A line Manager’s perspective supporting a team member of the Autism Spectrum
I provide 1:1 coaching and work place support for people with neuodiverse conditions in particular for employees on the autism spectrum. My coaching clients work hard to understand their strengths and challenges, to learn and implement coping strategies and adapt to the demands of their role and work places.
I often also mentor line managers. When I work with a manager who is truly committed to gaining insight and understanding and develop empathy to support their team member then significant progress and changes can take place that move towards greater inclusion and equality in the work place. I recently worked with one such manager and I asked him write down his Top 10 Tips. He has given me permission to share them anonymously with you. For confidentiality names and specific details have been deleted but the key messages are clear.
A Line Manager's Top 10 Support Strategies
Based on my experiences, here is what I’ve found to be the 10 most effective line management strategies. While of course these help cater for my team member’s neurological differences, much of the below I have also found helpful with others I manage who are not autistic.
1. Give prior warning, aim for maximum predictability. My team member hates surprises. Unless it’s something 100% nice like a birthday present or an award, you should do your best to give them as much advance warning as possible, particularly if there are any major changes coming their way. Whenever you hear of a new policy or initiative that could affect them, it is worth taking the time to give them some form of notice (even if you have to ask them to keep it secret). For example, when I handed in my notice I made sure that this team member was among the very first people I told as I did not want to risk them finding out second hand. Even with relatively small things, for example, you are going to call with a briefing on something they will need time to prepare so I find it’s helpful to message five minutes before to ask “Is it ok if I call you in 5 minutes about xxx?” rather than springing anything out of the blue.
2. Clear, precise communication and instructions. This is a big one particularly when conversations happen verbally, there is a tendency for things to be easily misconstrued as there’s an assumption that this team member will be able to ‘read between the lines’. They can take things very literally, so you need to avoid giving vague instructions like ‘Could you please write a short proposal with some options” as this creates great anxiety as ‘short’ is very much open to interpretation and some options provides no indication of expectations or what is acceptable. What would be better is to say ‘Try to keep it to less than 800 words, and provide no more than 5 options. Once they have a precise brief or a clear set of instructions, they are very capable of working independently. My team member finds it extremely frustrating when the goalposts appear to move midway through a piece of work. An analogy they have used to explain this: Your mother asks you to ‘Take this money and go see if the shop has got any bread’. When you return with the money, but no bread and say ‘yes they did have some’, your mother says ‘you didn’t do what I asked’. But when you think about, the instructions were not explicitly clear. 3. Keep things visual and use examples. Very simply, this just means avoiding sending lots of information in long paragraphs or complex tables. Use bullet points and keep things like meeting notes short and sweet. I’ve also found it can be helpful to refer to previous work they have done or providing an example (not a template) when delegating new work. It can help prevent crossed wires if you’re otherwise going to explain something verbally or in writing.
4. Weekly 1-2-1s and daily check-ins. Definitely try to find a time slot you can commit to for a weekly 1-2-1. It is important to stick with the timing and have a structure for the discussion agreed in advance. If there are any changes to the structure or timing then agree them at the beginning of the meeting. I also make every effort to speak with my team member within 10 minutes of them logging on in the morning. This isn’t always possible but I find simply messaging with ‘good morning’ and a smiley face is a good way to check everything’s ok as they start work. If there are any issues they will usually flag them quite quickly after we’ve spoken. The morning check- in is also a good time to ask ‘do you know what you’re working on today’ .This enables them to say if they are unsure about what to prioritise. 5. Find and focus on shared interests (and remember what is important outside work hours). As most people know people on the autism spectrum often have deep interests which they love to talk about. To find out and use these interest as way to connect is key whether its sport, gaming, cultural interests or other hobbies. I have found it really beneficial to focus on those interests I share with my team member and to ensure we create time to share anecdotes, experiences and opinions. I would not suggest trying to fake an interest in anything (but rather avoid subjects where you might clash e.g. if they are vegetarian and I eat meat avoid mentioning that and instead focus on the things in common). Also, remember they may face lots of difficulty when not at work (e.g. sleep problems, noisy neighbours, confrontations with strangers on trains etc.) all of which can have a major effect on their work. Interruptions to their routine can also have a serious impact so be careful about asking or expecting them to work late as they may have a regular commitment after work.
6. Assign responsibilities and ownership. My team member enjoys being given ownership of their work even when not working entirely alone; it helps if I assign them specific responsibilities. Vague instruction e.g. ‘can you help out’ with team effort can lead to them being highly selective of what they contribute or lead to confusion to what is expected and they don’t know how to get involved. However, if they are in charge of a particular task with other people assisting, they voluntarily take on extra tasks and take the role much more seriously. The work seems to be more rewarding when my team member is placed in charge particularly when that responsibility and contribution is recognised.
7. Provide regular feedback. I aim at least once a month to send written feedback to my team member. Avoid being too general, and keep feedback specific to one project or achievement where possible, so rather than ‘well done, you’ve created some great work recently’ write something like ‘I was really impressed by the way you applied your expert knowledge to this task/project but still took on board constructive feedback.’ Don’t expect a response, you may not get one, but whenever they have replied they have seemed very grateful for the feedback and helpfully it is recorded so they can refer back to when they like. 8. Send written follow-ups to verbal conversations. Very simple really. Whenever you have an important conversation, particularly if it concerns behaviour or conduct or any company expectations to improve upon this, it is very important to follow up the conversation in writing. Just the key points ideally in bullet point fashion. You might start the email with something like ‘Thanks for our chat earlier - I would just like to reiterate a few important points we discussed’. 9. Public praise/recognition. Look for any opportunity for public recognition e.g. awards, mentions in newsletters or verbally in the presence of colleagues. This kind of public praise and tangible rewards are very important for my team member’s sense of fulfilment as they are concrete and tangible measures of success and achievement – not just words. 10. Encourage rest, breaks from work and early finishes. This is particularly important when having worked a long day or if you know they are especially stressed (maybe something happened outside work). Never assume they will take time in lieu –they will expect to be given express permission. So take note when extra hours are worked and try to encourage an early finish the following day or whenever you think some time off is needed. There is far more to be gained by allowing time to rest and re-charge adequately that pushing for working additional hours.