Communications Considerations for Individuals with Autism
by Aaron Traub
by Aaron Traub
This past year, organizations across every industry had to grapple with changing internal communications. Unfortunately, common work-from-home tools like Google Hangout, Zoom, and Slack are especially challenging for those diagnosed with autism.
Individuals with autism already have difficulties with communication and interaction, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors in the workplace before the pandemic. Common behaviors include:
– Inconsistent eye contact
– Difficulties listening to others
– Rarely showing emotion
– Difficulties with back-and-forth conversation
– Inability to read certain facial expressions or body postures
– Inability to predict other people’s actions
Each of those behaviors poses a challenge in the workplace, particularly in the communications industry, where effective verbal communication, active listening, and appropriate body posture and eye contact are all expectations. However, now that working from home is the norm—and a growing number of people hope to continue it after the pandemic is over—the nonverbal cues, Slack messages, and long Zoom calls are difficult for people with autism to read or adhere to. So how can communications professionals better communicate with colleagues who have autism?
Individuals with autism may exhibit repetitive behaviors, ramble off-topic, or ask you to repeat instructions, especially in an industry like PR. Whether it’s in crisis communications, reaching out to media, or dealing with the press, individuals with autism are limited in their ability to understand the unwritten rules of communications. Be patient, be kind, and do your best to bear with them—they will appreciate it.
Communication is more challenging when it’s over Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Slack, regardless of whether or not the individual has autism. With social cues being a common struggle, individuals with autism may ask too many questions or none at all. Speak slowly and make sure the individual understands instructions to avoid any confusion.
They can get overwhelmed in large virtual meetings
In any workplace, information overload can be common, but it’s important to note that sensory issues often accompany autism. These can include both hyper-sensitivities (over-responsiveness) and hypo-sensitivities (under-responsiveness) to a wide range of stimuli. As a result, large video conference meetings can be difficult for them to pay attention to. Try to compensate by setting up one-on-one meetings and make it clear that the individual can feel free to ask any questions. Creating or distributing a guide like this could also be useful.
They embrace structure
Individuals with autism appreciate structure—they often thrive on rigid routines. The communications industry is full of unexpected curveballs, whether it’s crisis communication or a last-minute ask from a client. Try to account for this where you can. Meetings going off-agenda or giving a task with little-to-no instruction can make an individual with autism feel overwhelmed, and they may not always feel comfortable asking questions or know what questions to ask. Help prepare them for what’s to be expected and provide as much detail as possible when giving a specific instruction. If there’s a day where they are given several tasks to handle in a short amount of time, it’s important to communicate what the priorities are and how they can balance and organize work.
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