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  • Writer's pictureAshlea McKay

Quirk Monster #16: 5 examples where autistic traits are easily mistaken for performance issues

An abstract painting with various colours, textures and patterns on a mostly black background
An abstract painting with various colours, textures and patterns on a mostly black background

I’ve learned that regularly being misunderstood is just a fact of autistic life. 

My thoughts, words, actions, choices and more are often viewed as strange when examined through a non-autistic lens. Something that is completely ‘normal’ for me as an autistic person might not make much sense in the context of a non-autistic person. This disconnect affects all areas of my life but is especially challenging in the workplace. 

I’ve found that most people have no idea what it’s like to work with an autistic person — that’s why I started this series!

There’s a big education and understanding gap around what it looks like, what reasonable adjustments might be needed and what to do. Thanks to stigma, myths and socially acceptable ableism, there are also quite a few people out there who unfortunately automatically assume that an autistic person will hide their traits in the workplace and will sometimes assess our performance based on how well we present as ‘normal’ and stay out of everyone’s way. That’s not even remotely OK. 

I’ve said it a hundred times and I’ll say it again. Autistic people are not broken. Autism is not a defect or a performance issue to be overcome. I’m just different and as worthy of your respect, kindness and tolerance as anyone else.  

I thought it might be helpful for me to peel back the curtain on my brain and share some examples of common workplace situations where my autistic differences have been mistaken for performance issues. Some of these examples have resulted in me being passed over for project opportunities, promotions or jobs — never mind the impact on my mental health and wellbeing!

I’d also like to share examples where people have been amazingly supportive and also what I wish people would do to support me. Some examples are from my pre diagnosis life and some are post — either way, I was born this way so they’re all valid!

This is a two part article because there are so many different examples and Quirk Monster is intended to give you quick bites. 

1. When I don’t talk much in meetings

What it can look like: I’m unprepared, I have nothing to say, I’m not paying attention, I’m not contributing to the team, I’m less capable, I lack leadership skills.

What’s going on inside my head: Processing, processing, processing. 

How to be a good ally and support me: Give me an opportunity to go away, think about it and come back to you with questions later if I need to. A senior leader in my current team does this very well. It’s also highly likely I’m not the only person in the room who needs to take some space to think, so you should be doing this anyway. 

2. When I request 20-30 minutes of focus time to complete a seemingly mundane task like writing an email or filling out a form

What it can look like: I’m incompetent, I’m exaggerating, I’m rude. 

What’s going on inside my head: A lot of information. At any given moment in time, I am processing an enormous amount of information. I’m taking in sensory information from my environment, I’m interacting with you, I’m thinking about the rest of my day, I’m thinking about the task I’m working on right now and all the other tasks that will follow and much, much more. If I want a shot at writing a coherent and useful email or filling out a form accurately and completely in the shortest amount of time, I need to clear the processing queue in my head. I need to clear some brain space. Asking you to leave me alone for a little while, blocking other sounds out by wearing noise cancelling headphones or retreating to quiet space is how I do that. 

How to be a good ally and support me: Trust that I have a good reason for asking and give me some space without judgement.

3. When I ask you to put your request in writing instead of delivering it via a phone call or a face to face conversation

What it can look like: I’m difficult, I’m creating extra work for you, I’m rude. 

What’s going on inside my head: I experience mini shutdowns from time to time where verbal communication is really hard. I can’t find the right words, my sentences are jumbled up or incoherent sounds instead of actual words start coming out. It’s stressful, embarrassing and usually happens because I’m tired or under too much pressure and just need to decompress. I might also ask you to do this if the information or request is quite complex and is likely something I’ll need time to digest and potentially refer back to later because I also have a hard time processing verbal information. Following the flow of a conversation is really challenging for me and I’ll often miss things. 

How to be a good ally and support me: Know that there is a good and well thought out reason for why I am asking you to communicate in a specific way. Help me out by doing what I’ve asked. The verbal shutdowns don’t last long. I’d also ask that you consider a time when you asked for someone to communicate with you in a different way. Everyone is different in their own way. 

4. When I ask you a question or tell you something and you respond defensively because you think I’ve said something awful

What it can look like: I’m a horrible person, I’m inflexible, I’m not a team player.

What’s going on inside my head: A very long, fast and confused thought train that goes something like this: What? How did we get here? That’s not what I meant! What did I say wrong? How can I fix this without sounding defensive? What if they don’t give me a chance to talk? 

How to be a good ally and support me: Give me the benefit of the doubt and take my words at face value. Resist the urge to instantly assume the worst. I don’t naturally read between the lines and as such don’t naturally communicate in code. If you think I’ve said something awful, there’s a high likelihood you’ve misunderstood me. Ask for clarity and give me a chance to explain the same way you do for your non-autistic peers. A colleague of mine demonstrated this really well a few months ago when I was having trouble distinguishing between our other colleagues and I told him “They all look the same”. I was being completely literal in that in my mind they were all young men who wear suits to work. I sometimes have trouble recognising and identifying faces and I couldn’t tell who was who. They were all a blur to me — I had to keep looking people up on LinkedIn throughout that entire engagement because I kept forgetting people’s names. When I made that comment, my colleague stopped and said “Explain what you mean by that”. He listened to me and he understood. He told me that he initially thought I’d said something offensive but gave me a chance to explain because it didn’t sound like something I would say. He chose to see the best in me.

5. When I tell you I’m too busy to take on more or am at or over capacity

What it can look like: I’m lazy, I’m unhelpful, I'm incompetent, I can’t manage my time, I’m being negative, I’m blocking you, I’m making life hard for you. 

What’s going on inside my head: I know my own limitations and I’m trying to help you by transparently sharing them with you so you can make informed decisions. I’m also likely trying to avoid a meltdown. I hate having to say this and I only do it when I’ve considered all other options including working longer hours or dropping another task — there’s a good chance that I’ve already done that. 

How to be a good ally and support me: First of all, believe what I am telling you is true. It is disheartening to have to prove this time and time again. The default assumption that I’m too incompetent to manage my own time or am lying to you needs to stop. Focus on the problem at hand. You have a thing that needs to be done and I’ve told you I can’t do it under the current conditions. Now what? Change the conditions. Offer to take something off me and don’t punish me for needing help. 

Author’s note

This short article is a lived experience example shared from my life to help you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be autistic. I am just one autistic person in a really big world. No two of us are exactly alike. I can only speak for myself and to my own experiences. If you want to know what other autistic people think — and you should — look them up, talk to them and read their work too. We all have our own voices and this is only mine. This article is part of a mini content series I publish to LinkedIn when I can. You can view the other articles in this series via my LinkedIn profile. 



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