Creating a Neuro-Inclusive Supervisory Style

Janet Barbieri, MSW, LICSW

Ryan Walsh, BASoc

Ryan Walsh, BASoc

About the Authors

Janet Barbieri, MSW, LICSW has a BA in social work and psychology, and earned a master’s in social work specializing in the provision of clinical mental health services. She has held numerous roles in therapeutic day and residential school settings in both New York and Massachusetts, dedicating her clinical practice to supporting neurodivergent teens and young adults and their families. 

Ryan Walsh, BASoc is a musician who is highly involved with music and podcast production and enjoys playing video games and spending time with his friends. As a member of AANE’s Speakers Bureau, Ryan enjoys and appreciates the opportunity to speak on his lived experience as someone on the autism spectrum on topics related to self-advocacy, mental health, education, employment, and building meaningful connections.

Most supervisors never received explicit instruction in managerial best practices and are thrown into management positions without much, if any, formal training. If you were among those lucky few who did in fact receive explicit training, this instruction likely did not include guidelines for developing a supervisory style that is responsive to the needs of neurodivergent employees. In spite of best intentions, without a foundational understanding of neurodiversity and the historic, systemic barriers neurodivergent workers have faced in the workplace, you may find that your efforts have fallen short.

Dismantling Systemic Barriers in the Workplace

Navigating a work environment that is not set up for you is exhausting. As your autistic employees walk through the doors of your workspace or office building, or log into their first virtual meeting of the day, they may not feel that they can safely bring their whole selves to work. Consider some of the barriers that autistic individuals may face in the workplace. From the structure of interviews, to the physical setup of the workspace and the organizational infrastructure, autistic employees face barriers from pre- to post- employment. As a result of the discrimination that autistic individuals have faced in the workplace, often referred to as ableism, autistic employees may feel they need to hide autistic traits at work. Masking day after day and continually working within an environment that does not recognize and meaningfully address the needs of neurodivergent employees can lead to autistic burnout.

Developing a neuro-inclusive supervisory style not only means responding to the individual needs of those you supervise, but also building your awareness of systemic barriers within the workplace and advocating for needed change. Autistic employees are subjected to the secondary drain and impact of working within an organization that may not be set up in a way that fits their neurological differences. The next time you walk into your office or workplace, or log onto a Zoom meeting, conduct a quick neuro-check. Here are a few examples of what you may consider:

  • Bring your attention to your physical workspace. How does your space address varying sensory experiences and profiles? What kind of lighting, desks, chairs, and office/workplace layout does your organization have? Lighting, noise, and other sensory inputs can drain your employees internal resources and impact engagement.
  • Think about how you communicate with each other. Does your organization allow for differentiated options during virtual or in-person meetings? Increase engagement and participation by allowing folks to use their audio and/or the chat feature to share their feedback or write notes to share with you after the meeting.

Reflect on how these and other environmental factors contribute to autistic burnout. Each individual has unique sensory experiences and one physical workspace setup may not work for another. Consider where your organization can make small, but impactful environment changes to be able to respond flexibly to the unique sensory experiences of your employees.

Neuro-Inclusive Supervisory Strategies

There are several strategies you can follow to build a neuro-inclusive supervisory style and be a catalyst for dismantling some of the historic barriers autistic employees have faced. Applying a neuro-inclusive supervisory approach can help reduce the impact of ableism and protect against further marginalization and Autistic burnout.

Get to know your employee. Whether an employee chooses to disclose their autism or other neurological difference or not, understanding your employee’s strengths, needs, and optimal working style is a foundational first step towards creating a neuro-inclusive supervisory style. Building shared mutual understanding will guide how you support each unique individual you supervise.

Be intentional about developing trust within your supervisory relationship. Make explicit space for those you supervise to share their feedback with you. It could be as simple as asking, “Do you have any feedback for me?” and giving them the option to say or write their reply. Remember that making space for feedback is only part of the trust building process. When offered feedback, respond with gratitude, openness, and curiosity. At times, it can be difficult to receive feedback, and you may notice your body respond to feedback with an increased heart rate or racing thoughts. Feeling anxious or defensive is a common response. Take a deep breath and remember that having the opportunity to hear and integrate feedback is a privilege.

In addition to developing trust and building greater mutual understanding between you and those you supervise, consider the following neuro-inclusive approaches. Remember that supporting each individual employee will vary, but these strategies can act as a jumping off point as you begin the process of strengthening your supervisory approach:

  • Ask what works for them. Implement their suggested process and check in about how the process is going and whether or not any adjustments are necessary.
  • Identify and offer opportunities for independence and autonomy. If an employee is given an assigned task, can they determine how they complete that task that best fits their working style.
  • Provide clear, written instructions that outline concisely and sequentially the steps of an assigned task. Consider sending explicit instructions in a written follow-up to a meeting. Or create instructional templates for common tasks that can be reused across your department.
  • Recognize differences in communication styles. Not all individuals communicate their thoughts, feelings, and intentions in the same way you might. To avoid miscommunications and misunderstanding, try to make the implicit, explicit and check for understanding. Don’t ask your employees to read between the lines and infer what you actually mean or what you want them to do. Also recognize that you may be interpreting the employee’s communication incorrectly. Ask for confirmation or clarification about what the other person intended to communicate. Try to form a relationship where you can both be transparent about the way you communicate with each other.
  • Normalize the need to decompress and engage in brief rejuvenating breaks throughout the day. Ask everyone you supervise what kind of break is rejuvenating for them. It could be a walk outside, or having time in a quiet space. Partner with your employees to explicitly outline a process for taking breaks.
  • Familiarize yourself with executive functioning tools and technologies. We all use different tools and technologies to prioritize, organize, and remember what tasks we have on our to do list. Listen to and learn from your employees about which tools work for them, and become a resource for your employees by learning what tools and technologies are out there that assist with executive functioning demands.
Addressing Neurotypical Bias

Bringing your awareness to what assumptions, both positive and negative, you make unconsciously or consciously about neurodivergence can be an uncomfortable but transformative process when building a neuro-inclusive supervisory style.

Creating a more neuro-inclusive supervisory style takes practice. As you continue to develop and expand your capacity as a supervisor, remember that there will be opportunities for growth and development along the way. It’s important that you are patient with yourself and prioritize gradual, sustainable changes to your supervisory approach. Committing to even one shift in your supervisory style can be the catalyst for impactful, meaning change in your workplace.

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