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Optimizing Yourself: Neurodiversity in Tech



Elizabeth Schneider talks about the issues she has faced as an autistic individual in the industry. She also talks about ways that we can help others in the industry.


Elizabeth Schneider works as a consultant at Microsoft. She is a self-taught software engineer with eight years of experience. She has worked with small local startups to large international corporations. She is an active member of the open source community. From work as a contributor to many projects to her work with the .NET Foundation, she is always ready to dig in.

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[Note: please be advised that this transcript contains strong language]


Schneider: My name is Elizabeth Schneider, you can follow me on Twitter. Neurodiversity in tech is going to be the topic today. I'm going to talk about my personal experience with that. I was formerly diagnosed in my early 20s as having Asperger's. Don't freak out, parents, I understand that DSM is a thing, the DSM-5. I'm also out trans. The DSM-5, for those that don't know, is the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual that's used by the psychology industry of the United States and some other worlds to define different things. Asperger's doesn't exist anymore in that. In version 5, they deleted that. It's now AS, autism spectrum disorder.

I'm clearly in the camp, though, of neurodiversity. I don't like the term disorder. I don't like to say that this is something that should be squashed and gotten rid of. I'm clearly in the theory of evolution camp, and this is the human species evolving. If we squash it out, we may kill the next generation of X-men. You're not going to have those superpowers in your team. The other thing that I talk about is that it's something I have, or it's not something I have, it's something that I am. Just like being trans, it is a fundamental state. You are not going to cure it. You can make it better and you can make them function in society better, but the number one advocacy group for this, you may know them by a blue little puzzle piece, spends more research on finding this in utero than they do helping families. The thought process on that, why would you want to discover this in utero and understand why, I don't support them.

The next big thing to know is some definitions for you. A lot of people hear autism and neurodiversity and hit on the big definitions and the big disorders and the big things that are well-documented within the medical community. The first one is autism and autism spectrum disorders, that's the definition I'm going to work with today. It's very simple, it's very basic, but you'll know that it's very close to the other two on the screen here. I bet you, alexithymia - and I'm sorry for those that are watching this in the recording if I set off your Alexa at home - but alexithymia has a lot of crossover with autism. There's a study out of the UK that something like 50% of autistic individuals have overlap with that, but there are people that are not autistic that can have alexithymia, which is the inability to process and understand emotions, which is the big number one. Everybody thinks that only autistics have that. It's not.

The next one is social communication disorder. This one's huge in another community that I'm a member of, the trans community. A lot of people end up with social communication disorder because they didn't get to socialize as they intended to, and so they got a neuro negative feedback loop that burned them too many times till they said, "Screw it, I'm a wallflower. I'm walking away. I will not have social interactions so that I don't get burned again." If you want to understand the play of autism and alexithymia, the link there is to a very good article about that, and you should read that. It's just insanely long, so maybe before bed some time.

What is your superpower? What is your fortress of solitude? What is your kryptonite? Everybody has them. What is your capability? Autistic individuals and neurodiverse individuals end up having a really good capability of seeing all of the trees in the forest, not the forest, and not a small subset of the forest. If you don't know what your superpower is, what your capability is as an individual that thinks differently, you can't use that in your day-to-day, and others may try to direct you into a different one. You can't focus and you can't better that and you can't bring that to the forefront for the whole team.

Your fortress of solitude, your safe zone - if you don't know what you need to do when you are uncomfortable and scared or afraid or having an autistic meltdown, you don't want to experience, because it's literally a panic attack but that is fundamentally ingrained to your culture. Lights, temperature, all kinds of things feed into that, but it's a panic attack that can last for up to days. It's very extreme, it's very intense, it's very emotionally draining. If you know where your safe zone is, if you know where your fortress of solitude is, "I can sit at my desk, I can put on my headphones, I can escape the world. I can stop it before it comes on," I'm capable of doing it, but also, I now know my comfort zone, so I now know where I can reach out and grow that. I can make it bigger, I can make it better. I can have the team around me help me in that. Then, the team also, if I properly communicate to others what my fortress of solitude is, they can help me in returning to it if they are experiencing that I may need to.

Then, your kryptonite. What freaks you out? Biggest way to get me going, talk about any branching scheme that's not GitHub flow. I will freak out on you. I work with major banks, guess what I spend a lot of time freaking out on. Know what your triggers are, know what your issues are, and how to avoid them, how to prepare for them. You're going into a meeting. you're going to talk about a subject that you're extremely passionate about, you can then be prepared for it. If you have a colleague that you know has issues in meetings around a particular subject or gets riled up over rehashing the same thing over and over again, you can come into the meeting ready for that and be prepared for that.


