Q: I am on the autism spectrum but have learned to be so good at masking it or passing for neurotypical that most people don’t know, and I’ve never seen any reason to tell them.
I got a technical job and was so good at it that I was promoted to management. I supervised a team of other technical people, and I was also very good at that. Because I had taught myself social skills, I could both relate to them and help them improve their own social skills, using what I had taught myself.
Then I was moved into a second management job, where I supervise a wider group of people. Those employees have complained because they want me to be more “normal,” which I think means to better fit their expectations for a buddy boss.
Would it be productive to explain why I am how I am? Could that lead to a useful discussion of accepting neurodiversity, or is the stigma against autism so great that doing so would torpedo my career?
A: Just thinking of the sheer number of people in my personal circle who are, or are related to, people with diagnosed sensory and processing differences, I can’t help hoping that most people’s understanding of autism has graduated beyond movie stereotypes and sitcom punchlines. Even so, many neurodiverse children and adults are vulnerable to misunderstanding, judgment, abuse and worse by those in authority — in education, in the workplace and in the justice system.
As a successful professional on the autism spectrum, you have a tremendous opportunity to spread awareness. Of course, being an autism ambassador isn’t and shouldn’t have to be in your job description. Unfortunately, your socialization skills, though hard won and carefully applied, are not quite seamlessly aligned with your new team’s expectations — and that’s what can torpedo your career as a manager.
I’m in no position to say whether mentioning autism would spark an “aha” moment for good or ill in your colleagues’ minds. But you don’t need to mention your diagnosis to acknowledge that we all have differences in how we process information and react to invisible cues. Some of us are visual learners; others need spoken instructions. Certain tones or expressions trigger different reactions based on our personal history. A busy environment can sap or stimulate.
For the most part, we unconsciously adjust and compensate for these differences. But consciously addressing those differences as they come up is an excellent way to defuse a misunderstanding. For example, if you know you come across as “checked out” when you’re actually concentrating on forming an answer, explain that you need time to process. (“One moment please, my brain is buffering.”)
For that matter, frank talk can also help clarify what your team members need from you. You “think” they want a “buddy boss,” but have you invited them to tell you specifically what they would find helpful — words of validation, expressions of interest in their nonwork lives, a diagram of your thought process?
Incidentally, under the heading “it’s an ill wind that blows no good,” one convenient launchpad for these discussions is the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if it hasn’t visibly changed your workplace, odds are most people are feeling out of sync with their routines and expectations, leading to miscommunication and friction. Engaging others in deliberate conversation about the upheaval they’re going through, how they’re compensating, and the minor adjustments that would help them better cope might foster more general empathy and patience with differing response times, productivity and expectations.
At any rate, regardless whether you bring up your autism with your subordinates, one group with whom I think you should be explicit about your autism is HR. Disclosing your diagnosis to HR, even if you don’t need any accommodations, will trigger protections under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which may come in handy if you find yourself targeted by discriminatory behavior or complaints from those who want you to act more like them.
Pro tip: The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy offers an archive of helpful resources on hiring and managing workers on the autism spectrum, as well as firsthand accounts from workers on finding and navigating work in a neurotypical environment.