Networking the right way for autistic and non-autistic professionals
25th June 2021
This blog is focussed on autistic people; however it can help anybody who is unsure about business networking. We all have preconceptions and challenges to networking when starting out in business, work, or self-employment.
Networking when you are autistic can be extremely difficult. You could argue that the ‘virtual world’ or virtual networking, including social media, has made it a lot easier for some autistic people.
It has been propagated by some people with autism who are suited to social media and video chat, or people who are involved in working with autism in the workplace, that it is now easier for people with autism to network. They assert that it puts everybody on a more level playing field, and the social difficulties are less noticeable over a screen.
I do not quite agree. It has made it easier for some people in some ways, but I can tell you that I work with autistic people for whom it is not easier - it is much more difficult.
A lot of this is discussed in a still relevant blog post from last year when covid forced us all to go ‘online’.
This blog post, however, some of which is inspired by Bergemann’s (2015) book, “An Asperger's Guide to Entrepreneurship: Setting Up Your Own Business for Professionals with Autism Spectrum Disorder”, is about business networking as a whole (in person or face to face).
For this blog post, a network is a way to describe all of the people you have interacted with/worked with/know of concerning your business and that you ‘get along with’.
You do not have to be close necessarily, but consider yourself to be able to contact them to ask a question, have a ‘business catch up’ with, or refer work to them. In turn, you should be able to expect them to refer work to you, if or when they come across somebody who is in the market for precisely what you do.
Bergemann splits a self-employed person's network into five different sub-networks. I have changed these into three networks by combining and changing some of them to make them simpler. All three of them together I will call a ‘wider network’ (some people fall into more than one category).
Business Development Networks
Business development networks are those within your ‘wider network’ who you work with mainly to refer work to each other and support each other to find new opportunities and gain more business. A business development network is not a customer group, which you sell to. It is a group of professional acquaintances, working in lots of different sectors, who you teach to sell your services/products for you. In return, you learn how to promote their goods or services to your ‘wider network’ and advocate for them.
This is why as an autistic individual, it is key to finding a group to whom you can genuinely refer business, and know that you can trust them to do a great job in whatever field they are in.
Finding a networking group that is truly open-minded to differences and disabilities may be tricky, but they are out there. The key is to do your research and due diligence and try them out properly before you commit.
What you sow you will reap
The key thing to remember with this type of networking is that you often have to give a lot before you start seeing a return. This might feel wrong or exploitative, to begin with. However, the idea that the more you help others in business the more they will want to help you and your business, is a tried and tested concept.
As an autistic person, you may (not always) have to be particularly wary of being taken advantage of. One way to make sure this does not happen too much (some people will always try it on with anyone) is to track what you are getting in return from your investment of time in other business contacts.
When you start seeing business opportunities come in your direction from a networking contact, you can be relatively confident you have got a good thing going. Sometimes, just getting some sound business advice from a contact or having them be a listening ear is where the benefit lies.
An autistic self-employed person has told me that they struggle to deal with large networking groups - they prefer smaller ones. That is OK, as there are ways to do this without having to be in a room (virtual or otherwise) with 30 plus other businesses.
You could do it on a 121 basis by reaching out to other business owners (on LinkedIn messenger, for example) and asking for a meeting to discuss how you could potentially help each other get more business. Have regular meetings with these other business owners and eventually you should start spotting work opportunities for them and receiving business referrals from them in return.
You can also pool resources and share them. For example, say you are a videographer in a network with an accountant. You can give them advice on video marketing, and they can return the favour by giving you some help with dealing with tax issues. There may be an advantage here to networking with other autistic people: you might find somebody who is an absolute whizz at what you are extremely poor at (for example marketing), but who is hopeless at what you are good at (for example, IT). You can help each other!
A key thing is that these relationships are well nurtured and also natural. You may be asked to help somebody and it may be several months or more than a year until you need their support. If you have helped them, they will more than likely be very willing to help you if you ask them. People forget what you said to them, but they do not forget how you made them feel (Carl W. Buehner).