Communication is a huge problem that people on the neurodiverse spectrum have, and the definition and the key component to this is that successful component there. The thing that most people disregard for the neurodiverse community is that it's a two-way street. Yes, the individual that is the problem or the neurodiverse individual may have communication issues compare to neurotypical communication, but if you don't meet in the middle, you're never going to solve the problem.

Communication styles is a huge area where I've been helped by this. It allows a neuroatypical individual, a neurodiverse individual, to mechanicalize the act of communicating with others. You can remove the emotion forming. You can remove the inappropriate response or the responses that you may not want to have. The hugest aha moment I've ever had around this was on a team, there's about 15 of us, with a Scrum Master that did a retro meeting, maybe an hour long on the far side, we took 5 minutes of that retro meeting, set up 4 cones in a room, and asked us 2 or 3 questions that got us into these quadrants. No, that is not the Microsoft logo, this is from Atlassian. For those that don't know, I work for Microsoft. It was really quickly, it was stupid fast, it wasn't a huge, long, doing a DISC profile or anything like that, it was stupid fast, it was right there in the room, and then she handed out pamphlets that were, "Here's the different communication styles and how they should interact with each other," and stuff like that. That became the aha for me when everybody else in the team was in a different corner than me.

You throw out the quadrants really quick, and then it's "Everybody's over in Steady, and I'm clear up there in Dominant. WTF." Instant feedback. Then, that allows you to then, "My colleague that I always get in arguments with is one of these types. How do I communicate with them in a way that's friendly for them, and vice versa, how do they communicate with me in that scenario?" Most commonly, I hate to write, but I end up writing because the other groups tend to like that better.

Then, understanding this as a whole team, not an individual. Another employer sent me to a training through a local organization, Colorado Employers Council - or Mountain Region Employers Council, depending on when they've renamed themselves - but it was with other people from other companies. I still talk to these people. I still have a relationship with them because of the trust exercises and the DISC profile stuff that we did as a team on that day. We don't work together in even remotely the same fields, but we still do lunches and stuff like that together. My colleagues for the company that sent me for that, I maybe lasted another 90 days after going to that training, because I said, "Obviously, you're not doing the cool stuff you just sent me to training for, so I'm out of here." Do the trainings as a team, because then it builds your team and the people around the neurodiverse individual, to have a common language, a common set of ways to speak. DSL., DDT or design-driven thinking. You now have a way to talk about the problems that you have within the team and a structure of how to potentially fix it.


Focus. I love the monkey cartoon there. We actually used to use that at one of my previous employers as the "it's quiet time" poster so that nobody would bug the engineers in the giant open room. The problem with focus is not just, "Did I get enough time in front of my laptop," it's, "Is it quiet enough? Is it loud enough?" Most companies are still using fluorescent lights. Fluorescent lights, for a lot of neurodiverse individuals, can trigger migraines and can feed into those autistic meltdowns. I had a colleague at that particular employer that always wore the giant floppy fishing hat, because it kept it blocked from his eyes so he wouldn't have to look directly into the lightbulbs at all so that it wouldn't trigger migraines. He got massively bad migraines from the lights. We did the math out one afternoon, it would have cost the company about 1,500 bucks to replace the entire lights in that room with LEDs, and they still wouldn't do it. There were six of us asking for it. Think of the environment in that way.

The other photo I have here is from a study that was recently done around the temperature in a room. I see a lot of ladies in hoodies and heavy jackets and stuff like that. When you raise the temperature of a room, women's productivity can triple. Men's productivity will decrease by 0.001%. Do the math on that one. Having an office at 60 degrees is stupid. Don't do it. Save that money and spend it in the data center. God, don't have cold offices. Actually, my mother's a seamstress and a knitter, and she made me these really long gloves so that I could code and type, because I had one employer that literally kept the office at 60 degrees, because we were a "data center" facility, so we were on the same AC as the data center room. Yes, it was cold, and it wasn't just the ladies that complaint.

