profit
Autistic and ADHD brains work differently than neurotypical brains, and it can cause a ‘signal jam’ of sorts when we try to communicate with one another. Frequent miscommunications waste time, energy, and resources that could be better allocated to your workflow. Being both aware of and accommodating to the neurodivergent brain helps not only the neurodivergent person but every employee on the roster, from the CEO to the intern. And the more you meet the needs of all your employees, the more loyal, trusting, and productive they will be–which means your customers will enjoy an upgraded experience that will keep them coming back for more!