Providing feedback to all employees is a crucial part of managing a team effectively. It helps in building a relationship between managers and employees, identifying areas of improvement, promoting growth and learning, as well as providing recognition.
With differences in processing information speeds, interpreting social cues, and more, communication is different for autistic colleagues. This needs to be recognised when giving feedback to ensure that it is a positive experience, and one that focuses on growth, development, and support. This blog considers how feedback can be communicated effectively and what considerations are important when collaborating with autistic employees.
Ask for preferred communication methods
This is a conversation well worth having, as different people have varying forms of communicative preferences. This could be face-to-face conversations, online conversations, or as a written email – or a combination of methods; for instance, a face-to-face meeting followed up with a bullet-pointed email of key points. Bear in mind that within these various forms, different styles exist, as well as the fact that it can vary based on the context or circumstance.
It doesn’t have to be perfect every time, but as best as you can, it’s useful to find out how to help your autistic employees feel comfortable and well supported at the outset, and to ensure that your feedback is most effectively received.
Regularly review performance
All line managers should be having regular one-to-ones to discuss and review performance with their team members. With autistic staff, however; brief, more frequent catch-ups may be suitable for some, compared with longer sessions that occur at a less frequent interval. I know for me, weekly catch ups are important, so I understand that I am working to the right priorities (I find it hard to distinguish between tasks and their significance), and it’s a great opportunity for me to run over quick queries that have come up across the week. With workplaces being so busy, with various workstreams, socials and other things going on, I find I have a lot of agenda items that build up. At times of high stress, I will catch up more frequently, but often for ten-fifteen minutes at a time.
These succinct short meetings enable issues to be quickly resolved, instead of them building up into the next catch up, and therefore helps to minimise anxiety and stress.
Keeping check-ins predictable and consider the meeting format and environment
This also helps with preparation from the employees’ side; both physically and mentally, as well as understanding from a cognitive and processing perspective. In terms of what the feedback itself will cover: what went well, what went less well, and what can be improved upon could be a useful format to replicate. This helps keep things simple (feedback needn’t be complicated) and formulaic for each catch up. In terms of feeding back improvements, a numerical or values-based scale format can be used to clearly communicate expectations – or any other method that you discuss and come up with together. Bear in mind that an autistic person may need longer to enable processing time, so these catch up sessions may also need to be slightly longer. Also consider the sensory environment at all times, as this will almost certainly affect processing speeds for communication.
Recognise that communication will differ at various times
This follows on from the previous point around processing time. I know when I am in a meeting, I need a lot of time to process the information being presented, in addition to what I will then be saying (if I am able to contribute). There is a lot to process, and for this reason I prefer one-to-ones, as opposed to meetings with additional colleagues, as the processing time significantly increases and speeds up, causing stress and anxiety. It’s like someone opening more and more tabs in my head, but I’m frozen and unable to quite activate the control-alt-delete buttons to maintain control, or to even act. A highly charged sensory environment impacts me further. I would also add in not to make any assumptions about autistic people.
Often, it’s assumed that just because I can be great and articulate in some circumstances of communicating that I will be in others – this just isn’t the case in other scenarios and shouldn’t be assumed across the board.
It is essential to be specific, concrete and accurate when feeding back to autistic employees
Abstract concepts, vague, non-specific feedback, metaphors and sarcasm should be avoided in communicating feedback. It can be helpful to outline an issue clearly and unambiguously, and then provide specific examples when this behaviour was displayed and what needs to be improved exactly. Where issues have arisen, it’s also worth checking the employee’s understanding of the task, in case this was misinterpreted at the outset. Wherever appropriate, give positive feedback, and be sensitive and tactful if providing any criticism; try to focus on the solution and actions rather than the problem. We all want to move forwards, after all.
Keep things positive by recognising your employee’s strengths
This is a crucial part of providing feedback as it helps motivate the employee to continue performing and improving their skillset, and developing more generally. This is also a useful way to provide constructive feedback in areas of improvement and helps keep the narrative more positive by focusing on strengths and the potential for improvement; not to mention, this also enables the employee to feel valued and appreciated for their efforts. To further this, provide opportunities for skill development to improve strengths and areas of improvement that are relevant to the role.
Manage expectations clearly
State exactly what needs to be done instead of making generalised statements. For instance, instead of “you need to be better organised,” you could explore to-do lists, prioritising and other forms of visual aids, such as diagrams or flow charts that could be useful. This is a great way to enhance and integrate understanding and find a range of solutions, especially as autistic people can experience difficulty with auditory processing, which can make it tricky to verbally absorb information. By using visual aids and supplementing a meeting with written notes, this may be more effective overall. Flexibility really is key when communicating, and keeping an open mind as to what can be helpful. All of this helps in managing expectations and gives the employee a much clearer understanding of what is expected from them in a range of ways.
Understanding expectations really helps us strive in the workplace to achieve our goals.
And finally, do provide plenty of reassurance in anxious and stressful situations
Like myself, some autistic people can be very thorough, meticulous and detail-orientated; so, if things aren’t quite perfect with my performance, I can get anxious easily. I cannot stress how important this point is in terms of feeding back. For instance, allow employees to know what to do in situations of IT failures or a printer not working, and equally if they are late for work due to public transport delays – knowing that this is OK. A buddy can also help in providing this reassurance. But please bear this in mind as a form of feedback at regular catch-ups. We really appreciate the reassurance.
I hope these tips are helpful! They are by no means exhaustive, and I appreciate that each workplace and culture is different in terms of how feedback is setup. But hopefully this highlights some of the factors that can be useful to an autistic employee.
Keep in mind that each autistic person will be different, so if you’ve nailed communication with one autistic employee, this doesn’t mean that you’re set for the next, so do please take your time in getting to know your colleagues and what works best for each of them.