The other thing to think about focus is in meetings and other scenarios. Somebody that's autistic, like myself, the particular styles that I deal with, I can dominate a room. Shocker, I'm speaking at a conference. I can dominate a conversation, but if I have something to do with my hands and to do with my brain, I don't. If I crap for a meeting by taking five minutes before the meeting and going, "These are the points that I need to make sure I made in this meeting," and I can do that because I'm given a proper agenda for the meeting, I can then bring a notebook or something like that and just doodle/draw the concepts being talked about by other people. Then, I don't feel I have to interject into whatever the conversation is to not be bored out of my skull.

Then I also have a really fancy custom pen, because it lets me do this. The other thing I picked up off the desk here was a fidget spinner. These were a godsend for me. I have a couple other metal on stack, and I can do all kinds of stupid stuff with them, but it gives me something to do in the meeting so then I'm not staring at my phone or I'm not shouting everybody else down at a meeting, because you want to use release-based branching. Those are good things to have and tools to come up with our "What are those things that can help you with that?"

Another good tool for those type of meetings where you need to have "We're going to pick one of three options," an individual like myself will typically latch onto one, because we see the flaws in the others, how do we communicate to that without making the individuals that brought up those original ideas feel like you're attacking them individually, write them on a whiteboard. Write them on an easel. Write them somewhere and allow the individual to point to that object and talk about that and bullet point out the issues and things of that nature so that you're not talking to the individual that said it and pointing at them and articulating around that and attacking the individual. Don't call an idea somebody's name, "This is Bob's idea," "This is Steve," option one, option two. You pull the personalization of the attacks that come out of that out of that scenario so then you're now in the space to allow the conversation around the options grow but not feel like an individual's being attacked.

Another tool that I use in meetings is, because I can become very impassionate and don't realize I'm doing it, the other one that I get quite frequently is that I get the feedback that I'm also angry. I'm frustrated and extremely excited about an idea. It's a mismatch of, I'm one way and everybody else reads it as something else. You got to give your team a mechanism to give you that feedback without it becoming a, "They're all attacking me." How do you do that? One way that I came up with a former tech colleague of mine that is now an architectural editor for InfoQ was to tap your wrist so that my other colleagues in the meeting could tap their wrist, and that would be my subtle sign that, "Ok, take a chill pill, sit down, take a breather, let other people talk for a little bit."

I have had scenarios where the entire room's doing it. I have had scenarios where people have stopped, stuck their wrist in front of my face, and done this. It's a question of where you got to give that freedom of "You're not attacking me personally, I've given you permission to do this, give me that feedback in that moment." Because if I don't have it in the moment, I already walked away from the meeting freaking out, because I just attacked everybody or shut everybody in the room down kind of scenario. I'm sure you've all had that colleague in the room, where it's "I know everything and I'm going to solve this problem, because we're going to use this option, and only this option," and anybody that says anything else, we're just going to crush you. Good things to know around focusing, not only at your desk, in your computer, but in other tasks that we have to complete as teams.

Empathy vs Sympathy

Empathy versus sympathy. This is Dr. Brené Brown, it's a video. It's quick, it's short. I'm not going to play it here, because I'm sure a lot of you have probably actually seen it, but if we've got enough time at the end and the room wants to see it, I'll play it. There's two links at the bottom. There's the animated little one that I have embedded here and the PowerPoint presentation, but then there's a long one. It's like 90 minutes long or something like that. It's what the animated little short was taken from, and it explains the points that you see on there around empathy. Sympathy is there to shut off and put up the shields. Somebody's telling me something, somebody's trying to be vulnerable. I don't have the capacity or capability to deal with that right now. Put up the shields, defend myself, "I'm sorry for you. How do you deal with it?"

If you take the time to practice empathy, lower the shields a little bit, you can take their issue and help them with it but not solve it. For an autistic person to not solve a problem that you just had told, "Oh my God," freak out, red alert. It's very hard to do. You got to take the time to stop. That last bullet point, I still haven't mastered. I probably never will, because again, that goes back to the alexithymia and things of that nature. If you take the time to understand the other individuals around you and your users and your product owners and the ops team that's in the building across the street, from an empathetic standpoint. I learned most of my stuff in a way that I could understand it around these two topics from a design thinking training that Nordstrom used to do.

