Autistic Employees: Why don’t they get it?

  • slide

Image by Magnascan from Pixabay


Autistic Employees: Why don’t they get it? Is it not obvious?

Jen Blacow

13th April 2021


Autistic people can be extremely valuable employees. But sometimes their autism can cause some unhelpful or disruptive situations for both them and other staff. Here are six ways that autism at work can be disruptive because the autistic person just does not understand other colleagues and vice versa.

1. Literal Understanding

Until they learn, children often misunderstand things because of literal thinking or because of (if you think about it) the ridiculous phrases we come out with.

How scary are the phrases ‘laughing your head off’, ‘crying your eyes out’, or ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ when you can only understand them literally?! Cue the night terrors.

Issues with literal understanding usually improve by adulthood, as the person learns the meaning of the phrases. However, it can often still be an issue for some autistic people in employment.

Somebody recently told me a story about somebody with Asperger's they helped into a job at a local builders’ merchants. There were no problems. That is until he nearly decapitated his colleague who was working on the ground underneath him, after he said, 'chuck all those posts over here' and the autistic worker did just that!

We have also had autistic people telling us they were upset because they were being bullied at work. After further questioning, we realised that they were misinterpreting workplace banter.

Saying to someone ‘Come on you idiot’, when asking them to follow you, is quite nasty unless the receiver of the comments understands banter and that you said it because you find them endearing!

2. Politeness V Directness

In the UK, due to the concept of politeness, we are often reluctant to make direct orders and prefer instead to say things like ‘Can you finish this report by Friday’, or ‘Do you mind passing me that book’. This is rather than simply ‘Please finish this report by Friday’ or ‘Pass me that book’.

You might have a colleague who does communicate bluntly thus come across as rude when it is simply because they use and understand language literally.

In most cases, autistic people would prefer it if you also simply said what you meant and meant what you said!

3. Context is Fluid

Rules of what is acceptable behaviour change with context. Autistic people are often not good at context.

It could be that an autistic worker has not understood the differences in context between education and the workplace, between home and work, or between personal and professional relationships.

An autistic worker coming from education, for example, may associate banter with going out with mates. So banter at work triggers ‘with mates’ behaviour, rather than working behaviour!

Alternatively, the difference between work colleagues and fellow students might not be picked up. Relationships between fellow students tend to be less ‘professional’ than relationships fellow employees, but not always. 

4. (In)appropriate Behaviour

Autistic people can present with a lack of understanding of context in terms of boundaries at work.

The subtle differences between what is an acceptable joke within your private group of friends or family, and what jokes are acceptable in the workplace can be a minefield for anyone, let alone those that struggle with their social skills. 

In some cases, an autistic employee (especially a younger person) may engage in behaviour that is unacceptable because they do not realise it is. For example, sharing jokes of a sensitive nature. Or when someone mentions their favourite computer game, talking excessively about this game when they are supposed to be doing something else.

These rules are harder and more confusing for an autistic person if other people engage in these behaviours, but only when they know they can get away with it! 

Some autistic people are unlikely to understand the context well enough to make instinctive judgments as to whether they can get away with something not normally acceptable - therefore being the one who ultimately gets in trouble for it.

Alternatively an autistic person may tell a superior what other staff members have done once they understand that they are not supposed to do it. This causes friction with other members of staff.

5. Unable to ‘take a hint’

There is often no point dropping hints to colleagues that you know are or might be autistic. Saying something like ‘Your desk looks like it needs a good clear up before our next client comes in’, is likely to result in a response like ‘Yes, I agree’.

Unwritten rules in the workplace may require an employee to pick up other people’s work when they have finished their own.

However, unless this is specified somewhere, you might find an autistic employee watching YouTube videos when they have finished their work, rather than seeking out other people they can help.

This is normally not a sign of disrespectful behaviour; it is just that nobody has told them that is the way of doing things!

This sort of misunderstanding can get someone who is actually more than willing to help others a reputation for not ‘pulling their weight’.

This links to ‘office politics’ which can be extraordinarily complex and confusing to an autistic mind.

6. The Dreaded ‘Office Politics’

Most people within an organisation know that it is not a good idea to criticise the boss or engage in certain conversations at work.

For example, most people know that a quick way to upset another colleague or boss is to correct their errors in front of everybody else at a meeting.

An autistic employee may not be able to understand what the problem is with doing this. There is an error, it should be corrected. Simple. Pointing out somebody’s error was not meant to be insulting.

Unfortunately, it can be taken as insulting and it can leave an unhelpful impression of the autistic employee on others.

Again, it could also be the case of misunderstanding context. In education, people are encouraged to point out errors to both the teacher and other students. All errors matter in education. In the workplace, not so much.

Knowing what counts as an error and what does not, and what kind of errors should be pointed out and when, generally comes naturally to most non-autistic people. 

Similarly, there is an issue of the context of the errors regarding whether they matter or not. For some people, grammatical errors in written documents are tantamount to career suicide. For others, only mistakes that have a direct and measurable financial cost to the business, for example, may really matter.

This also depends on the industry. There are many differences within and between ‘normal’ people regarding what they care about, depending on their trade or industry. A simplistic example of this is an accountant being more concerned than a lawyer about getting his maths right, and a lawyer being more concerned than an accountant at getting his written material right. 

Ultimately, Autistic people have to work harder not to act in ‘un-politically correct’ ways at work that can damage their career prospects, so it is only fair they be given clear guidance on this, if needed. What is obvious to others may need to be pointed out to them.

How can we minimise disruption and get the most value out of autistic employees? 

To get the best out of an employee who may present with these difficulties, it is 

  1. Important not to assume that they understand how their behaviour can be perceived and what is expected of them.
  2. Try to take what they say at face value and generally expect them to do the same thing. 
  3. Make the rules at work clear and concise in your communications, and do not be afraid to tell them what you may see as obvious.
  4. Do not be afraid to explain clearly what behaviour is acceptable and not in which context. They will probably actually thank you for it!

If you need some confidential advice about anything discussed above? Contact us to see if we can help.