Help with a differently-brained co-worker
May 27, 2022 3:46 PM   Subscribe

I have a co-worker who I'm pretty sure is neurodivergent along some spectrum. He doesn't talk much, he's a total savant a some tasks and pretty helpless at others. He is a nice guy, but I worry that I don't know how to interact with him well. More details about today inside.

So, I don't work with this person often but today he was on my "team" of which I was the guy in charge. There's a lot of very independent work, even within the team, and my job is mostly to keep everything running smoothly.

During the day we have breaks around X time and a meal around Y time and another break around Z. The morning break went pretty well, with people moving in and out on their own terms during the appropriate time. But during lunch, everyone else cycled into lunch and I found this guy still working. I asked if he had a lunch yet and he said he hadn't been told how we weren't handling it. (Obviously not picking up the clues that everyone else had made their own plans.) I apologized to him for not discussing it with him and told him that if he wanted lunch now, he should take it now, or he could have it later. He left for lunch right away.

Later in the day, I talked to him and apologized again for not talking to him about lunch and said I would do better the next time he was on my team. He told me "I don't like to take lunch at the usual time anyway." I asked what time he liked to take lunch and he gave me a specific time and I promised to remember that in the future.

I worry about 1) having not done right by this person from the beginning but also 2) hoping I didn't make too big a deal out of my misstep with him when talking later in the day.

Anyway, any advice here would be appreciated. I'm not looking to be this guy's best friend but I do want to be someone he finds pleasant to work with and who is respectful and is trying to learn how to communicate well with him.
posted by hippybear to Human Relations (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You're beating yourself up about something, but I'm not sure what or ultimately why?

It sounds like he got caught up with a task on his first day and took a late lunch.

You expressed your worry already, and he already expressed that it hadn't been a problem. I mean, him saying "I don't like to take lunch at the usual time anyway." sounds like an attempt to defuse tension/ deflect your expressed worry, which is in itself socially onto it *enough*.
Soooo... Why are you still stuck on it?

If you are worried that he won't speak up in time about bigger issues?
Then, it's his first day with you. It was merely a late lunch. You'll find out later when things actually happen that affect him *or* others (these are different categories), as to how long it takes him to notify you.

Do you have some other worry about him working with you that you haven't expressed?
posted by Elysum at 3:59 PM on May 27, 2022 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm just feeling sensitive to someone that probably has a different prism through which they view the world than I do. I'm not stuck on it really, just hoping I did right and wondering if anyone has feedback to help me in the future.

I'm trying to be a good coworker in a situation in which I'm feeling out of my depth. Is that not something to ask about?

i don't understand why you're attacking me for asking this question.
posted by hippybear at 4:05 PM on May 27, 2022

Response by poster: Okay, like here's an example. The next time this guy is on my team, I'm thinking of saying to him "You take lunch at the time you said you wanted to. Would you feel better if someone were there to take your place when you went to lunch, or do you feel okay if you just leave?"

He might want someone there to take his place. We had the conversation when I sat down at his station after MY lunch and I asked him about if he had his. There was nobody else at the station when I got there, so maybe he felt he had to stay.

I want to have him feel like he has the maximum personal choice in the situation but I don't want him to be left discomfited by how I run the area, and I'm happy to help him be comfortable.

Am I being an asshole for even thinking about this. Thanks for Elysum now I think I am.
posted by hippybear at 4:10 PM on May 27, 2022

Best answer: If he is as asocial as you say, he likely doesn't care if you're "pleasant to work with." What he'd probably care about most is having confidence that you'll do your job and communicate with him, as needed, in a clear manner. Be a good co-worker by demonstrating that he can rely on you.
posted by SPrintF at 4:30 PM on May 27, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You're not being an asshole, you're just over-correcting. It's good to recognize that neurodivergent coworkers aren't necessarily going to respond to your laissez-faire approach to lunch breaks (or any other habit you have when you're in charge) the same as your neurotypical coworkers. But you don't need to figure out what each individual person needs from you--you just need to invite them to share their needs with you. The solution is to be a lot clearer up front any time you're working with someone new (and therefore don't know their neurotype). Maybe you could implement a "start of shift check-in" where you briefly share your expectations, talk about breaks, and invite your team to share any of their needs or concerns. If you say, "I leave it to people to pick their lunch time, so don't wait for me to tell you to go on lunch," or, "I start sending people on lunch around X time, so let me know if you'd like a different lunch time," you've given all team members the information they need to proceed with their day and ask for what they need if their preference/need is different from your default ("Actually, can you remind me to take a lunch if it's 1pm and I'm still focused on XYZ project? Sometimes I get so engrossed, I forget").
posted by theotherdurassister at 4:37 PM on May 27, 2022 [19 favorites]