I have changed the definition of strategic networks as outlined in Bergemann’s (2015) book. I would class strategic networks as contacts from your ‘wider network’ who are either in a similar market/have a similar business and/or who will be more likely to come across customers in the market for your goods or services regularly.
For example, an independent mortgage provider, a financial adviser, and a wills & probate specialist may be a strong partnership. At my main networking group, we have something we call power teams. These are smaller subgroups who meet together regularly to discuss collaboration opportunities, share market insights, share resources, and learn from each other.
You will find these types of networking contacts at more specialised events. For example, if you are an HR professional, you may find a strategic network (or referral partnership) at an employment law seminar, or a staff development and people management exhibition.
The most important thing to do when meeting these people to make sure you follow up with them! Book meetings in with them (on zoom or face to face) and set out to find out more about them and how you might be able to help each other. Their wider network will then become your wider network, too!
If not, you might end up with 500+ contacts on LinkedIn who you have met once but cannot remember how or why and they become dead contacts. The key thing on this one, and which will probably be the biggest challenge for an autistic person who struggles with people, is to keep talking to your network!
Personal support networks
This one is a bit self-explanatory. However, I consider all the contacts in my ‘wider network’ who I feel accept me and understand me as a person (warts and all) to be part of my personal support network.
These are the ones who will not run of in fear if you disclose something personal about yourself (relevant to your business challenges) which may not fit into their view of the world. For example, the fact you are autistic/have Asperger’s and therefore struggle with things other people may find second nature (like doing small talk).
These are the people you can call up and thrash business ideas out with, or simply get in touch for a chat when you are feeling low (Bergemann 2015). Those who will not judge and can help you resolve business problems, such as a customer non-payment issue, or the second thoughts you might have about running your own business.
These contacts could be called friends, but it is important to centre everything around work and business as if not, things may get complicated and nothing may get done.
That is not to say you cannot become close friends with someone in your network. It is just that you may want to find somebody else who is in their industry to add to your network so that you can focus on the friendship with the other.
As I often point out to one autistic adult we are currently helping into employment. Once she finds work, she will find that she will be surrounded by people with whom she is more likely to benefit from being friends. I.e. other employed, get up and go people, rather than friends she has had in the past who have left a lot to be desired in their friendship, and pulled her back/stopped her moving forward.
Social media networks
I consider social media networks as a combination of all three of the above subnetworks put together. In other words, your social media network usually includes everybody in your ‘wider network’.
Social media networking can be tricky for anybody to navigate. I still find it a bit daunting, but I have learned two important things:
- Engage with people. It is called a social network for a reason. If you struggle with small talk or meaningless chitchat, or to stroke others' egos, try and start conversations about people’s post content or share your insightful experiences about something they have posted.
- As best you can, try to stay positive. Writing negative things online may be how you feel about something. However, it can often be hard for people who do not know you, to put into context what you are saying. Try to leave strong statements or unpalatable facts for your personal support network. An odd few is OK; this shows you are a real person and know your stuff. But try to put positive energy into social media.
One thing you may want to seek out is a sort of LinkedIn support group (for example) where you all join a group chat of some sort and post your social media content in there.
The idea is that each member engages with each other’s posts to help your posts be promoted better across the platform.
One thing to be wary of here, however, is that people sometimes just comment meaningless things on your posts as they do not understand enough about your business or market to have a meaningful contribution to give. You can either put up with this or ask nicely that unless people have something genuine to say, refrain from commenting!
Networking is a lot more than just going and talking to people about what you do, and listening to other people talk about what they do. It is much more. Your network needs to be nurtured, much like nurturing any kind of interpersonal relationship. Eventually, your network should start producing fruit.
It is about collaboration, support, trust, and helping people to understand what you do enough (in their terms) so that they can be great ambassadors for your business. The more people you have in your network, the more help you get in getting work or being noticed in your area. It is like expanding your team without having pay-rolled employees.
In return, you must be curious to learn about what other people do and how you can help them succeed in their business. Sometimes, that may just be providing a listening ear and or/solving a problem for them which is easy for you, but hard for them. That is why it is also important to seek out other businesses who you are confident that they do what they say they do who you can trust.