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Avoiding Misunderstandings in the Neurotypical Workplace

By Barbara A. Bissonnette


When a person with Asperger Syndrome (AS) becomes an employee in a neurotypical (NT) workplace, things do not always go smoothly. The employee with AS may not be aware of the unwritten social rules or expected behaviors for the workplace, and may behave in ways that surprise or dismay his or her neurotypical supervisor or co-workers. Sensory and executive function issues may also complicate the ability of the person with AS to adapt successfully to the demands of the workplace.

Then, as if the social, communication and organizational challenges of the typical workplace aren’t tough enough, the fact that AS is an “invisible disability” significantly increases the chances of miscommunication and misunderstandings at work. By “invisible” we mean that there are no overt physical signs that someone has AS. In the book Coming Out Asperger, Jane Meyerding writes, “People ask why we need accommodation, rather than what accommodation we need.”*

In most NT workplaces, little or nothing is known about AS, so it’s easy for people to assume that things like lack of eye contact and social gaffes signify rudeness, unfriendliness, or insubordination. For example, one coaching client of mine got so overwhelmed by people interrupting him at work that he’d simply sit at his desk shaking his head when someone stopped by. Knowing nothing about AS, co-workers interpreted his behavior as dismissive, and a refusal to answer their questions.

Workplace misunderstandings can result in confrontations with colleagues, or even formal complaints, disciplinary action, and getting fired. For the person with AS, these events are often thoroughly unexpected and can come as a shock. People tell me things like, “I felt as if I’d been hit by a bus.” “I was so panicked that I couldn’t speak.” “The wind was knocked out of me.”

While it’s unlikely that this kind of miscommunication will ever be completely eliminated, there are some proactive steps that you can take to lessen the probability that neurotypical co-workers won’t take your unexpected behaviors personally.

  1. First, learn as much as you can about how others perceive you. Get feedback from people you trust, such as a family member, a friend, a job coach, or a friendly co-worker, about things you do or say that could be misunderstood in a negative way. For example, do people tell you that you ask too many questions, or ask the same question too often? Or that you look angry, when really you are puzzled? Pay special attention to behaviors that more than one person mentions.
  2. Next, prepare “pre-emptive” explanatory statements to “neutralize” unexpected behaviors, so that neurotypical coworkers won’t take them personally. Remember, when people don’t know how else to explain something, they tend to assume negative intentions. Here are some examples of pre-emptive explanations: “I have trouble reading body language–could you please tell me in words what you’re thinking right now?” “Sometimes when I’m concentrating, I forget to say hello. Please don’t take it personally.” “People tell me that I look angry when I’m lost in thought. Have you noticed that?” “I have a tendency to take things very literally; would you let me know when I do that?”
  3. Finally, think about whether disclosing AS to your employer is the right option for you. Of course, this is a very personal decision that requires careful consideration of the risks and the benefits. If your AS challenges are very noticeable, or if you have a hard time managing them, disclosing might be your best chance of getting a job offer or keeping your job. Remember that you don’t need to disclose every difficulty you have; only the ones that interfere with your ability to meet job performance expectations.

If you do decide to disclose, keep your explanation simple, direct, and solution-focused. Explain how an accommodation will mitigate or eliminate a problem, and offset any weaknesses with positives. For example, “I have a condition that makes it hard for me to remember verbal instructions. Writing them down enables me to commit them to memory so I won’t make mistakes.”

The more proactive you can be in giving reasonable explanations for things that may seem odd to the neurotypical majority, the greater the chance that you can avoid serious misunderstandings that could lead to negative employment outcomes.

Barbara Bissonnette is the Principal of Forward Motion Coaching. Barbara has trained some of our AV people.  She is based in USA and provides career development coaching for adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and NLD, and consults to organisations about how best to utilize the talents of this overlooked and very capable workforce. 

* “Coming Out Autistic at Work” by Jane Meyerding, published in Coming Out Asperger, Diagnosis, Disclosure and Self-Confidence, edited by Dinah Murray, © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2006

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