You'd fly into Seattle, you'd do this training with this giant group of people, you'd pair off into teams, you'd come up with a problem to solve, you'd talk with all these people, and then you'd go out onto the street and actually talk to individuals, real people, real humans, and come back and build a product out of pipe cleaners and cardboard and construction paper to solve the problem. It's doing that from a, "I'm going to learn an engineering thing. I'm going to go have fun and be a better engineer" training, and then show up and learn all these soft skills. Really groundbreaking, because as an individual, you show up, "I'm ready to get in this. Let's go have fun," and then, holy crap, soft skills. You're already in a state of "I'm receptive to whatever you're going to tell me," but then you give them skills that they may or may not want to do. If you plan on "We're going to do an empathy training today, half of your engineers are going to go," "Screw you, that's soft skill."


Feedback. For those that don't have any E, that is a negative feedback loop. Those are fun, especially when the output is your finger. I'm currently building an 8-bit CPU on breadboards, that's fun. You got to understand the difference between feedback and advice, and this is a human language that's tried to soften itself in modern society. This is gender versus sex, they mean different things. Don't use them interchangeably, feedback and advice. When you want feedback, you want the sugarcoated "I just want the green checkmark." When you want advice, you want actionable, doable things.

When you go to a colleague or somebody and say, "How do they do in that meeting," ask for advice, not feedback. If you ask for feedback, they're going to give you the sugarcoated, "You did fine. That was great. Don't worry about it." If you ask for feedback, they're going to give you, "Next time, maybe wait five minutes before you say anything in the meeting." They're going to tell you the scary things. They're going to tell you that, because you've given the capability to it. The link across the bottom is to an article that was done by "Harvard Business Review," on feedback versus advice. It's crazy statistics but essentially goes into that.

Take all feedback and advice as from the other person's biases. You got to understand that they're going to give you feedback based around they may have gotten that feedback in the past. They may have had an issue with that in the past. You've got to understand where it's coming from, what your source is, do you trust it? Is it a random guy on the internet, or is it a trusted colleague?

Then, the other one that you want to do is leave what's not helping you. Take that advice in, process it a little bit, and if you find that it's not working for you or whatever, the tapping on the wrist isn't working or anything of that nature that you and your colleagues could come up with, it's not working, just leave it on the side of the room. Walk away from it, it's not helping anybody. Don't keep beating the dead horse. Take the time to reflect. What I mean by this is I can go into red alert mode really quick when somebody gives me feedback or advice. "Damn the torpedoes, shields up, screw you, bite me, why are you telling me this?" kind of scenario.

If I take and I make a point of telling the individual that I've just asked for advice or asked for feedback from, I can tell them, "I may not react immediately to this. I'm going to take a little bit of time to process it." It gives A, me, the mental trigger of, don't freak out on this person, and B, it gives them the, I'm not going to show emotion, I'm not going to show a reaction, I'm not going to go, "That's a good idea," "That's a bad idea." Right then and there, I can walk away and take the day or whatever it takes for me to think through the implications of whatever I've been given. Then if I choose to, I can reach back to that individual and give them a, "Yes, that was a good idea. Thank you for giving me that," but I didn't go full phasers and blow them up.

If you've done both to an individual, especially after first giving them the heads up of, "I'm going to not process this," and then you forget to do that some time, and then give them full phasers, they're going to come back to you and go, "Don't do that again," real quick. It's an easy way of setting the boundaries early on so that if you do screw up, you're capable of correcting for that.

Imposter Syndrome

The next one I want to talk about is imposter syndrome. This is an xkcd, so it's fun a little bit. There's a lot of individuals within the industry that have issues around this, but it's a very valid feedback loop. It's a piece of information that you can use to do the introspection that's necessary to understand, "Are you in a good fit place with the team around you?" If you constantly feel like you're being put down or you're not capable in spite of all other reports, otherwise, that may mean that the culture's got a problem. Going back to our keynote from earlier, may have an issue in there, the behaviors don't match the stated goals, and then, vice versa.

A lot of people have this "I'm not good enough" mentality, because we were told so very young. I, being an American, spent a lot of time in the American education system, in the special education part of it. I spent a lot of my time in rooms where I was told I can't do that level of math, I can't do that level of whatever because I can't read well enough. I'm an engineer at Microsoft now. I have no high school diploma, I have no college degree, do the math on that one. You've got to push yourself outside of that fortress of solitude. You got to grow beyond that at times, but you got to find when you're in a state capable of doing so. Again, keep that in mind, keep that in a place where it works for you.

