A very common misconception many people have is that autistic people are very controlling and uncompromising and so cannot work together with other people. This is an amusingly inaccurate idea to say the least. In settings from school, college, or university, where we have to do group projects, to professional settings working together with colleagues, we do in fact manage to work as a team, but there’s a reason this misconception came about, so let’s look at that first.
As autistic people, we can often be quite literal with both our understanding of others’ communication and our own communication, this is because saying what you mean is very practical and (should in an ideal world) be the best way of clearly getting across your meaning. We also often like to plan things out before we approach carrying them out, so that we have a practical plan of attack, reducing the margin for error and hopefully saving us time and energy.
Unfortunately, our communication preferences and working styles don’t always match up with other people’s and this causes problems. When, as an autistic person, you’re in a group project or approaching team work with people who use methods and communication styles that do not in any way gel with yours, the experience can be very distressing. For some autistic people, like myself, this can mean we end up just going off and doing our own thing because experience has taught me that where communication styles don’t match up I won’t be listened to or taken seriously and I’d rather just go do my bit of the work on my own in my own way and leave other people to approach things how they like. That’s my approach to the situation, but other autistic people can go completely passive and allow themselves to be directed entirely by those around them even if it leads to a drop in effective working, or might decide to put their foot down and attempt to take an organising or leadership role because their priority is that the work gets done ‘properly’. This is where the misunderstandings often come in. If you go off on your own, even if you still do your portion of the work well you can be viewed as aloof or stand-offish because you didn’t do it together with everyone else in the same way they did. If you go passive and follow the directions of others completely you can end up working in ways that do not work for you and so the quality of your work drops, you get confused, or end up constantly checking in for direction which makes it look like you can’t think for yourself. And if you approach the task with the attitude of – ‘let’s do things practically, I think this is the most practical way, if you want to try it another way, make a decent case for it,’ but the other people in your group aren’t used to working like this, then you get seen as controlling and having ‘taken over’ the team because people aren’t used to ‘making the practical case’ the way you would tend to do.
All these scenarios can be avoided but they all make us look like we’re not good at working with others, and they unfortunately happen frequently.
When it comes to ‘not thinking for yourself’ or ‘not taking the initiative’, as it often gets phrased in the workplace, this is one that I’ve come across in-person in my own former job. I’ll quickly explain – when I started the job, my partner of the time already worked there, he (not the manager, the manager only gave me a basic outline of the work) explained the full details of the job but he also explained the unofficial expectations and work culture of my colleagues. So while technically I was responsible during a shift for only one area of the building, what my colleagues generally did in practice was clean up their own area and then move along to the next area to see if the neighbouring colleague wanted a hand finishing up. So when I started I was aware that this was Best Unofficial Practice in my place of work, and that this took priority over what I was technically meant to do in the role. So I did it, and everything went fine. My partner also suggested small-talk openers for talking to other staff members and gave me advance descriptions of their personalities so I had an idea what to expect with them all. This made me feel more confident going in than I would have otherwise and meant I was able to talk to people and knew what I could and couldn’t do in the job.
Another colleague, who I am certain was also autistic, did not have this same experience. When they started they did not have someone who was able to give them this detailed information, all they got was the bare bones ‘look after your area during a shift’ briefing. As a result, they did not ‘take the initiative’ to help the other staff members after finishing their own area, because they had no idea this was an expectation and nobody had told them how far from the ‘technical’ job description they were allowed or expected to go. To me, that was understandable, and the new colleague’s behaviour made total sense, but this is not how the other staff members interpreted it. They felt the new colleague was being actively selfish, awkward, and unhelpful, even though they were carrying out to the letter what they’d been asked to do by the manager. This gave some people the impression New Colleague wasn’t a ‘team player’ and didn’t care about anyone else, which was not the case at all, because if you asked them for help directly they would happily help you. When I quietly explained the miscommunication to some of my colleagues they were surprised but were able to view the situation differently and to stop making assumptions about New Colleague’s behaviour. It was good that people were able to re-interpret what was happening once the confusion was explained to them, but the whole situation could have been avoided if everything had been spelled out from the start like it was for me by my partner. Situations just like these are a very common experience and go some way to explaining why there’s a perception that we just cannot work as a team.
So, now I want to explain why and how we are in fact often good at teamwork, and how that teamwork can look when we all communicate better as a group.
In the example I’ve just given, I had the advantage over my new colleague because my partner knew what I needed when coming into the job – this enabled me to work as an effective team member, where my colleague was let down and essentially set up to fail. Talking new team members through the job, as my partner did for me, should ideally be the standard practice when dealing with any new member of a team, not just for autistic people but for anyone, because who hasn’t felt a bit out of their depth having to get the hang of a new job and a new group of people at once? If we’re given this, and those of us already in the workplace are also welcoming a new member with the understanding that they’ve been given this information, then we’re going to be a much more effective team. This is the case for many autistic people (diagnosed or otherwise) who are confidently getting on in their workplaces, because there are many workplaces that do approach things this way.
Likewise, there are many workplaces that take an extremely practical approach to collaborative teamwork where everyone is encouraged to plan, to explain, and to listen in calm, literal language, this improves the quality of communication and means that ideas are heard and discussed logically instead of a top-speed chaotic improvisation (as was the case in another workplace I had a job at that I quit after a single shift). Places that use a calm, practical approach to collaboration are again the type of workplace where autistic people are often going to find minimal problems with teamwork, because it often fits our communication styles quite well. When there is a set way of doing things that everybody understands and adheres to, and we are all very clear on each other’s roles and responsibilities, autistic people can fit neatly into the framework of a team, we can also be the leaders of such a team, and many of us out there are in exactly that position.
But the myth that we can’t work as part of a team is so widespread in part because when a team works well we don’t stick out as a member of it, so we become essentially unremarkable. Where we are most obvious as autistic people is when we’re struggling, and that’s why people notice the times when we’re not managing in a team. It’s an unfortunate catch 22 where, when we do well, we’re not noticed as autistic people and, where we struggle, we’re held up as proof we’re rubbish at teamwork. This can create a vicious cycle where people assume we can’t work in a team so don’t want to give us the chance to try. But it doesn’t have to be that way and hopefully you reading this will help to make sure things start changing.
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