Managing Whilst Autistic

Experiences of a late-diagnosed autist grappling with how to be an effective middle manager

There are several distinct kinds of advice given to autistic managers, and while much of this is valuable, it often seems to focus on the autistic traits that are considered “disordered” and make it harder to “get on” in the (neurotypical) world. This is an attempt to catalogue those for future discussion. I'll probably have to come back and update it from time to time.

I've so far identified 5 types of advice:

  1. The advice which is given to neurotypical managers too. Managing people is a skill that doesn't come naturally to most people, so all managers will need advice and training at some point in their career. This doesn't stop being useful just because the manager is autistic: much of it is still useful, and it serves an additional function of giving us data to better understand the people we work with. But often it feels a little bit off for me, or is somehow harder to put into practice than it should be because I'm missing some key bit of information or intuition that apparently we're all expected to have.

  2. The advice on how to minimise the negative impact of your autism. This is usually taken to mean the impact on neurotypical people, directly or indirectly, and usually comes in the form of explanations of things that NT folks do but which don't come naturally to their autistic colleagues. Don't get me wrong, this is also useful, but it does mostly place the responsibility on the autistic person themselves to do the work of adapting to a world not designed with them in mind. Sometimes the delivery can be frustratingly patronising too...

  3. The advice to work around difficulties by avoiding responsibilities that might expose them. This might be helpful, but more on the level of career advice than job training, and needs to take careful consideration of the individual's unique range of abilities and not fall into the trap of making sweeping generalisations. Remember: if you've met an autistic person, that means you know one autistic person; don't assume because a challenge is insurmountable for some autistic people that it's insurmountable for us all. But don't force us to e.g. take on management responsibility just to justify paying us what we're worth either. Not being suited to managing people shouldn't be a barrier to a successful career.

  4. The advice on what adjustments can be made by those around you to make your life easier. This is really important and really nice when you realise it has happened, but it does rely on other people being aware of you and making changes to give you the space you need to work. It also requires good support structures within your organisation, or otherwise the confidence to take up space and insist on people meeting you halfway as you struggle through every day doing the #2-type things you're told to do, which isn't easy.

  5. The rare-as-hen's-teeth advice on how to effectively use the unique strengths bestowed by autism. There's a really interesting space where the advice given to (default neurotypical) managers is not the best advice for autistic managers in the same situation, and in fact the autistic manager can achieve better results by using a different strategy or tactic which builds on their autistic strengths. Neurotypical trainers may well avoid teaching these or even actively caution against them but they may still work best for us!

Of these 5 types, I'm waaaay more interested in #5 and #4 in the others, and they (especially #5) are the hardest to find. So that's what I'm going to look for more of!

This note contains some reflections that I might want you to know as someone who reports to me (or just a colleague). It's not absolute truth, simply a #WorkInProgress that I'll expand and update as I figure more of this out.

I need to understand your stress level on an ongoing basis to look after you and help you manage your workload. I am less able to interpret the non-verbal as you may be giving off about this, so I need to be able to trust you to be honest about your wellbeing. In return, I am always going to take you seriously and try earnestly to help when you do give me this honesty. If you wait for me to notice you're struggling you might wait longer than you need to. I will always be honest with you and tell you whatever I can. Lying about things just doesn't make sense to me, and if something is confidential I will always tell you that I know more but I can't tell you, and explain why if I am.

If you know the stereotypes of autistic people, you might expect me to be blunt and to value bluntness. In fact, I still have feelings and I know you do too, and while it may take me time to fully apprehend your feelings I will still try to be tactful, and I expect the same courtesy from you.

I welcome feedback and I value honesty, but be prepared to give me a lot more context with your feedback than you might be used to: I need you to be clear and honest also about the strength of your feelings and how big an issue you consider this to be, along with a reasonable explanation of why. You don't need to do all that work yourself though, as I will ask questions about what I don't yet understand, as long as I trust you to answer honestly.

Ok, so I've been starting to order my thoughts on this whole managing-whilst-autistic thing, and it seems to me to break down into 3 components:

  1. How can I modify my natural behaviour to fit better into a management position?
  2. How can I take a different approach to NT managers that builds on the unique strengths of my ND brain?
  3. What support and adjustments should I be asking for to help me?

So far most of the advice I've found, whether from autistics themselves or non-autistic professionals, tends to fit into #1, which is fine for what it is but suggesting that masking more is the whole solution is ablist and unhelpful. I've read about half of Malcolm Johnson's Managing with Asperger Syndrome and so far it seems to fit into this category. The author has an AS diagnosis, but it's very dated in its approach, and uses person-first language exclusively, for example.

Janine Booth's Autism Equality in the Workplace, along with a lot of the advice from mainstream charities and support groups, falls almost exclusively into #3. Also helpful, although very little of it even considers the possibility that some autistic folks might be managers and even good ones at that. FWIW, Booth's only mention of management is not to force people to accept management responsibilities as the only way of progressing in their career and attaining a higher salary, which is important but only half of the picture.

I'm still really struggling to find much on #2, which is incredibly frustrating. I think a lot of the problem is that it's only with recent changes to the DSM and related stuff that people are realising that there are adults out there in the “real world” who've escaped diagnosis by learning to blend in early and reach middle age before the toll it's been taking on us starts to become apparent. As a result, there's very little research or professional practice built up to suggest how to support autistic middle and even senior managers.

Hum, this is getting a bit long. Perhaps I need to start a whole blog to chart my progress on this...

Originally posted on BookFace 🙃

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