How understanding my nephew’s autism helps me improve business communications

Communication is an issue in Autism. It affects the way you communicate and interpret information. I’ve learned a lot about autism to better help my nephew communicate. I’ve also learned to think more carefully about my word choices to avoid misinterpretation. What I’ve realised is these learnings are equally helpful in bettering business communications.

So, to celebrate World Autism Awareness Week and my nephew’s impending 18th birthday, I’m sharing three of my learnings. They are taken from the beautiful, albeit bumpy, journey my nephew and I have been on. They illustrate how they help me and I hope now you, better your business communication.

Use precise language (My nephew age 5)

I’m with my sister in her kitchen discussing something important when my nephew interrupts us. “Give us a minute,” I tell him. He stops for exactly 60 seconds and then begins interrupting again. Now we all know I meant ‘wait until we’ve finished our conversation’ but those with autism don’t find it easy to infer meaning.

In international business, inference can be easily lost in translation. People are busy so simplicity is best. There’s real value in the expression ‘say what you mean and mean what you say’. Choose your words carefully, make them as precise and short as possible. You want to make it easy for people to understand what they need to do… and when!

Provide purpose (My nephew age 10)

“We’re going for a walk, why don’t you put your shoes on?” I ask my nephew. “I’m not going,” he replies. “It’s a beautiful day for a walk, come on,” I try. “No,” he yells, “walking is pointless.” Then he slumps angrily into a chair.

We don’t get our walk. My mistake was not giving the walk a purpose. Had I said: “We’re going to walk along the beach so we can eat ice cream and see the hovercraft come in – get your shoes on,” our day would have ended differently. Those with autism often function much better if there is a reason to do something.

Purpose and context are no different for motivating within business. I see lots of ‘what’ communications but great businesses also tell their umbrella purpose story about ‘why’. People are far more motivated to act when they understand the reason they are being asked to do something. They also do it more enthusiastically when they know how their actions contribute to their company’s overarching purpose.

 Pause for thought (My nephew age 15)

I’m in a small but busy café. “What would you like for lunch?” I ask my nephew. He doesn’t answer. He’s not being rude. He’s digesting the conversations from the five other tables surrounding ours. Nothing is ambient noise to him – it’s sensory overload. He could tell me the topic of conversation on every table. That’s why it can take time for those with autism to process things.

We need time in business to process and understand communication as well – particularly when the information is spoken. Pregnant pause is one of the hardest things for presenters to master because it feels so awkward. But as listeners we don’t notice those pauses. Our brains are too busy processing and making sense of what has just been said. In international business, audiences are also frequently translating back into their native language. Slowing down the tempo and pausing to give people time to process are two of the most powerful communication techniques both within and outside business.

Autism is complex. There’s a vast spectrum and not everyone on it responds in the same way as my nephew. Autism does offer useful communication insights though – especially when thinking about how audiences interpret information. World Autism Awareness Week runs until 2nd April. To get involved or find out more visit The National Autistic Society.

Alex established not A Duff word in March 2017. She helps businesses, brands and boards to wordsmith words that work, master their messages to matter and sculpt standout stories. Her blog ‘early words’ is published Thursday mornings at 07:00.

Published by

Alex Duff

Freelance Communications Professional

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