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April is autism awareness month. As I've seen no official posts on it since I've been here, I've decided to take the initiative.

Autism (and Asperger's syndrome, which is a form of autism) presents difficulties both from the person with the condition, and the people around them. Even though people are becoming more aware of autism, it is still often misunderstood, especially higher functioning autism.

In the workplace, autism can be a mixed bag. Autistics tend to be very focused, averse to lying, and very detail oriented. Obviously, this part is a manager's/coworker's dream.

Then, there's the downsides.

  • Resistance to change
  • Rigidity of thought
  • Literalism
  • Inappropriate emotional responses
  • Social awkwardness
  • inability to easily grasp personal boundaries
  • Difficulty dealing with stimulus
  • sensory overload
  • Meltdowns

When someone who is autistic is functioning well, it's difficult to recognize that they even have it, until something triggers a reaction, such as a sudden shift in specs, a new coworker, someone walking in with a new perfume, a flickering light, et cetera.

When someone who is autistic doesn't understand something, they may get upset, and pester you about a question they have until they have an answer. They may come across as abrasive, rude, egotistical, arrogant and unyielding. This is usually unintentional.

This can be extremely jarring when someone is normally amiable, friendly, et cetera.

While everyone engages in some form of social scripting behavior, autistic people tend to be rigid with their scripts and find it difficult to go "off script". In the workplace, this can manifest in dragging conversations back to previous topics, hijacking conversations, and rigid adherence to subject matter.

It can also manifest in emotional outbursts over what (to the non autistic) seems to be minor issues, a dogged examination of details to an excessive minutia, or a seeming inability to abandon a topic.

Because of this, autistics face additional difficulties in the workplace.

  • We get called creepy due to our inability to judge personal boundaries, or our tendencies to stare (much like cats, it's not actually staring, we're lost in thought)
  • We're easily duped as we tend to take people at face value.
  • We often mistake politeness for friendliness, and therefore tend to think that people who are nice to us are our friends.
  • We tend to do poorly in rapidly changing environments
  • We tend to get bogged down in the details.

So, what to do with an autistic coworker?

  • Be direct. Many people with autism tend to be confused by niceties. Being direct with them is the most 'polite' thing you can do, even if it would be considered rude towards others.
  • Quantify things. "I want this done by Friday at 3pm" is not demanding to an autistic person, you are merely being precise, which we appreciate.
  • Avoid imprecise language like "Can you do this for me when you have some free time?" can confuse a person with autism. see previous bullet point
  • Don't touch them, especially from behind. Many people with autism have a hypersensitivity to stimuli, especially touch. In my case, I have to fight the urge to scream every time someone touches me unexpectedly, and I am high functioning, someone with more severe autism may not be able to suppress that urge.
  • Point out inappropriate behavior directly, and in private. A diagnosis is not an excuse for bad behavior, and while many people with autism may not realize what they are doing, the behavior still needs to be addressed. Be direct, specific, and firm. Again, don't try to be nice, it will just confuse the person.
  • If a person seems to be belligerent about something, be firm and say things like "The matter is settled" or "We will need to discuss this later".
  • Work to engage them. Sadly, autism, can create a feedback loop. An autistic person can easily become disengaged, which is often interpreted as disinterest, so people around the autistic person pull back, which makes him even more disengaged, until he ends up withdrawing entirely.
  • If you see an autistic person starting have a meltdown, they may no longer be able to make decisions on basic things, and their judgment may be impaired. A bit. Ask them if they need to take a break or a walk.

Lastly, autistics make easy targets and are easily taken advantage of. If you have an autistic coworker, try to be patient and understanding.

