The Unique Challenges of Neurodiverse Communication in the Workplace

As an Executive Communication Coach, I’m thrilled to see Neurodiversity becoming more recognized and celebrated at work. However, its nuances in the workplace can cause frustration and miscommunications.

For example, if you work with someone who rarely makes eye contact, you might assume they are shy, nervous, or uncomfortable. Using eye contact is an essential nonverbal communication behavior that most of us use automatically in work interactions. Eye contact helps people communicate their interest and attention to a conversation. Yet, making eye contact with others can be very challenging for some people with Autism. There are many books and articles written by adults with Autism who describe the stress they felt when well-meaning bosses and managers tried to force them to make eye contact during conversations, client meetings, or presentations. In many cases, they describe being further distracted and unable to focus on the conversation because of this insistence.

Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits. Still, it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities.

Here are a few additional definitions for clarity:

Neurotypical is an informal term describing a person whose brain functions are considered usual or expected by society. This term is often applied to people who do not have a developmental disorder like Autism, differentiating them from those who do. It is neither a mental disorder nor even an official diagnostic term.

Neurodivergent describes someone who isn’t neurotypical, and Neurodiverse generally refers to differences in brain function among people diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These words can be applied to other neurodevelopmental conditions like dyslexia or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

There are many forms that Neurodiversity can take, but for this article, I’ll speak specifically about the Autism Spectrum.

I’ve had the opportunity to coach professionals who identify on the Autism spectrum and also have a close family member on the Spectrum, so I have no shortage of practice when it comes to noticing the small microcommunications that are often lost or misperceived. I do not claim mastery but merely the complex process of listening and communicating with clarity, patience, and an open mind.

You may wonder if you currently work with someone on the Autism Spectrum, or perhaps someone has told you specifically that they are Autistic. Either way, how we communicate needs to be looked at with flexibility and deeper understanding.

If you consider yourself Neurotypical, consider the workplace examples below. You’ll see a few ways a Neurotypical person might communicate with someone on the Autism Spectrum (let’s call this person with ASD your “colleague.”). Observe below how messages and information can get crossed:

You don’t get any eye contact from your colleague when speaking with them, and it feels like they aren’t listening.

After a long conversation, your colleague didn’t speak much and only said ‘OK’ and then walked away, but you aren’t sure if they understood.

After an excellent co-presentation with your colleague, you raise your hand to high-five, but they walk back to their desk right past you.

In the elevator, you ask your colleague how their weekend was, and they say “Fine” and don’t ask you back.

You pull a piece of fluff off your colleague’s coat, and they jump away and recoil from you.

Your colleague is the only one who never joins the team for happy hour on Fridays.

You run weekly stand-up meetings where everyone shares their work progress, but your colleague only sends theirs via Slack.

What do you think of these examples?

It might be tempting to diagnose this colleague as…. a JERK!

And maybe that’s true?

In that case, we might be brought in as coaches to help this person come across better in terms of their communication style and approach to relationship building.

But…

It could ALSO be that your colleague is on the Autism Spectrum, which means they may function differently than you when it comes to understanding nonverbal cues, processing verbal information, expressing emotions and thoughts, managing sensitivities to food or sounds, physical touch, social gatherings, knowing how to engage in small talk, and much more.

There is no quick and easy solution to creating harmonious relationships at work with a Neurodiverse colleague. One place to start is recognizing the need for deep understanding and tailored approaches. Acknowledging and addressing distinct differences can lead to a more harmonious and supportive workplace where everyone feels heard, respected, and appreciated.

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