Autism is a broadly misunderstood condition.
While severe Autism may be disabling, it’s a mistake to think of all people on the Autism spectrum as disadvantaged. In reality, many autistic people have significant advantages over neurotypical people in general. They are better able to absorb and process large amounts of information, more focused and often highly creative. The price for these abilities is often reduced awareness of social clues, a tendency to take things literally and hypersensitivity. Where neurotypical brains filter out most of what goes on around us, leaving us to concentrate on the conversation we are having with someone in a noisy room, for people on the Autism spectrum, the multiple conversations may create sensory overload. So, while they can be very focused, they may also be easily distracted by other things going on around them, which most people would tune out.
Mentoring people with Autism
In coaching and mentoring someone on the spectrum, it is important to remember that everyone is different, and the way Autism is expressed varies greatly from individual to individual. No two Autistic people are the same. It also helps to remember that Autism is enabling, and to respect the advantages it brings to the client, while at the same time recognising the challenges they face.
Some other helpful guidelines include:
- Choose places to talk where you can both concentrate fully.
- Leave longer pauses for them to work through their thinking – they have more data to consider.
- Don’t be put off by apparent lack of rapport. People on the Autism spectrum tend to watch another speaker’s mouth (where the sound comes from) rather than their eyes.
- Don’t assume they are not empathetic, or lack emotion – this is almost never true. Do ask them to talk about their emotions in their own way.
- Capitalise on their ability to notice more than you do. If you ask the question “What do you notice right now?”, allow time for them to consider this. You might be surprised at the detail and insights they will provide.
- The more information you have, the harder making decisions can be. Share decision-making processes and work through the information in a systematic way.
- Encourage them to innovate by applying their unique perspective.
- Explore together the difference between how each of you sees the world and the events they bring to the conversation – take the attitude that you can learn from them, too.
- Help them develop strategies for dealing with social situations they find difficult. Simple rules can help – but can cause problems if misapplied! A practical method is to illustrate a situation with two or three different stories, each of which requires a different social response; then help them work through the underlying assumptions behind each situation.
- Let them coach you from time to time, to help them understand your role. If possible, choose topics that they are an expert on.
People who coach or mentor those on the Autism spectrum – and who are genuinely open to learning – experience insights and challenges to their basic assumptions that carry through into their more regular coaching or mentoring conversations. (For example, in what it means to hold a person-centred dialogue.) Indeed, it could be argued that everyone training to become a professional coach or mentor should have this experience as part of their basic education!
At Art of Mentoring, we support understanding, engaging & celebrating the strengths, interests & aspirations of people on the Autism spectrum. Celebrate World Autism Awareness Day with us on 2 April.
Professor David Clutterbuck is a regular guest of our free webinar series.
© David Clutterbuck, 2019. Updated 2022.