How to communicate with autistic people at work

Simon Day
Simon DayRoyal Society for the Prevention of Accidents

Simon Day is a copywriter and blogger who specialises in writing about health and safety and autism. He recently discovered he has autism.

Autism marked on slate with coloured chalks

One in roughly every hundred people that you meet will be autistic or neurodivergent.  If you're one of the 99% of neurotypical people, then you probably think that sounds like a pretty minuscule amount.

But consider the amount of people you encounter in the legal industry over the course of the year; lawyers, other legal staff, clients, witnesses et al. That's not to mention the people you encounter outside of the legal industry.

For most of us that will add up to somewhere in the high hundreds, possibly thousands.  So it seems almost guaranteed that you encounter one autistic person every year and extremely likely that you encounter more than one.

So what's different in communicating with autistic people?  And what can you do to be more inclusive?

I'm in my late thirties and I've only recently discovered that I have autism. It's led to me re-evaluating my working life and how I communicate with others.  So these tips are from my own personal experiences.

The best starting point is to look at a definition of autism. The National Autistic Society describes it as "a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them."

Whatever definition you look at, one of the overarching themes is communication difficulty. This relates to both how autistic people communicate to others, and how they interpret communications. A simple explanation I use regularly is that I'm 'wired differently'. How I communicate and prefer being communicated to is different to most people. It can present a barrier, both for me and others, but it is something that can be overcome.

How can you better communicate with somebody with autism?

  1. Speak with clarity
  2. This may seem like I'm stating the obvious, but it is something that people often struggle to do.  The key here is to ensure what you are saying is clear and on topic. Try to speak calmly and concisely.  Most importantly when talking to autistic people, try to eliminate the non-verbal forms of communication such as gesturing and impersonating.  Personally, I get hung up on words that have multiple meanings, so couple that with actions such as gesturing and I easily get lost or distracted.

  3. Don't ask too many questions
  4. Of course, the legal profession necessitates plenty of questions. Where possible try to make these short and specific. Open-ended questions can cause difficulties. Also consider whether your questions are completely necessary. And remember to allow plenty of time and space for a complete answer.

  5. Be literal
  6. Sarcasm, irony, metaphors and rhetoric are often confusing for autistic people. They often have a tendency to take things very literally, so try to speak literally. This is especially important if you're giving instructions.

  7. Say their name
  8. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is very common in the autistic community. A simple technique to ensure you always have someone's attention is to use their name frequently.

  9. Be accommodating
  10. Many autistic people display unusual mannerisms when communicating. This is a coping mechanism neurodiverse people use to make themselves feel more comfortable and to stimulate their senses. Try not to be unsettled or concerned by this, just accept everyone's quirks.

  11. Be mindful
  12. Finally, something else that may seem like I'm stating the obvious. Try not to make assumptions about someone because of the way they're behaving or what you know about their disability. Sure, adapt your communication style, but don't talk down or make negative assumptions about people's mental capabilities. That can cause offence, embarrassment and resentment. Personally, I hate having to utter the words "I'm autistic" to cover off an awkward situation.

Communication coping techniques

So that's how you should communicate. Next, a little insight into how neurodiverse people can act when communicating with you.  Here are two common coping techniques, one of which I use myself:

Echolalia

This may be a word you're unfamiliar with. It's a common behaviour used by the neurodiverse.  Echolalia is essentially echoing words that have previously been said.

Most commonly, this means repeating back the words you have just heard. It's used as a coping mechanism to avoid awkward silences and anxiety. And it's not just instant repetition, sometimes people use phrases they've heard friends say a few days ago or even from television programmes or films. It all helps them to feel comfortable and is often the prelude to a meaningful and well-considered reply.

Dermotillomania - stimming

This is more commonly known as self-stimulating behaviour or 'stimming'. Most of us have some form of repetitive motion we do for comfort - picking fingers, playing with hair, and fidgeting are common examples. It provides comfort by working the senses and is done in response to emotions such as boredom, stress, anxiety, fear and even excitement.

Because of autistic people's neurodiversity, these emotions are often exacerbated and more intense than 'normal people' experience. You've probably got the physical and cognitive abilities to keep your stimming under control. That's often not the case if you have autism. Rocking constantly back and forth, head banging, pacing etc, are all stims that can cause complications when communicating, but it's something that's necessary for a lot of people with autism

And finally

Always remember that if you know one person with autism you know one person with autism. Not everybody 'stims', echoes words or finds sarcasm confusing. There's no sliding scale of autism, people aren't slightly autistic or extremely autistic.  There are many behaviours, traits and neurological conditions that make up the spectrum. 

It's impossible to know every exact detail about a person's condition, what is important is being as inclusive as possible in your communication. Tailor the way you communicate and seek out ways of being as inclusive as possible.

 

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

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