Being autistic in the world of work (or why no ducks are allowed at NeonDaisy HQ)
Imagine that you are asked to work in a country which speaks a different language and has a different culture from your own. You are fluent enough in the language to get by, and have a vague understanding of the culture. But it is the difference between learning it as a second language and culture, and being bilingual and able to slot into that culture after a short time of adjustment and learning.
That is what it is like to be an autistic person in the world of work.
Autism in the workplace has only recently begun to be understood by employers, and it is a shame, because with the right accommodations, autistic people can bring a lot to a company. Take away or mitigate the things which might cause sensory overload, such as the wrong type of lighting, or noise levels, or general busyness, and we can perform much more effectively as we are not fighting against our own brains’ overwhelm in order to focus on the task in hand. Every autistic person is different, and our needs and sensitivities are all different, so the most important thing an employer can do for their autistic member of staff is to ask them what they need and to listen. But the language often used by organisations adds a whole other level of confusion to what can already be quite a difficult environment to blend in with (e.g. unspoken dress codes, expectation for women to wear make-up and / or heels to show they are competent at their job, etc).
Over the years I have come across a number of business phrases that have either made no sense to my literal mind, or have brought up some utterly bizarre or amusing mental images. Many of them are helpfully listed in this article from indeed.com – although there is no mention of ducks!
When Amy and I first started talking about working together to found NeonDaisy, I quickly realised that there were phrases such as those in the indeed.com article which tripped easily off her tongue but which made little sense to me. It wasn’t until she sent me an email that talked about doing something when we had our ducks in a row, that I realised how absurd it all sounded.
Questions went through my mind such as: Who are these ducks? Why do we want them in a row?! What have ducks got to do with what we are trying to get done? References to ducks have now become a by-word at NeonDaisy for complicating what could be communicated in simple English.
What was in my head when I heard the phrase ‘getting our ducks in a row’
In the same way that I understand that idioms are not supposed to be taken literally (think of ‘raining cats and dogs’), I know that business jargon is intended in the same way. But my brain gives a literal picture which I then have to ‘translate’ in my brain into the actual meaning intended by the speaker. It takes twice as much effort for me to understand ‘getting your ducks in a row’ as ‘getting everything organised or coming together’. Other phrases cause me to wince, such as ‘drilling down’, which makes me think of dental treatment (not something I have had good experiences with in the past!)
There are many positive things about autistic people which would benefit any company. (I am generalising hugely here, as we are all different, just as neurotypical people are all different):
We have the ability to focus in on details and get things done.
We can often spot ideas or possibilities that others can’t. We can also spot gaps or errors with ease – it’s not meant to be pedantic, we just can’t help noticing.
We can be very passionate about our interests – so if you are asking us to do something we are passionate about, we will give it our all.
There are many others, but those are the ones which I feel most strongly about.
So what can you do to help autistic people in the workplace?
First of all, listen to them. If someone says to you that the office is too bright or noisy, or raises another issue which is due to a sensory sensitivity, understand that they may feel or process sensory input differently from you. Too often autistic people, especially women, are made to feel as if they are making a fuss, when to them there is something which they cannot tolerate. This can in extreme cases lead to them leaving their jobs or possibly having to go on long-term sick leave, which could potentially be avoided by consciously accommodating their needs.
Avoid phrases with too much jargon or idioms in. Use plain English. Avoid the attitude of never using a short word when a long one will do – this alienates people very quickly and doesn’t necessarily make the user look cleverer. (As demonstrated by the picture below from Steve the Vagabond and Silly Linguist's Facebook page):
Make any requests or expectations clear and precise – and don’t mind if you are asked for clarification. One of the things I found difficult before realising I was autistic was being given imprecise or unspoken expectations which then led to me doing something which my manager thought was wrong, but which I was unaware of as I thought I had done as I was asked.
Finally, don’t follow the example of another former employer I had, which was a large organisation where a lot of acronyms were used on a regular basis. They actually had an entire page on the organisation’s intranet which explained all of the acronyms used.
Whilst this may have been a good idea at the time, it may actually have resulted in a number of people (including me) spending far longer than necessary trying to understand communications, because we needed to refer to this intranet page to decode what we had received. My suggestion would be: don’t go there!
Laura Webb is a director of NeonDaisy