It’s that time of the year again.
The annual or biannual performance review cycle is enough to make anyone feel nervous but potentially even more so for those of us who are autistic.
I’m certainly not afraid to tell you that they scare the shit out of me.
My heart skips a beat every time I hear it mentioned or get an email about it and I spend most of the weeks surrounding this time holding my breath. You might be thinking if you’ve done nothing wrong, what have you got to be worried about? But it’s not that simple.
While I am in a happy and healthy performance relationship now, like many other autistic adults, I have a list of past traumatic performance review experiences that is taller than I am. While many of my past experiences have been disappointingly dismal, it’s actually pretty easy to be a good ally to your autistic staff member at performance review time.
Someone is bound to say that the list that I am about to share with you is just a bunch of stuff that employers should be doing as best practice anyway with all employees autistic or not. Keep in mind that while yes, there is a lot you can apply across the board, autistic people might need more support than you think they will. Or they might not. I can only speak for myself.
Also, autistic people aren’t always included in the future professional development planning aspects of performance reviews. I’ve had far too many reviews where I’ve just been ranted at about all the terrible things I’ve done, how unhappy all the people I’ve offended are and how lucky I am to be keeping my job. Goals and professional development aren’t always part of the conversation which is sad because autistic people should be able to grow their careers and move up too if that’s what they want.
Here are 4 ways you can be a good ally to autistic people at performance review time.
1. Implement and follow a ‘no surprises’ policy
I’ve had many performance reviews in my career where a manager has blindsided me with an epic bombshell that in some cases has been several months old. I remember one review where I discovered I had seriously offended someone 4 months prior with a comment I had left in a Word document. Learning of it at the time of my review, months after it had happened made me feel sick. If it was serious enough to be brought up at a review, why am I only hearing about it now? I also wondered what people had been saying about me over those 4 months without me having a chance to explain. To be fair, that manager learned from the experience and never repeated that behaviour, but it’s still pretty common. When things happen, talk about them in the moment. Don’t sit on it until review time — unless you really want to be someone that people don’t want to work for.
Equally, tell people when they’re doing well! Positive feedback should also be timely. I can’t always tell when I’m doing well. The ‘no news is good news’ approach doesn’t always work for autistic people. A non-autistic person might assume that not having evidence of bad news means they have nothing to worry about, but it can be different for autistic people. I don’t naturally make assumptions, so my brain will churn out a list of EVERY possible possibility — some good, some bad — and I sometimes get overwhelmed because I can’t narrow down which possibilities are most probable. For me no news equals no information to work with and no ability to reach a point of resolution leading to anxiety and potential meltdown.
2. Let your autistic staff member decide when they want the meeting to happen
Mine is next week. It’s happening very early in the performance cycle because I just want to get it over with. The sooner that conversation happens, the sooner I can exhale and get on with my life. Other people might like more time to prepare (although I started preparing a month ago). Everyone is different. Allowing people the flexibility to choose which day within that finite performance period suits them best can take a lot of the stress out.
This time around, my manager also asked me what time of day would suit me best for the review conversation. This has been fantastic because it has allowed me to choose a time of day where I will be at my best in terms of mental energy and also allow me to time the aftermath. While I am not expecting to be triggered into a meltdown this time around, the culmination of all that anticipation does take a lot out of me. When it’s over, I’ll be absolutely exhausted. I’ve timed mine for 4pm because I’m at my best in late afternoons early in the week and will be able to switch off and have a quiet evening afterwards. The time and date of a meeting can have a hugely positive impact on me with very little effort on the part of anyone else.
3. Stop mistaking autistic differences for performance issues
I’ve written two Quirk Monster articles about this: Part 1 and Part 2. Read them, build your empathy and stop mistaking petty social misdemeanours for actual problems. Growing your overall understanding of autism and choosing to view it as a difference worthy of your support will also go a long way. It sounds incredibly simple, but you’d be surprised how many people out there still view autistic people as defective and in need of ‘training’ or ‘fixing’ so that they ‘fit in’ with everyone else. This ableist, negative and anti-diversity mindset can have serious impacts on your autistic employee and your organisation. Intolerance towards autistic differences is unacceptable.
4. Focus on learning and the future
As I mentioned earlier, autistic people often find themselves not having futures with organisations.
We’re just like anyone else: some of us want to move up, some of us want to move sideways, some of us are happy to stay put, some of us have other plans and priorities and many other things. Autistic staff are as individual as any other team member, problem is, those of us wanting to move up or sideways tend to face much larger barriers to success in the workplace. Stigma, myths, misunderstandings and unconscious bias around autism are still running rampant.
Sometimes, it can feel like a non-autistic person wanting an opportunity is enough for them to get it while an autistic person has to prove they can already do it while also disproving persistent negative stereotypes and the overarching belief that we’re less capable. It’s unfair and it shouldn’t just be on us to change other people’s biased mindsets.
Make a conscious choice to be different — view your autistic employee as someone capable and worthy of opportunities for growth. Have a collaborative two-way conversation and talk to them about what they want for their career right now and long term and how that might fit with the needs of the organisation. What kind of training do they think they might benefit from? Is there a project they’d like to work on? Would they like a mentor? (remembering that the mentor is NOT there to ‘teach’ them how to be ‘normal’ in the workplace).
Performance reviews can be stressful, but they don’t have to be. Treat your autistic team member like the valuable and talented individual that they are and be prepared to make minor reasonable adjustments to facilitate the best possible experience for everyone.
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.