By Lonnie Pacelli
The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Special intelligence Unit 9900 is dedicated to everything related to geography, including mapping, interpretation of aerial and satellite photographs and space research. Within this unit there is a small unit of highly qualified soldiers, who have remarkable visual and analytic capabilities. They can detect even the smallest details, undetectable to most people. These soldiers all have one thing in common; they are on the autism spectrum. Their job is to take visual materials from satellite images and sensors in the air. With the help of officers and decoding tools, they analyze the images and find specific things necessary to provide the best data to those planning missions. The IDF has found that soldiers with autism can focus for longer periods of time than their neurotypical (non-autistic) counterparts (source: IDF Blog).
SAP, a worldwide leader in enterprise software solutions, is tapping into the extraordinary observation and concentration characteristics of people with autism to do software testing. SAP has pledged that 1% of their global workforce will be autistic by 2020 (source: SAP).
Our son Trevor was diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age 5. It initially showed as delayed speech and continued with social awkwardness and other emotional and communication difficulties. Even as a toddler, Trevor showed tremendous abilities to focus through activities like puzzles and, in his passion areas, he could memorize and recite the most detailed of facts. As he grew, his passions shifted to movies and photography. During his first two years in junior college he majored in film studies and eventually got a BA cum laude in film & media studies from Arizona State University. Trevor now works for my wife Patty and me where he focuses on movie reviews, photography, and marketing his and other books on autism.
Having Trevor as an employee has been a terrific experience for all of us, but at the same time I've learned that after 30+ years working for companies such as Microsoft and Accenture that a leader needs to be mindful of how a person with autism thinks and works. The changes I needed to make weren't massive enough to completely retool my leadership toolbox; but they were important enough that I had to consciously act to ensure our styles meshed.
If your company is embarking on an initiative to hire more people with autism, now is the time to act. Take a look at these 15 tips which have worked for me and may help you create the most supportive and productive environment for your employee with autism (Note: there are two schools of thought as to how to refer to a person with autism. There is the "person first" camp who say "person with autism." There is the "identify first" camp who say "autistic person." Neither term is universally correct nor incorrect. I use both terms with no intent to offend).
- Expect different processing paces - Some people with autism process information at a different pace and may not "think on their feet" well. Allow the employee some time to process requests and feedback before discussing in depth. Sending an email first with a verbal follow-up is something that works well with Trevor.
- Watch the non-verbals - Non-verbal social communication, i.e., facial expression and eye contact, can be lacking in people with autism. Don't over-interpret this as rudeness, unhappiness, or some other negative feeling. Also recognize that the employee may not pick up on non-verbal cues from you or co-workers.
- Minimize unplanned interruptions (even fun ones) - "Hey, birthday party in the break room right now" is fun for many neurotypicals but for the person with autism it can be an unwelcome disruption of his schedule that he has already worked out. Be conscious of unplanned interruptions by giving advance notice where possible and allowing for the employee to opt out if not business critical. At the same time, don't exclude the employee from activities--this could lead to hurt feelings.
- Accept employee input on workstation setup - Because many people with autism have heightened sensitivity to things like sight, touch, smell and sound, their workspace environment could have a significant impact on their ability to be productive. Allow the employee to have a voice in their workstation setup, i.e., wearing headphones, reduced lighting, or working farther away from common areas, which will help him be more productive.
- Develop quantifiable objectives with monthly "dones" check-ins - This works particularly well with Trevor. We do a monthly meeting where we review his overall objectives and what will get done during the month to get him closer to each objective. At month-end we review what actually got done that month, provide feedback, and set the dones for the next month. See more about the dones process here.
- Make use of mentors to help with each objective - Trevor has specific mentors for his photography, movie reviews, and book marketing lines of business who advise him on his work, provide feedback, and answer questions. These mentor sessions have proven to be effective, helping him tap into subject matter expertise that we can't provide, and he has learned how to discern and incorporate input into his work.
- Provide more written and visual instruction, less verbal instruction - Generally speaking, people with autism are visual learners and more easily comprehend ideas and direction when they are able to see them and ask questions versus just hearing them. Another helpful technique is to ask the employee to write out a verbal instruction then discuss what was written to ensure clear understanding.
- Use calm tone of voice - Loud or stern voices tend to rattle people with autism more than neurotypical people. Being mindful of using a calm voice will help minimize confusion and angst.
- Use "feedback sliders" - Accepting and incorporating both positive and constructive feedback is absolutely crucial to career growth and the employee shouldn't be exempt from feedback. An effective feedback technique is what I call the "feedback slider"; one positive piece of feedback, (the bottom of the bun), then one constructive piece of feedback (the meat), followed up with a re-iteration of the positive piece of feedback (the top of the bun). This bite-sized approach is easier for the person with autism to absorb and reduces over-reaction to constructive feedback.
- Encourage being the "go-to" person on some topic - Trevor is my "go-to" person when I need input on how a person with autism will react to my articles, presentations, and videos. He knows that I rely on his input and that my work product will be better because of his perspective. Identify an area where the employee excels, promote him or her as a subject matter expert with your team, and encourage the rest of your team to utilize the expertise. Just try not to interrupt them when asking.
- Be blunt on what, when, and why - Autistic people tend to be very literal and are at their best when they are not left to decode unspoken or "between the lines" communication. When defining assignments, ensure there is clarity on what needs to be produced, what the deliverable should look like, why it is important, and when it needs to be done by. Asking the employee to create a mock-up of the deliverable and reviewing the mock-up is a great way to ensure alignment and minimizes rework due to confusion.
- Keep appointments and meetings on schedule and give advance notice on schedule changes - People with autism typically are very schedule-minded and have difficulty with unexpected schedule changes. At the same time, there's no such thing as perfect schedule adherence. Try to give advance notice where possible of meetings or projects that will run over or if you might be late for a meeting with him. Also take time to explain why a schedule change is needed; this can help the employee get on board with the change. If you're a leader who typically runs late or doesn't respect meeting end times, this might be a good opportunity to work on your time management skills :-).
- Allow the employee to opt out of social events - Socializing can be work for many people with autism. Trevor typically runs out of steam after about two hours of socializing, particularly if he's actively engaging in the socialization. Encourage the employee to join in on social events, but allow him to opt out or to leave if he is feeling overwhelmed or stressed.
- Don't underestimate intelligence or ability to deliver - People with autism are differently abled; they're not less intelligent or less able to get something done. They simply march to their own beat. Every time I underestimated Trevor's ability to do something he proved me wrong. Don't be shy about challenging the employee with a big task or aggressive deadline. Chances are he will rise up to the challenge.
- Embrace the differences - Co-worker and manager attitudes and opinions towards people with behavioral and social differences is foundational to a healthy workforce. Creating a welcome work environment benefits not only the employee with autism but the team as a whole. Understanding the differences and assigning tasks that capitalize on them not only creates a happier team but drives greater results.
Want Lonnie to give a keynote to help your leaders more effectively manage employees with autism? Email Lonnie to get the ball rolling!