How to lead autistic individuals in an inclusive way
Do you have an autistic individual in your team?
The thing is, many autistic individuals have learnt to mask their autism to fit in with those around them, and so you may have no idea.
Masking is when an individual suppresses certain behaviours, and learns to copy the social behaviours of others. They might deliberately learn eye contact, or prepare a script for a conversation ahead of time.
And this is exhausting. Masking autistic traits can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and also burnout.
What is autism?
There are many definitions of autism and it can express itself in different ways. Autistic individuals are neurodivergent, which means their brains are wired in a different way to a neurotypical brain, so they process information in a unique way.
Here are some famous faces you may recognise. Do you know what they have in common?
From Greta to Einstein, Chris Packham to Tom Stoltman, they are all autistic individuals who have used autism as their superpower to achieve amazing things.
What can autism look like?
Autistic individuals may:
Have special interests, and be very driven and passionate about a specific topic, like Greta with climate change
Be very detail oriented, excellent at spotting small mistakes, understanding formulas and patterns, and solving complex problems
Be highly rational and like understanding and adhering to rules
Like sameness, predictability, routines and patterns, and can be anxious about the unknown
Can take things very literally - for example they may find it difficult to decipher white lies, double meanings (neurotypical people tend not to say what they mean!)
Can get anxious about social situations, and find it challenging to understand what others are thinking or feeling, or what to say in response… they may even be worried about saying the wrong thing so can end up saying nothing at all
Avoid eye-contact, or use a very precise (and thought out) amount of eye contact
This is only a brief overview of the many autistic traits that exist, and ties into what Dr Stephen Shore shares:
"If you've met one person with autism,
you've met one person with autism."
~ Dr Stephen Shore
To be a truly inclusive leader, we need to make every individual feel comfortable to be themselves without feeling they have to resort to masking.
What can you do to become a more inclusive leader of autistic individuals?
The first thing is that if you set up your leadership style and your team to be inclusive of autistic individuals, you have set up a team that is inclusive of everyone, whatever their individual communication style might be.
1. How to build more effective relationships
Be open, create space to talk about autism and for individuals in your team to share openly with you. Set up a safe space where you can ask: “Is this one of those situations where I can help?”
Create space to discuss ‘social rituals’, like small talk, and share why we do it, and allow individuals to share their perspective as well
Give individuals the right to say no, rather than encouraging them to say yes to every opportunity given to them
Be aware that some individuals might need their own time and space, if they decline to join the team for lunch it doesn’t mean they are not a team player. It may mean they need some down time to recharge before the afternoon
Some autistic individuals have prosopagnosia (also known as face blindness), where they find it challenging to remember faces out of context. So if you bump into someone outside the office, make sure you quickly share some context, “Hi Ana, not sure if you recognise me - we have been working together on the ABC programme. It’s great to see you again!”
2. How to prepare individuals for social situations
The main thing is to have an open discussion to help remove as much of the unknown as possible around social situations.
Provide context and agendas ahead of meetings and interactions, make time to talk this through before a meeting if they want to
Share a detailed explanation of what is going to happen at the social situation and the part that they are expected to play
Take an inclusive approach to meetings: invite people by name to share, give thinking time rather than putting pressure on people to immediately share ideas, and use anonymous digital sharing platforms like Mentimeter (this creates an anonymous and safe space for individuals to share and communicate in a different way)
3. How to set up the best working rhythm
Be clear, explicit and specific when you delegate a task or ask someone to do something, read our blog on how to delegate effectively
Have regular one to one to offer support, ask for feedback and share any concerns
Give regular clear, honest and compassionate feedback and ask for feedback on your leadership approach too
Allow individuals to approach tasks in their own way, and create their own systems and processes
Here is a funny video highlighting how ambiguous our communication can be sometimes.
As you can see, all of these strategies will make you a more inclusive leader generally, and help you lead autistic individuals in a more powerful way. Making these changes will help you create a team that is engaged, motivated and able to do their best work.
You can read more about autism here, where there are additional resources and support.
If you have any questions or would like some leadership training or coaching, please get in touch, we would love to help.