Peter is the first person to admit that it’s not anyone’s fault that some people are neurotypical. If you’re not, though, here’s how to deal with the challenges of working with them effectively.
I want to say this up front: I recognize that while some people are labelled “neurotypical,” it’s not their fault. Some of my best friends are neurotypical. And I recognize that the neurotypical are doing the very best they can.
But, I have to admit, there are … challenges … in working with the neurotypical. The primary one is that the neurotypical, as a result of interacting primarily with other neurotypical people, regard what they do as “normal.” “Normal,” of course, just means “common among the neurotypical.”
The defining characteristic of the neurotypical is their facility at picking up and acting on various “social cues.” Much of this happens automatically and, as a result, they’re not aware of doing it and take it for granted.
It does mean that neurotypical people are, without being fully aware of it, often communicating not just with words but with tone of voice and body language. Considering the amount of miscommunication and emotional upset that derives from depending on these cues, it’s obvious that this isn’t a completely reliable process.
What you can do in a work environment is encourage precision: It’s worth asking follow-up questions to ensure that you understand what a neurotypical person intended to communicate. Be clear about where you think there could be a misunderstanding, as it helps the neurotypical refine their understanding of what they meant (it often turns out that they’re vague on the details themselves).
Written communication helps here because it reduces communication to “the words being said.” To put it another way: when it comes to communicating with the neurotypical, email is the best friend both of you will ever have.
You should also recognize that the neurotypical have a low tolerance for details (with exceptions, of course, generally in the fields they value). Gauging the other person’s level of interest in advance and figuring out what matters to them can help here.
Having that understanding enables you to structure communication around what’s important to the other, neurotypical person (you can provide the detail in a way that allows the other person to ignore it if they wish). Using a graphic to structure information often works for both the neurotypical and neurodistinct to create meaningful information for everyone.
Encouraging your co-workers to do the same is also helpful here—asking “What’s important to you here?” and “Can you send me this additional detail?” helps the neurotypical structure their communication. In fact, it’s worth pointing out that improving precision and structuring information around what matters to the other person is basic to effective communication for everyone.
We have to admit that the neurotypical have a high tolerance for distraction and sensory input. That’s not to say that they don’t recognize that a high-distraction environment isn’t conducive to good work (in fact, they often talk about how productive they were because they were “in the zone” or were left alone to do their job).
It’s going to be your responsibility to create a work environment that supports your needs, though you can enlist co-workers and management to help with this. It’s worth leveraging the neurotypical understanding of “being in the zone” or “flow” to make the point that reducing your interruptions and distractions results in higher productivity.
Most managers, for example, will accept ignoring email and phone calls for part of the day provided that there’s some way for “urgent” requests to get through. It will be your responsibility to point out that every communication can’t be classified as “urgent.”
One of the side effects of interruptions is that you can end up with multiple tasks, all competing for your time. It’s worthwhile to get others involved in prioritizing these tasks. This can be as simple as saying, “I’m working on this right now. Do you want me to drop that for this other thing?” Realistically, though, the answer is often going to be, “Well, work it in.”
Simply going to your manager with a list of currently competing tasks and asking for some direction in prioritizing them can help here. You may be surprised on how many of those tasks you’ll be told that you can ignore or only do if time magically becomes available.
Being specific helps here, also. Setting achievable deadlines for each of these tasks and being clear on what’s required to achieve those deadlines helps managers and co-workers clarify what their priorities actually are.
In this process, concentrate especially on what the criteria for success or failure are—these are often unstated. The neurotypical tend to assume that “good enough is good enough” (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but they’re often vague in their own minds about what counts as “good enough.” There tends to be an assumption that what counts as “good enough” is “obvious”—it’s not. Clarifying what counts as “good enough” can save recriminations later on.
Again, everyone benefits from this process, especially if all the stakeholders are involved in setting priorities, deadlines and what counts as “good enough.” Having all the stakeholders involved ensures everyone feels that they were heard and contributes to getting to a solution that makes sense for everyone involved (even if everyone doesn’t get everything they want).
As this suggests, working with the neurotypical effectively does require a lot of care and attention (and let me repeat: It’s not their fault). And, yes, this is extra work on your part. However, the ingrained belief among the neurotypical that their assumptions are the “normal” ones makes it essential that you help the neurotypical deal better with the reality that the world is full of people “not like them.” Fortunately, that extra effort pays off in a better work environment for everyone because, well, because the world is full of people “not like you.”
One final note: Try looking in their eyes while talking with them. They seem to find that reassuring. I’m told the opposite is true if you meet a bear. It’s confusing.
Peter Vogel is a system architect and principal in PH&V Information Services. PH&V provides full-stack consulting from UX design through object modeling to database design. Peter also writes courses and teaches for Learning Tree International.
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