Autism and communication

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Communication strategies

These strategies will help you communicate effectively with your autistic employees:

  • When you give instructions, get to the point and avoid sarcasm or jokes
  • Do not assume knowledge
  • Avoid figurative language such as ‘the ball is in your court’

It can help to maintain a low sensory environment. Sensory input can affect processing speed​ for autistic people.

Where possible communicate in writing. Written instructions allow for longer processing time, and they give the employee a resource to refer to later.

Say what you mean and mean what you say.

Giving and receiving information

Autistic communication styles are often less socially driven, and can be based more around exchanging thoughts, ideas and areas of interest than neurotypical communication styles.

Barriers to receiving information​

Autistic people can have difficulty with:

  • Keeping up with fast-paced communication (such as conversational speech)
  • Deciphering what part of information is important​
  • Processing large ‘chunks’ of information​
  • Picking up on non-verbal communication​
  • Gaining understanding from the exact words that are said​
  • Missing subtle nuances like inflection in voice​

Many autistic people report that eye contact feels invasive​ to them.

People on the autism spectrum tend to interpret words literally.

Barriers to giving information

Autistic people can have difficulty with:

  • Appreciating the need to take turns​
  • Understanding cause and effect in conversation​
  • Anxious communicating when they are in crowds or when they are put on the spot​
  • Articulating what they are thinking (this can cause frustration​)
  • Asking inappropriate questions
  • Not understanding appropriate language
  • Delivering an ‘information dump’: sharing knowledge of subject they are passional about

Team Work

Most of us work in teams to some extent. In a team, people work collectively to reach a shared goal. ​

Employees on the autism spectrum can find teamwork difficult if:

  • Has impaired Theory of Mind (LINK) (ie they have trouble understanding other people’s perspective)
  • Does not understand context (for example, why cutting corners to meet a quick deadline is okay in that situation)
  • Finds rapid communication difficult to follow (for example, in meetings) ​

Clear and thoughtful communication in a calm and respectful environment is an adjustment that can overcome these barriers.

Different Social Styles​

An example of different social styles in the workplace:

An autistic employee never says good morning or goodbye and never participates in team conversations or social events. Other team members think that they are being rude and that they’re not a ‘team player’.​

This autistic person’s behaviour is not meant to offend. They may have unfamiliar ways of connecting to the team. They may need time to make connections and feel secure in those connections.

Social events​

Social events can be overwhelming for employees on the autism spectrum, especially when they involve new people and new places.

Over time and with continued invitations your autistic employee may start to participate more. Alternatively, they may see social events as hard work and not enjoy them at all. They may never participate in some types of team events. ​

Strategy for success

The employee’s manager, a trusted colleague, or their mentor should make time to check-in with the autistic employee and ask if they are connecting with the team. See if you can help facilitate this.​

Context

Context involves the different variables that can relate to a situation or task. Context helps you make sense of the world.​

Context helps a person to reduce confusion and make better predictions.​ The brain will make more guesses without context.​

Adapting learning to different contexts or environments requires an ability to understand these contexts.

Contextual sensitivity is crucial for flexible thinking, communication, and social interaction. The autistic brain can have low capacity for fast, implicit guessing. An autistic person may use more ‘absolute’ thinking.​

An example of context in the workplace:

A colleague with incredible depth of focus can exceed the scope of a task by over-researching and over-analysing. ​

Strategy for success

Clearly explain:

  • What the results of the task should be
  • Why we are doing it
  • What the scope is
  • Who is affected by the work

Be specific about deadlines. This eliminates the need for guessing, and can reduce overwork and anxiety for autistic employees.  ​

Task allocation

Use these questions when allocating new work and providing instructions for new tasks.

  • What do I need to do? What is the ‘scope’ of the task?
  • What should it look like?
  • In what sequence should it be done? What needs to be done first?
  • By when should this be done?
  • Do I stop what I am doing to start this task immediately?
  • Who does my work impact?
  • Have I done this before?
  • Who do I work with?
  • Where do I start?
  • Am I doing it correctly?
  • Why is it done this way?
  • Should I do it differently?
  • Do I need help?
  • Who can I ask for help?

Tips for managers​

  • Ask about sensory distractions​
  • Help other staff to be more aware​
  • Clarify expectations of the job
  • Provide training and monitoring ​
  • Ensure instructions are concise and specific.
  • Ensure the work environment is well-structured
  • Regularly review performance​
  • Provide sensitive but direct feedback​
  • Provide reassurance in stressful situations​
  • Help your staff member prepare for changes​

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