The pandemic has turned the hiring and working world upside down. Whatever your situation, your workplace is seeing an influx of newbies, and it’s likely that one of those newbies may be autistic.
I am autistic, and I’d worked from home since 2018 because I had burned out on trying to manage my autism in the workplace for my co-workers’ benefit. But I, and others like me, came to realize that working alone was, well, lonely, and missed incidental contact with co-workers and clients. Plus, increasing visibility of autism means more people know someone on the spectrum and have a basic idea what that means, opening doors for us that were closed in the past.
But for someone who doesn’t already know someone on the spectrum, discovering a co-worker is autistic (or has Asperger’s) can be a disturbing prospect. Many still think Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man (or Freddie Highmore’s in The Good Doctor) represents the typical autistic person. Unlike these fictional characters, though, I and many other autistics have learned to hide our autistic traits. Some of us have compensation strategies so effective that had we not self-identified, no-one would have known we were autistic at all.
Or at least, not right away.
But sooner or later, we always slip. In my case, in a particularly stressful situation, or where there are a lot of things happening at once, I will abruptly change personalities. My speaking voice will suddenly switch from collegial to brusque. My facial expressions and body language will go from approachable to off-putting. In a moment, I will bear no resemblance to the co-worker you thought you knew. At this point, you may be uncertain as to which person—the one from before or the one in the moment—is the “real” me.
The answer is that they are both the real me, just different sides. The persona you know is who I would be if I weren’t autistic. The one that suddenly emerged under stress is what my true autistic self looks like to non-autistic people.
Anyone with an autistic co-worker needs to know that we autistics do not naturally interpret appropriate neurotypical (NT) social behavior. Our autism prevents us from negotiating the subtleties of unspoken meanings on the fly. Instead, we spend years learning them through trial and error. Even the most adept of us must put considerable, conscious effort into what amounts to an elaborate performance, to a degree above and beyond anything a non-autistic person has ever had to make. It’s extremely taxing, in that we must constantly be on guard, and as such, it takes up a lot of mental energy. In demanding or overwhelming situations, we simply don’t have the energy to spare on these social performances. That energy gets diverted away from hiding our autism and towards attending to the task at hand.
This is a dangerous situation for us, for two reasons. First, it means that we are close to being overwhelmed. Second, it means that we are at risk for breaking our carefully cultivated social contracts with our co-workers.
And it is the latter of these two that worries us the most and is the most heartbreaking when it occurs. Asking for a few minutes of personal time after a challenging situation is relatively easy, as non-autistics sometimes need to do this, too. But experience has taught me that repairing a damaged relationship with an offended co-worker can be next to impossible.
All too often, the co-worker refuses to believe that what I said or did was not intentional or personal, and, in turn, refuses to accept my apologies or attempts at amends. I am never forgiven, and most of the time, I don’t even know what I did to hurt them, because it was apparently so egregious (to them) that they don’t understand how I couldn’t know. I’ve been hiding my autism for over two decades and this still happens to me.
This is the point at which an understanding of what autism really looks like is absolutely crucial. What most popular media portrayals don’t show you is that for many of us, when we are stressed, all of the emotion drops out of our faces and voices. What feels merely neutral to us is mistaken for frustration and anger. We are then taken to task because someone was offended by our tone.
Of all of the autistics I’ve communicated with about interacting with NTs, the single most frequent misunderstanding is non-autistics misinterpreting our tone of voice. Because NTs manage their tone automatically, they are upset when someone doesn’t do the same. They assume that we must be going out of our way to be intentionally rude.
For autistics, though, the exact reverse is true. Intentionally projecting the correct tone is one of the most difficult components of our compensation strategies, because we do not—in fact, cannot, because of our autism—know how our voices sound to others. Despite twenty-plus years of practice in managing my voice, I still have no idea what I actually sound like to other people. The lion’s share of my mental effort goes to inflecting my voice appropriately, and since I can’t “hear” how it comes across, I can never be sure if I’m doing it properly.
Tone-of-voice management is the first thing to go when my energy supplies are running low… and, worse, I cannot tell when it is happening. When someone takes something I said personally because of a tone I didn’t know I was projecting, I am crestfallen, both because I hurt someone unintentionally, and because I can’t take it back.
Non-autistic people need to understand that in autistics, a sharp, rude, or aggressive tone does not mean we are angry. Instead, it is a warning signal that we are in distress. Most important, it is not personal. The last thing we want to do is insult someone. To discover we have inadvertently done so is devastating, especially when compounded by a difficult situation that has already left us feeling overextended and vulnerable. When your autistic co-worker shifts into flat or sharp tone, resist the temptation to assume they are angry at you. Remember it’s not intentional. Instead of withdrawing from them, approach them, if you can, and ask them what they need.
So your new co-worker is autistic. That’s great news! Take the opportunity to get to know someone on the spectrum. Autistics are dedicated and loyal employees with a strong affinity for adhering to rules, and a social failure is as upsetting to us as it is to those around us. Remember that we want to be there, and are expending a lot of mental energy to do so. Of all the reasonable accommodations one makes for those with disabilities, empathy and understanding should be the easiest—but for us, are the hardest to come by. So when you hear that change in tone, make the choice to empathize and assist. We autistics have very few people in our lives who “get” it. We’re always grateful to have one more.
Christine M. Condo was diagnosed with Autism Level I, also called Asperger’s, in 2015 at the age of 42. A freelance writer and outspoken neurodiversity advocate, she specializes in combating autism myths and stereotypes and increasing neurodiversity awareness and acceptance. She works as an autism accommodations consultant, and is pursuing a master’s degree in disability communication from George Mason University. She maintains a blog about her experiences and can be contacted through her website.