Autism is a badly misunderstood condition. While extreme autism may be disabling, it’s a mistake to think of all people on the autistic spectrum as disadvantaged. In reality, high functioning autistic people have significant advantages over 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. Whereas “normal” brains filter out most of what goes on around us, leaving us to concentrate, say on the conversation we are having with someone in a noisy room, for people on the 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.

In coaching or 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. 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 of the 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.
  • Capitalize 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, as they will have more data to work through
  • The more information you have, the harder making decisions can be. Share decision-making processes
  • 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 mis-applied! 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 expert on.

Everyone who has coached or mentored people on the autistic spectrum – and who is genuinely open to learning from them — experiences insights and challenges to their basic assumptions about people 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!

David Clutterbuck 2018

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