Best answer: I think you handled this just fine & I'd consider the matter to be settled. I'm really not seeing anything in this interaction that could have gone better or anything that needs to be fixed.
posted by bleep at 5:16 PM on May 27, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Just make sure the people on your team know that your job includes answering questions they may have about the day’s schedule in addition to specific work questions. The thing about neurodivergent people is that we are all different so you’re not going to get a clear answer from anyone other than the individuals involved.

It really doesn’t seem to me like either of you did anything wrong. You noticed something amiss, you spoke to him about it, he communicated the issue and you gave him choices. Later, you spoke to him clearly about what to expect next time he worked with you, he felt comfortable enough to express a preference, and you told him that you could accommodate that preference. Seems good to me. If he is sometimes less verbal maybe you could make it easier for everyone to communicate with you via a slack or something to ask questions? But that is probably not necessary.

You can’t expect to be correct preemptively at every step. The best way to accommodate is to be approachable so people can ask for what they need and want, and to show that if something isn’t right that you have a willingness to change it. Seems like you did both?
posted by Mizu at 6:13 PM on May 27, 2022 [2 favorites]

Depends on the coverage needed which depends on the job the team is doing and the size of the team and the interchangeability of the people on the team and a lot of other things like those. Usually everybody can't take X,Y,Z at the exact same time, but maybe Y is slow because everybody around Y time is going to lunch so the work is light and there just needs to be somebody there all the time for the just in case. Depending on lots of things like size and scope... I might put up a whiteboard somewhere with team members and hours where people can make a mark for X,Y,Z (whenever it's taken) and then people can take a look and determine if there are enough others around for them to take their X,Y,Z.

But yeah, you didn't do anything bad, there's the management-ish (whatever) of making sure that everybody gets their X,Y,Z during the shift if for nothing more than legal reasons or even "you're not going to get paid for that Y time anyway, might as well take it, it's factored in". Regulations and such.

There's a whole spectrum between having to assign people/groups to X,Y,Z to keep things staffed and operational and things like weekly on-call rotations with a list of escalation measures. So it's hard to give a best answer for your current work environment, I've sorta seen them all.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:19 PM on May 27, 2022

OP, I am saying this with kindness and in the spirt of being helpful: I find it a bit strange you felt Elysum was attacking you. I had a similar reaction as they did to your post, and nothing in their reply strikes me as the least bit critical - like them, I was confused as to where thought you went wrong. Given your strong reaction to Elysum's reply, I wonder if part of the problem here is that something else is going on with you, or just all of the shitty news has gotten to you more than you realize? Sorry if that's off-base, but your concern over your co-worker and Elysum's reply seem perhaps related.

In any case, I agree with theotherdurassister, you just need to communicate expectations and rules clearly and politely, and make sure people know they can come to you with feedback/concerns. If you do that, you're doing great.
posted by coffeecat at 6:51 PM on May 27, 2022 [30 favorites]

Best answer: I am on the spectrum and always like to take lunch solo. It’s not a break if I have to eat with others because I still need to do “work” with them. I prefer working while they eat and getting some much needed quiet downtime alone on my own lunch break. Your colleague may prefer this too? Thanks for being so accommodating :)
posted by dazedandconfused at 7:21 PM on May 27, 2022 [9 favorites]

As long as you do remember the time he prefers, sounds like you're doing fine. You apologized for the lack of communication, clarified what works for everyone, and you're ready to go. Doesn't sound like it was a big deal. If you're feeling weird/bad about it, that's a thing for you to get to figure out in your own self, and that's okay, too.

I've been having to be a "boss" again for a few weeks for the first time since the start of pandemic. I have not communicated clearly sometimes. We had a team of folks who were all new to the particular (very weird freelance) job and some of whom were new to the kind of job or the idea of a regular job at all. Lots of stuff was being decided on the spot and what I should have said early on was, "If you have a question, ask it. I try to be as clear as everything as I can at any given moment. Lots of stuff we will all figure out together, and that is okay and to me, kind of ideal. My main job is to make sure you're feeling safe and okay and get enough breaks to be human in the day. My second job is to figure out how to get this work done."

