Aspie Mishaps and Misunderstandings Examined: At Work – “Do I really have to be ‘that’ literal and direct with you?”

Senior and junior business people in elegant suits. Boss angry with young handsome employee standing from behind, holding crumpled paper isolated on white

Have you ever heard a seemingly successful and ‘high-functioning’ Aspie try to explain how exhausting a day at work can be, or say that Asperger’s ‘ruined’ their career? In this article, I will provide just one detailed [real-life] scenario along with a commentary and analysis from an objective standpoint. Aspie’s and neurotypicals (NTs) both can benefit from having a deeper look inside to gain an understanding of what’s happening on both ends.

A bit of background information to provide context: Aspie has spent many years as a consultant in his/her area of expertise and has recently taken a full-time permanent management role. Aspie is well-versed and seasoned in this area and now manages a small team that creates content for a knowledgebase used by employees and the internal service desk agents. Aspie’s boss is a senior manager who hired Aspie so the company could leverage that previous experience.

NOTE: The following dialogue is pre-diagnosis, so Aspie and boss are both interacting without the awareness that there are any neurological differences to consider. This is important because many undiagnosed Aspie’s go through these types of situations all their lives. Constantly struggling to figure out WHY they have such a difficult time interacting and communicating with others.

Situation: One of Aspie’s internal customers is requesting that the team update their process to include additional data collection (‘x’ number of analyzed problem tickets) over a period of time to serve as justification for adding new articles to the knowledgebase.

Let’s have a look at the conversation between Aspie and boss after this request was made…

Boss: What do you think about the request to update the process?

Aspie: I think the request is unreasonable and changing the process will cause a significant reduction in my team’s productivity.

Boss: Why will productivity go down?

Aspie: Because of the time it will take to perform the additional tasks that will be required due to the change. It’s just not feasible.

Conversation continues in more detail for 45 minutes. Then comes back to:

Boss: How would you feel about potentially changing the process to satisfy our customer?

Aspie: I feel like we shouldn’t change the process. The current process is efficient and thorough, and it WORKS. We’ve recently seen improvements in call volume and wait times, partly because we have ramped up production and added hundreds of new articles to the knowledgebase. Only one (troublesome and uncooperative) customer is asking for this change. If we agree, article production will be severely delayed, and end-users will have to wait until ‘x’ number of other callers have the same issue before we publish an article. That could take months. In the meantime, our agents will have to escalate the calls to a higher level of support, which then takes time away from our subject matter experts who have their day-to-day jobs to do. In fact, I’m getting concerned just thinking about it.

Boss: But what do you think it would be like if we changed the process on a trial basis to see how it goes?

Aspie: Based on our existing time studies, it would put my team in a poor position. It will be counterproductive because we will be withholding information that could be helping our end-users solve their own issues. We already know that we don’t have the manpower to meet the demands of this proposed new process while continuing to keep up with current needs.

Conversation continues for another 45 minutes. Then comes back to:

Boss *extremely frustrated*:  Why is it so hard to get you to DO anything!?!?

Aspie *recounting the entire conversation in their head*:  When did you ask me to DO something??

Boss: Do I really have to be that literal and direct with you?

Aspie: It would help. We could have saved ourselves almost 2-hours on the phone if you’d just told me that you needed me to change the process. Is that what you are telling me now?

Boss: *completely blown away at the ‘audacity’ of Aspie’s reply*

Can you see what just happened here?

Conceptual image of a female office worker gets confused while doing her job, illustrated with many question marks above her head

This is a common misunderstanding in Aspie/NT communications. Boss was trying to get Aspie to ‘do’ something by asking indirect questions. Aspie did not pick up on the inferred meaning behind those questions.

Some of you might be saying – Why didn’t boss just ask for what they wanted instead of beating around the bush?? Actually, it wasn’t unreasonable for boss to expect that Aspie would understand what boss was really asking for. If you’ve read any books on the topic of people management, you know that boss was employing a pretty textbook form of communication. And it usually works!

Do you think Aspie’s last response was rude or disrespectful?

It may have been interpreted that way, but what the boss fails to realize here is that…Aspie was simply answering the questions he/she was asking, very directly and honestly. Including the last one. In the end, both were equally frustrated (for different reasons).

Boss thinks Aspie is resisting and just difficult to work with.

Aspie doesn’t know what he/she did wrong and doesn’t understand why boss is upset.

So, what can we do to minimize these types of difficult situations?

Awareness is the missing component in many cases. For diagnosed Aspies, disclosure of this information to management will prove to be beneficial in more cases than not. When NTs are aware that they are working with a person who has Asperger’s Syndrome, they can consciously adjust their angle, to avoid frequent miscommunications (in this case, by being direct).

