I am the father of two children on the autism spectrum–both with what is known as Asperger’s Syndrome. So it shouldn’t surprise that a recent article titled “How to Create an Autism-friendly Work Place” caught my eye.
What does surprise is how much of the article I found to be really good communications advice for any organization. Whether you’ve employed autistic folks or not, many of the traits that help them succeed help everyone succeed.
Nota Bene: Autism is a very broad and highly complex condition that we are just beginning to understand. Rather than try and provide what would surely be a highly faulty general description, I point you to this excellent write up at Autism Speaks to learn more.
Getting Real About Expectations
When we work with people, there are a million unspoken expectations we impose, whether we realize it or not. When you instruct someone to “answer phones” you assume they not only know how to be polite, but very often we assume they understand the particular way we prefer to have it done. When you ask someone to format a document, you assume that they know how to find your company’s format style and recreate it. These are big assumptions for people with autism.
And they are often big assumptions for non-autistic people you may work with. Hence, the first recommendation that we would all benefit in following:
Provide clear, written instructions. One of the most appreciated attributes of individuals with autism is their ability to take direction, but Pacelli warns instructions should be clear, without use of sarcastic language or metaphors. Instead of saying “Don’t be late,” for example, saying “Be at your desk ready to start working at 9” is a better way to deliver instructions to an individual with autism. Instructions given in writing is ideal, so they have something they can refer back to. Running by their desk and delivering a rapid message is more likely to result in misunderstanding and frustration for both parties.
The second recommendation in the article that could help us all deals with setting routines.
Provide structure. Autistic employees thrive on routine and structure. “They really like to know what to expect so they can plan out their day,” says Pacelli. Avoiding interruptions and changes in routine is ideal. Interruptions to routine, such as an impromptu meeting in the staff room to celebrate a co-worker’s birthday, being told to stay late 30 minutes before their shift is about to end, or having a meeting postponed at the last minute can be upsetting to an autistic employee. Giving them a heads up if there’s potential for a schedule change can help them to adjust.
Having hired and worked with a number of younger employees over my career, it often happened that friction emerged between myself and them when structural practices I took for granted everyone knew weren’t followed.
Consider the use of phones. Smart phones have become pervasive, and for older workers like myself, having a younger person enter a meeting with me having one ear on me and one ear filled with an ear bud grated on my nerves at first. Until I realized that the smart phone is not simply a tool, it’s an extension of their person and the way they do all of their work. It was as odd for him to talk to me without the phone, as it was for me to talk to him with it. The solution was simple, if I wanted him to talk with me without the phone, I simply said so. It kept him clear about procedures, and kept me from firing an extraordinary individual.
Carrying it Forward
The same principles apply in the world of social media. Especially the first point about clear instructions. Avoiding sarcasm or jokes when writing to the world at large is not only a good idea, it’s very reasonable. Sarcasm and jokes work best with people we know, and who know us and our ways. In short, keep inside jokes inside. Don’t assume that people will get your cute takes on issues, or your puns, or your jokes.
At one company I worked, we put out an April Fool’s newsletter every year. It ceased to be funny when 30-40 people took it seriously and we spent the next couple days soothing nerves.
This is not to say to never be funny, but be clear with your audience that humor is your intent.
Likewise, the principle of structure is also critical to your social media practice. Set a routine for your postings and stick to it–no matter how painful it is. (I write this realizing my own newsletter is a day late. We all have our days, but do try to keep them to a minimum.) Facebook, Twitter, Instagram–developing a routine is how you develop reliable communications with your followers.
It’s takes a village to make an individual. And it takes all kinds of individuals to make a village. Appreciating the talents that those who don’t always do things the “accepted” way bring to your organization, and adjusting to help them succeed, benefits us all.
And so, too, realizing that some things that help others can also help us all.