Support in the Industry

Then, lastly here, and I feel like I have plowed through this, but I really haven't, have I? The support in the industry. I said earlier, I'm an engineer at Microsoft. I'm not here as a representative of them, and I am going to call it a program they have, because I know it exists only and it's publicly available. This is all, you can Google this and find it. The industry, though, and the greater just workforce industry, not just the tech industry, have started these Autism @ Work Employer Roundtables, where they're going out and finding and doing the research within the organizations and the companies to take the time and effort to figure out what is needed to allow these individuals to work appropriately in their workplace. Particularly, just because I know what they do, Microsoft has a program where we have certain offices that are an open floor plan, but if you want noise-canceling headphones, the company will issue them to you, that kind of stuff.

I know their hiring program as well, the special educated designated days for doing autistic hiring. Everybody that does interviewing that day knows that they're hiring somebody that's on the spectrum and may or may not have the, "neurotypical social interactions," but for whatever reason, can do the job, and they've screen for that upcoming. This is just a final and third round where you're doing an in-person interview. How do you handle that? They talk about the program in the links that I provide here. This is a shot of one of the links. It's HR diversity organization across the whole industry that does this stuff.

Questions and Answers

Participant 1: From your talk, it sounds like if we'd always be nice, it's like we always try to learn or know more about your colleagues. What if they don't? They just don't care about you, they say hard things about you, but you've always been a nice person. Do you feel hurt?

Schneider: Everybody's going to feel hurt a little bit. You can't remove that, and everybody's going to react to that slightly different, obviously. At that point, you have to do a skip. You got to go from them to a manager or an HR team and say, "WTF." That may end up being, they get you in a room and do a sensitivity training or whatever, but they could also shift you to another team or something like that, or the other individual as well. You definitely want to try to solve things personally between you and the individual, because that's going to be the most growth for both, but if they're just shutting you down, there's nothing you can do about that. At that point, you've got to ask for help from others.

Participant 2: The main reason why the best team went from working ok together to working awesome together is because everybody wanted to do it. Everybody knew that there was something to be fixed, a chasm to be crossed, and we wanted to do that. If there's someone on the other side who doesn't want to cross that, you've got a problem.

Participant 3: It's excellent for team members to be understanding and accommodating.

Schneider: Yes, but it is a two-way street.

Participant 3: Absolutely. What I'm curious about is, what are the challenges associated with both identifying or communicating in these terms, how you think, and asking for that support?

Schneider: The biggest question around that kind of stuff is how do you self-identify? Somebody at the conference here said they had a colleague that they're almost certain is Asperger's, but everybody said this to them and they don't want to deal with it. In that kind of scenario or in your team's scenario, you just have to take it from a, "We're going to level set the team," and they're going to come along with you for that. Then, again, that's the crossing the chasm part of this. You just take that individual and everybody around them and start doing the quick retro meeting that has a five-second thing on DISC, and you walk away from it, or the thinking hats, anything like that just to disrupt how the team is working now, and that causes a reboot, a reset. Then, "Ok, we've set language," so now we have a common set of language we can talk about, so now we can remove the "I'm attacking you personally because I don't like how you act in meetings" to "I talk this way, you talk that way, can we come to a middle ground?"

Participant 3: Ok. I just have a follow-up question. My perception is that there are a lot of people, more so than they probably know, who have atypical thinking and I suppose a mild sense and don't have a diagnosis or haven't modeled it this way.

Schneider: Neurodiversity is just a fact of human condition. We're a species that has genes and, therefore, are always evolving. Everybody's got some level of variance. Normal is a joke, it's a statistical anomaly, so why strive for it? Be excellent or be poor, but pick an end. Everybody can benefit from a DISC profile. If you're on a team of five people, go do the quick Google search, find a stupid quiz on Facebook that'll do the DISC profile for you. Then it gives you, "Now, go find..." Atlassian has a whole set of tools that are in their documentation around the DISC profile and how the different groups talk to each other. Then you can print that out, and I'll have that in the next retro so that it's, "I know Steve is dominant and Suzy's an I, and therefore, we're going to talk this way because we've been butting heads." It goes back to domain thinking, you have that domain-specific language. Now, you have a domain-specific language for talking about communication.

Participation 4: You spoke about how to ask for advice. On the contrary side of it, if you are asked for advice, is there a structure for how you should [inaudible 00:33:20]?