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    "When someone who is autistic is functioning well, it's difficult to recognize that they even have it" - careful there. The idea that "success" for an autistic person equates to ability to pass as neurotypical is dangerous. An autistic person who's putting a lot of effort into passing may be severely stressed by that effort, and somebody who prioritises self-care ahead of looking "normal" may be much healthier for it. Unfortunately "functioning" labels seem to be based more on how useful an autistic person is to others than on that person's well-being. – Geoffrey Brent Apr 2 at 21:29
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    @GeoffreyBrent er, no. "functioning" is just that. How well you function. I have a friend who is very high functioning, who needs virtually no, assistance, to someone like me, who is high functioning, but needs some assistance in day to day functioning, to someone like another friend of mine who needed everything outside of his work life managed.. It's not about "passing" as an NT, and quite frankly, suggesting that it is is rather insulting. By "not knowing they have it", I mean asymptomatic, which I can attest to, is a far more pleasant state than having a meltddown. – Richard U Apr 2 at 23:27
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    @Richard_U As an example: stimming behaviours are a common and healthy outlet for autistic people, and also one of the most visible signs of autism. An autistic person who suppresses stimming makes themselves less recognisable, at the cost of increased stress - which can then lead to a meltdown or other problems down the road. IME labels like "high functioning"/"low functioning" are almost invariably assigned based on how well an autistic person masks their autism, rather than on wellbeing. – Geoffrey Brent Apr 3 at 1:33
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    see e.g. “Putting on My Best Normal”: Social Camouflaging in Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions for research into what happens when "difficult to recognise as autistic" is seen as the goal. – Geoffrey Brent Apr 3 at 1:35
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    @GeoffreyBrent I hardly need instruction on how to be autistic, thank you. And this post was to raise awareness, not to shame people into any behavior, or abstention from such. – Richard U Apr 3 at 1:52
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    I'm not telling you how to be autistic. If you personally find that you're less recognisable as autistic when functioning well, that's entirely valid for you. But when you imply that "easily recognisable as autistic" = "not functioning well", you're making a generalisation that can be very harmful to those of us whose experience is not identical to yours. – Geoffrey Brent Apr 3 at 2:48
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    (also, at no point did I suggest you were trying to shame people into/out of behaviour, not sure where you're getting that from?) – Geoffrey Brent Apr 3 at 3:00
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    (1/n) You stated that when autistic people are functioning well, it's difficult to recognise that we are autistic. This inherently implies that somebody who is easily recognisable as autistic - e.g. somebody who stims, avoids eye contact, etc. etc. cannot be functioning well. I don't think you intended that implication, but it is inescapably implied by what you did say. – Geoffrey Brent Apr 4 at 1:06
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    (2/2) There's potential harm there in misdiagnosing an autistic person as "not functioning" when in fact they're functioning very well because they're prioritising self-care instead of suppressing healthy but "weird" behaviours. On the flip-side, autistic people who are good at masking can appear quite "normal" while experiencing severe distress - often exacerbated by the effort of masking - so it can be harmful to have people assume that if I'm acting neurotypical, I must be okay. – Geoffrey Brent Apr 4 at 1:20
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    (BTW, the rest of what you posted here is excellent, and I ought to have said that yesterday. It's just this one bit that I think is problematic, and I doubt the problematic implication is one that you intended.) – Geoffrey Brent Apr 4 at 1:22
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    Why is this (non-)question here on meta? It's not about the site or the community. If you want to provide an answer about how to work with autistic coworkers, please find a question on the main site to attach it to. (If you ask it yourself, make sure it's not too broad.) – Monica Cellio Apr 4 at 18:31
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    Sigh Yes, autistics are part of the community; that should be obvious. So are blind people, hearing-impaired people, wheelchair users, men, women, nonbinary, genderqueer, many races, many religions, many professions, Windows users, Linux users... does that mean every "X day/week/month" for any of these should get a meta post? I ask again: what does this have to do with this community, by which I mean people engaging in asking and answering questions about the workplace? Try to understand the underlying issue, the pattern, which I've heard is a natural strength of the autistic. – Monica Cellio Apr 4 at 18:51
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    @MonicaCellio Oh, it's very much a strength, limited by the literalism, of course, as we tend to attack the wrong problem at times. But, given the rather large number of autistics in the community in general, and in the field of IT, which are the predominant posters here, as well as the numerous questions about dealing with autistic coworkers, of which I have answered numerous ones, I figured that this would in fact be relevant to the community. – Richard U Apr 4 at 18:58
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    @RichardU Your original post didn't say that a HFA functioning well "may" be difficult to spot. You said that when "somebody who is autistic" - not specified as HFA - is functioning well, it is difficult to spot them. Those two caveats are very important, and they're not present in the original post. Had they been, I wouldn't have had an issue with it. – Geoffrey Brent Apr 5 at 20:05
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    @EJoshuaS I think it would be valuable as an answer on main (as suggested in DarkCygnus's answer). – Monica Cellio Apr 7 at 3:13
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Don't you think this would be a good Canonical post on interacting with autistic coworkers?

