How Simple Misunderstandings Can Cause Major Problems

Brightly coloured yarn, tangled up.
Image by ​Vicki Becker​ from ​Pixabay​

When we do work for employers about autism and neurodiversity, we often hear remarkably similar stories from employers who manage autistic staff. Often this is in relation to the autistic person’s interpersonal skills.

We have also come across some very strange ways in which autistic people misinterpret non autistic colleagues and manager’s motives in relation to their difficulties with social interaction.

Here are some particularly interesting examples of ways a manager may misunderstand an autistic employee

One example is when an autistic employee was accused of regularly butting in on other employee’s private conversations – which was causing friction in the office. When we got to the bottom if it, it was simply happening because the employee had trouble discriminating background noise from foreground noise. Therefore they were picking up people’s private conversation from behind them and thought they were open conversations. Solution? Move the individual away from others, or give them earphones to wear!

Sometimes, managers and colleagues may think an autistic employee is not a team player because they never stay behind to do overtime, for example. But what they do not realise is that often, autistic people are just unable to take subtle hints. They cannot just take the hint that they should do it from the fact others are doing it. They need asking directly to do the overtime, in which they case they probably will do so very willingly!

Finally, an autistic person who is hypersensitive to smell may feel like they are eating the persons perfume or aftershave when they are near them. This may make it seem like they do not like certain random people, or have a problem with working with certain people (the ones who wear scents). When in fact, it is purely because they cannot cope with the scent. If managers and staff understand this, then their tolerance of the persons avoidance of them should be far greater!

As with all thing autism, it works both ways (autistic people misinterpret the motivations behind non autistic people). Here are some examples of this…

Ways that an autistic person may not understand a manager

Linked to this, an autistic person may assume that their Boss is a pushover, because he decides not to pay himself a bonus after a bad year, but gives his employees their bonuses as normal. Because they see the surface in an extremely simplistic way, they may misinterpret this as weakness on their boss’s behalf, when in fact it is a very honourable thing to do. If they are a logical thinker, it may need to be pointed out to the employee that doing this means the boss’s employees will most likely stay with him for longer, saving him money long term and thus helping avoid the business going under.

We have come across autistic people who have quite black and white understandings of their managers or colleagues. For example, if their manager is difficult to deal with, they might instantly put them in the box of ‘sociopath’. This is down to an extremely limited understanding of other people, and their motivations behind how they might act. The person may just need basic help in understanding that people are often not that simple!

Furthermore, an autistic person might have an overly simplistic view of people’s actions. They may, after struggling to build relationships at work, have seen another colleague bringing flowers for somebody, which was extremely well received.

This autistic person might have difficulty understanding that context in the social world is important. They then might start bringing in flowers for people regularly, in aid of being kind and well liked. That is, until they are hauled off to HR because the colleagues who keep receiving the flowers are misinterpreting it as harassment!

Finally, an autistic person might get terribly upset with colleagues because they do not have the social skills to manage banter. They may misinterpret somebody genuinely trying to build a relationship with them, as bullying them. This can cause all sorts of problems, when in fact the non-autistic colleague was trying to be friendly.

Essentially, all of the above issues are misunderstandings of the underlying reasons behind why someone might be acting the way they are.

Most, if not all, of these ‘major’ problems, are actually not complex and can be easily solved through a better mutual understanding of people’s motives. This applies both to autistic and non-autistic employees.

If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, get in touch.