Aspies can also learn the language of neurotypicals. HOWEVER, if it were as simple as reading a book for people with autism to learn to fluently communicate with NTs…Aspies wouldn’t be Aspie. The point here is mainly awareness. Awareness in the moment (for the Aspie) allows them to take a step back and ask themselves what the NT is really trying to convey.

Aspies can learn all about neurotypical language, and even become the experts who write about it, and TEACH and explain the concepts to others. This doesn’t mean that it will ever be ‘natural’ for them in real-time situations.

No matter how good an Aspie is at camouflaging as neurotypical, it is and always will be mentally exhausting.

It’s like a complex mathematical problem: Take word definitions + intonation x facial expression + body language ÷ relationship dynamics = true meaning.

Rear view of man in suit staring at whiteboard with formulas in confusion. Classroom with concrete wall and wooden floor. Concept of exact sciences and studying.

Imagine having to decode and translate ALL incoming and outgoing communication like this everyday, all day. Aside from (and in order to) effectively do your job. 

Can you relate to either side of this conversation?

Is this scenario familiar to you?

Please share your thoughts in the comments…

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9 Responses

  1. Im just suspecting i am asd, but i agree with the aspie, people shoud be more clrar when they sprak. Nothing wrong with his responds.

    The last thing on how to read facial expressivness. What is the question here?

    1. Hi Kine – I can see this from both perspectives because in an NT world , boss was using a well-known communication tactic. It just doesn’t work very well with Aspies ! Haha.

      The ‘math’ problem is just a way to show all that Aspies have to go through in their/our minds just to properly interpret what NTs are saying. All those factors have to be taken into consideration in order to figure out what’s meant. It’s pretty exhausting.

  2. I have never been in a management position, but I do have autism and I think the Aspie in the scenario could be me. I wouldn’t pick up on the fact that the boss wants to change the process, in this situation I would think he was asking me for advice on changes. And I would never be rude, but I would ask him “so, you want changes? .. ” or something like that, meanwhile I would be flabbergasted about the boss not saying what he means..

    1. Hi Conny – I think the boss wanted Aspie to just ‘do’ it based on all the questions around it (without boss having to actually say it). So in many cases even asking ‘so, you want the changes’ is misinterpreted as snarky. Especially for those of us who have dry monotone voices. I’m glad you could relate to this case. I hope this reaches far n wide to spread awareness so that we all can see from both sides.

  3. i just read these comments . It is wonderful to see that
    I am not alone .. i have these problems so often… ADHD, plus other stuff.
    Most often I have this problem with my wife who gets really impatient with my being difficult.

    1. But David, are you ‘really’ being difficult? Or is it just difficult for her to understand you? I have this issue at home as well and feel like if they could just try to keep in mind that our questions are just questions and they don’t have to paste their own meaning behind ‘why’ we are asking…then we’d be fine. For example…if I say…why did you wear that green shirt today…I’m really just CURIOUS…it does NOT mean I think you made a bad choice, or that I don’t like it (or whatever). Or if I ask…how long will it take to do (whatever I’m being asked to do)…I really JUST want to know…it is NOT because you’re inconveniencing me, or that I don’t really want to do it…

  4. “Gnome, do you want to take these papers up to the second floor?” “No, I am almost done with this project here.” “Well doing that project isn’t your job, take the papers!” D:

  5. Just realizing how literal I have been all my life. I am 55. I can think of innumerable times when this has been a problem looking back. I was demoted and then almost fired before I quit my last RN job in private assisted living. I was the DIrector of Wellness and managed a large team. My managers made my life so stressful in order to get me to quit. After 7 years of working many hours of free overtime, they told me I was uncooperative and didn’t listen. It blew me away and I sat there in complete shock. I felt I had done every little thing they asked me and more. I am thinking now that there might have been many things they suggested I do that I didn’t even realize! Now I’m having difficulty understanding my current boss who is a very abstract thinker and talks to the office staff for what seems like hours. In the end I have to ask her what she wants me/us to do. 😔

  6. Maybe I’ve just had worse experiences than most, but I would never disclose the fact that I’m autistic in any professional setting. Managers who have known about my condition have at best been patronizing and refused to accommodate me (“I understand that you have difficulty performing this task because of your ‘problems’, but nobody else wants to do it, so you’ll just have to deal”) and at worst dismissed me as a liability and found excuses to get rid of me. I haven’t ever had a manager genuinely try to see where I was coming from and adjust their approach to me because of my disclosure. Managers also are not bound by confidentiality, and many managers see absolutely no problem with sharing someone’s disability with everybody else at the office. For me, learning NT language is easier than disclosing and hoping the manager is a decent enough person to handle it appropriately.

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