I think this could be split into a Q and an A and posted on the main site as a self answer, so it can benefit other users searching for questions on TWP.

That will also enable other users to add their answers to complement this, already thorough, post. Thanks for writing this, Richard.

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    that may be a good idea. I wrote this because of some of the comments and answers I've seen since I've been here. It amazes me that with all the exposure the spectrum has been getting, people still have misconceptions about it – Richard U Apr 2 at 18:32
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    This is a great idea - we've got a few regular members who are NA (at least 6 that I can think of) so if they wanted to contribute in we could end up with a decent community wiki answer – motosubatsu Apr 3 at 11:35
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    I think this is a great suggestion. it's a great post - but i don't think it's appropriate for a long-standing meta post here. – MattR Apr 5 at 12:25
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    This is a great suggestion. – Mister Positive Apr 7 at 13:58
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Thank you, Richard, for this amazing post. There is one, related thing I'd like to write about. "Severity" of autism. I don't think you can grade autism. There aren't any less or more autistic people, just different people. An amputee may be able to walk with crutches, but that doesn't mean they don't need their wheelchair any less. An autistic person may be able to get by on most days, but that doesn't mean they are any less autistic.

As you wrote, autism is often misunderstood. People expect a Rain Man or a Sheldon Cooper or someone rocking in place to calm themselves down, but we're not all like that. And someone who doesn't, is not neccessarily any less autistic than someone who does.

You probably know many autistic people. Picture this. There's a woman that you manage, a good and valuable employee. She presented a new product to a couple clients this morning. She was genuinely enthousiastic about the product, which rubbed off on the clients and they placed an order for a couple million. You may not realise she has autism. In university, she lived in an apartment instead of a dorm. You didn't think anything about it. She has hyper sensory issues that made living with roommates nearly impossible for her. She is still paying off the loan she took out to be able to afford the apartment. She always takes the elevator, even though she is young and seems healthy and doesn't seem to have any trouble walking. She's motorically impaired and has difficulty taking the steps. She seems very friendly and outgoing. She makes eye contact just fine. But you didn't see the meltdown she had before going to work, when the milk she wanted to have with her cereal was spoilt. But she was hungry throught the whole presentation, because she skipped breakfast. And when she gets home in the evening, she is mentally exhausted. From what seems to be a normal day at the office. She isn't any less autistic because she doesn't fall into the stereotype.

Just because someone's autism isn't visible, or because they seem to get along just fine, they aren't any less autistic or less disabled. They don't have days when they are less autistic either. Some days they encounter more triggers than other days, but it never goes away. Some people are better at avoiding triggers than others. Some people cope better with triggers than others. Some have rarer, more specific triggers. But they aren't any "more" or "less" autistic.

  • Good points, and thank you for your input. You pretty much described me. Due to the structure at work, I rarely am symptomatic at work, but home is different entirely. Very good perspective, thank you. – Richard U Apr 4 at 12:19
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    Interesting. On one hand, I would agree that it's... difficult to compare or "grade" people's limits/disabilities (I'm not a fan of calling autism a disability, it certainly isn't one for me). On the other hand, I'm also not a fan of that binary distinction "on the spectrum or not". The way I understood it, everyone's on that spectrum somewhere. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Apr 11 at 15:02
  • @RutherRendommeleigh Differently abled if you will :) I don't like that word either, but as long as you need any accommodation, you need any accommodation. Whether you need a lot of it, or a little, need it some days or many days, or rarely at all. The person in the wheelchair who can walk a bit and drive in their car and fetch their own wheelchair from the back of the car needs less accommodation from others than the person who is fully paralyzed. They may not want to be called disabled either, because they can manage. But when they get into trouble, even if rarely, others can see the (1/2) – Cyonis Apr 12 at 6:55
  • wheelchair and will be considerate*. It's a lot easier to forget someone that is autistic is actually autistic if they get by well enough day to day. Whether they are "a little" autistic, or "a lot". - *That's what you'd hope at least. Some people can be right a-holes to people in wheelchairs. (2/2) – Cyonis Apr 12 at 6:57
  • @Cyonis Some of us don't need any special accommodation. Other than that, I agree. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Apr 12 at 12:48
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Thanks for posting that.
I have run across most of it before, but not all in one place not as readable as this.

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