What did instead happen was that I ended up walking around every couple hours to remind people to take a break when they wanted. The crew was smart enough to sort out that their input was important and things kinda filed into shape. Some mistakes. (Mine.)

I did teach them all to pee on the bosses' dime, so I'm kinda proud of that. It sounds like you did fine, even if you put the guy out a little. He could have asked you at any point in the morning about what time lunch was. Hopefully, he was just focused in on something and didn't clock the clock.
posted by lauranesson at 7:40 PM on May 27, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You are overthinking this. There are no concerns with what happened.
posted by NotLost at 8:02 PM on May 27, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You did fine. You're worrying too much about this, which is kindly meant and does not makr you an asshole, but it's not your job to bend over backwards finding accommodations he hasn't actually communicated with you that he needed. You can't know what he would find helpful and should trust that he will ask for what he needs from you.

With your suggested language, to me it sounds like you're being overly delicate/awkward about this. Would you ask another coworker if they "feel okay" or would "feel better" about their lunch break or would you just say hey, what's a good break time for you? As a neuroatypical person I absolutely do not want my colleagues asking me about my feelings or being more solicitous about me than they would any other colleague. I just want them to be clear. All I'd want from you is a "I remember you like to break for lunch at 1, should I plan on that today?"
posted by Stacey at 8:18 PM on May 27, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Stacy said it better than I did. As another neurodivergent person, I find your plans infantilizing. Sorry, I realize you mean well.
posted by NotLost at 6:33 AM on May 28, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As a neurodivergent person I say that you did great, and your followup in the afternoon was also great since it made clear that you were open to communication and wanted to provide a good environment for your co-worker. Thank you for doing this!

The two best things you can do to create a positive work environment for neurodivergent co-workers are (1) providing clear and explicit communication (including what you did of noticing when you had accidentally left something implicit), and (2) not assuming that there's some weird subtext [like some of the replies here are assuming] or silently judging people for "missing the memo". The great things about neurodivergent people are that we generally say just what we mean, we take your words at face value, and we don't play weird status games.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:40 AM on May 28, 2022

One other thing that occurred to me -- it's possible that the reason you're asking this question (and the reason you checked back in with your co-worker in the afternoon) is that you subconsciously interpreted your co-worker's body language and/or tone and/or facial expression during your interaction with him about the lunch break as signs of annoyance (or some other negative emotion). There's a great quote from autistic comedian Hannah Gadsby about "not telling her face" about her inner emotional state, with the consequence that her affect is flat and apparently people misread her as intimidating. So, you may be worrying about your co-worker's emotional reaction based on having misread it in the first place. My advice is to give more weight to his actual words. This is why I think you having checked in with him again was a good thing: you opened the channel of communication, and if he were really put out by it, he probably would have said something at that point.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:54 AM on May 28, 2022 [4 favorites]

Don't ask if he would feel better if X. That's kind of infantilizing. Instead, ask what he would prefer, just like you would a neurotypical person.

You handled this fine, as far as I can tell. You're kind of stressing out about a big fat nothing burger, no offense.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:22 AM on May 28, 2022 [4 favorites]

Mod note: A couple deleted. A miscommunication / misunderstanding between answerer and OP, and attempted explanation, which then became a fairly long derailing comment and leading to more miscommunication, anger. As a quick note, if you feel someone has misunderstood your answer, it's fine to just offer a brief explanation, like "sorry, I really didn't mean to suggest X; here's what I was trying to say: [2nd, brief, final attempt to rephrase for clarity]."
posted by taz (staff) at 11:04 PM on May 29, 2022

Response by poster: Despite the horrid taste this entire AskMe experience has left in my mouth, I was prompted to come back and leave a follow-up, and so I shall.

That co-worker appreciated me observing his stated preferred time to take his break. He also asked me at one point, when he was working at a place that you couldn't easily walk away from, "but who will take my place here?" when I went to offer him his break.

My instincts were correct about him, and my asking this question led to WAY too much fucking bullshit in my emotional life, so I'll trust myself in the future.
posted by hippybear at 2:08 PM on June 27, 2022 [2 favorites]

Speaking as someone on the spectrum, I'm sorry if the responses here made you feel bad. It sounds like you were being aware and doing your best to support your coworker in the best ways possible. I hope you come away from this with a more positive than not experience.
posted by Lexica at 9:35 PM on June 27, 2022

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