Advice to a Manager with an Autistic Worker, a Behavior Issue, and Intolerant Staff

workplace Oct 08, 2022

I received a message from the contact for of my site regarding a challenge a manager was having with an autistic employee. The initial message follows:

"I am a supervisor and have a high functioning employee with "Asperger's". I am going to call her Sue in the message as I cannot use her real name. I cannot divulge that Sue is on the spectrum to my other employees who are constantly complaining about how Sue ignores them, doesn't pic up on social cues, talks "to them" not "with them", etc. Do you have any resources for me as a supervisor to 1) help my other employees accept Sue without my telling them she has autism. 2) have any resources I could give Sue to read that might give her instructions as how interact with the other employees. I have an adult son with Asbergers, so I am confident and comfortable interacting with Sue, and she is with me."

This is my initial reply to gather more details:
First you deserve major kudos for the effort you are taking to help Sue. The world would be much better if more people were as understanding as you.
I have a few thoughts and lots of questions as there is no one size fits all answer. I am going to need to get back to you though as I am rushing to get ready to attend an in person Autism Society of America national board meeting. 2 things that would help me is to know what Sue’s role is and what your department does. It will help me to better understand the interactions.

This is the reply to my request for details: 
"Thank you for your response. It is my belief we are all in this together. I will need to be a bit mysterious as I need to be protective of Sue and also my own position. Sue is responsible for providing customer information/service, both face to face and on the phone."

I again responded and asked for a few more details: 
I fully understand the need for privacy in this situation. Am I assuming correctly that the department does much the same as Sue in providing customer service and information? From an objective how does Sue rate in her effectiveness in the role and compared to her peers is she average, above, or below? Guessing average to above based on your above and beyond efforts to improve the situation. Has you company done any efforts in neurodiversity awareness?

Again the reply: 
"Don't worry about the questions. Sue is younger than most employees,  but does an average job interacting with customers.  It is her peers that she aggregates because she is so blunt and what appears to others as disrespectful."

Finally my thoughts and advice on the situation: 
Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. Combination of over committed and the challenging situation you are asking about. What may be some usable ideas came to me very early Friday morning when I couldn’t sleep.

There seems to be 2 different parts to the situation. One is behavior and the other is culture. The behavior is speaking too loudly. While likely related to autism this could be a problem with anyone which make a solution pretty straight forward. There are decibel meter programs for smartphones which work quite well I use one to judge the volume on my stereo which my wife always feels is too high. Put one on a device and pass it around so you can get a sense of what “normal” is. Reason for one device is to get a consistent reading as long as place in a consistent way. Then give it to Sue and explain if she goes over the value you determine is appropriate that she needs to tone it down.

The cultural part is the rest of it. This is made extra challenging as I am assuming Sue has not openly disclosed. Asking Sue to change is telling her she needs to mask and not be who she really is. It is harmful to her in the long run to be forced to conform to an arbitrary norm and likely to cause burnout or quitting. I was a podcast guest recently and presented with a question that has altered my framing of autism. Here is a link to my post about it You don’t need to listen to the podcast but you may find it interesting if you do. What is pertinent is second paragraph in my post. In the adult autistic community direct, blunt, and little expressed emotion is our culture. While this obviously varies by individual I believe it comes from our low levels of theory of mind (  first few sentences unless interested ) combined with diminished ability to perceive and process emotion. What this means is the communication style is not just culture but also capacity. So asking Sue to change is akin to asking someone in a wheelchair to get up and walk. Could Sue improve, probably if she was coached in emotional speaking. Unfortunately, it is not part of the medical world and there are very few of us trained to teach the techniques involved. While presented in a different context I do speak about it in the video in this blog post  The video may be helpful to Sue. To me the real answer on this is a DEI challenge. The rest of the group has norms around communication that they believe is the “right” way and Sue is wrong. The reality is communication style is cultural and they are creating an “in group” culture that is unaccepting of others who have different cultural styles. Their “in group” culture appears to have little tolerance for other culture’s ways and honestly is the root of the problem. I am fortunate to work for a company that require everyone to respect each other because they are a fellow human even if you don’t like them. I can’t tell you how to create that type of culture as I just found myself in it through an acquisition and as an autistic individual found it to work very well for me.

I hope this is helpful to you as I invested quite a bit of time, but I have a feeling that it may not be the answer you want. I would love to get your thoughts?

While I was not surprised, I was disappointed that no feedback was given or even a simple "Thanks for the time you spent". While the manager has an autistic child I get the senses her thought is "fix the autistic and make them 'normal'". Poor kid. This type of thought leads to what I call applying "gay conversion therapy" approach in an attempt to make the individual fit what those involved believe is the "correct" norm. Unfortunately, this approach has proven to increase suicide rates from forcing a person to be something other than what they are. I am convinced the same results happens when trying to convert and autistic of any age to be a neurotypical. The reality is we are born autistic and will die autistic and there is nothing whether ABA, special diets, patch vitamins, Clorox enemas, etc that will make the individual non-autistic. Some approaches may lessen some human traits that are at uncommon levels in autistics and other are harmful psychologically or physically. But none will remove the autism and make the person neurotypical.

I am not saying that us autistic can't learn some concepts, use some tools, or get some accommodations to improve interactions. But the burden cannot be on the autistic to fit the neurotypical defined norms. The neurotypicals need to be aware that many groups and cultures around the globe perceive through and interact with their own unique perspective.

It is these unique perspective that generate fresh ideas and innovative thoughts. Yes, there needs to be rules on what is and isn't acceptable in an organizations but they must be universally based to fit all cultures and not make the dominant culture right and every other one wrong. I am fortunate to work for a company that has a simple rule around this, "Respect Each Other". That doesn't mean agree or expect them to adopt your standards. It means regardless of how different a person may be or how much you disagree with their stance on an issue they are due respect simple because they are a human. Disagreement is OK, just do it respectfully.


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