Schneider: Just be honest, be truthful. Be blunt about it. Especially with people on the spectrum, autism specifically and Asperger specifically, don't sugarcoat. Almost go to the level of "Just one more step and I'd be rude," because it's going to bring it home for them. If you sugarcoat it and soft-pedal it, most individuals are going to take it as a suggestion, "Maybe I should." If you give real concrete real-world examples of "We had that meeting yesterday, and Suzy felt X because of it," and it's helpful that it's a third party comment to you about that, because then you're not going to instantly want to defend yourself to what they say.

Participant 5: Ironically enough or coincidentally enough, in this room, last year, there was a talk on giving feedback and the mechanism by which to give great feedback, is define the situation, say the behavior that was exhibited, and say the impact. The impact can be "I felt like you didn't respect me," or "I felt that you didn't understand our goals." Doing it that way not only doesn't sugarcoat it, the impact you can probably make it real, but it also gives someone a real example of what not to do in this situation.

Schneider: They can mill that mental model of watching for that, and that, again, comes back to a lot of individuals on the spectrum and with ADHD and other conditions, can't self-regulate, can't self-check that stuff in real-time, because they get so focused on their passion or their interest in this scenario. That's where the tapping or something like that can come into play, because you can go into a shorthand for that one example, "The next time you do exactly this thing, because you've done it multiple times, I'm going to do exactly this thing to remind you about this talk." It may be tapping your wrist for just take a chill. It may be waving your hands for some other reason. "Go for a walk for five minutes," whatever.

Participant 6: A lot of the interviewing panels that we have at different organizations will have one section that's all about culture fit, and there's some value in there, but I feel like sometimes it doesn't allow for neurodiverse candidates to make it through. What kind of adjustments can we make?

Schneider: One of the vendors is about doing interviews from a technical point of view, and they can help with that. I actually talked with them a little bit about that yesterday, so talk with them about that. Also, the programs that I showed up there, where it's the roundtable, they make an effort of doing that part of the interview from people that have been trained for those biases specifically, and then they do the in-person interviews and things of that nature in places that are safe and open places. You're not on campus. You're not surrounded by 50 people in a room. You've got one, maybe two people in that space. They both know that the individual may have an issue, not exactly what one, so not to expect a perfect handshake, not expect the individual to look you straight in the eye., that kind of stuff so that you're not biasing around that. Then you can, "I get that this person knows the tech inside and out but may need help with soft skills."

Participant 7: Based on the feedback topic, I have a friend where if I give him a very long explanation detailing the impact of something he said that he didn't intend to say, he says it's very helpful even though I'm worried. If I got that same feedback, I might feel a little worried that I really messed up, but he's, "I like the detail." I noticed that at my job, one of our strongest forms of feedback is humor, which even I find confusing sometimes, because I'm, "Do you mean that or do you not mean that?" I was wondering if you've seen any trends around whether humor is a good way to provide feedback or not.

Schneider: It's a decent way to do it. The teams that Harry [Brumleve] and I were on, we use that quite frequently. We took a slow approach to it so that we could find where the humor boundary was for that team. You didn't want to get into blue humor, you don't want to get into. We did a lot of Monty Python jokes, a lot of xkcds, and a lot of Dilbert. We had Dilbert cartoons all over the place. That's a way of, "Here's a scenario that actually happened to us, but it's taken away from us. It's not us personally." As long as you've taken the time to understand that the individuals involved understand that humor, because not everybody does catch it, and you make it clear that it's humor, by sending the cartoon or whatever that's a clear trigger for that, it can help.

Participant 7: Even with humor, it's about common language.

Schneider: Yes. It's making clear, "That was a joke." Even if it feels a little weird to say that after you've said something, if you get that one person that kind of looks around the room really quick, it's "Yes, that was a joke." You're "Ok." Then, the same thing, the super detailed feedback, some people are, a lot of, really uncomfortable giving that personally, face to face. Slack, Teams, email, text message are great ways to get that too, because then we can process that asynchronously. We don't have to deal with it while I'm sitting in the office, stressing about getting my work done. I can take the last five minutes before I leave and think about it on my drive home.

Participant 8: Often, when I'm given advice, I have a knee jerk reaction to just not to that.

Schneider: Yes, shields up.

Participant 8: Then about an hour later, I realize "That's totally right and I should do that."

Schneider: Yes, and that's that talk of shields up, red alert mode, "Oh my God, you told me feedback and screw you. Bite me. I'm not doing that." That's that mental "I know I'm going into a one-on-one. I know I've asked so and so for feedback about yesterday's marketing meeting or retro" or anything like that. Take a moment at the beginning of that conversation to say, "I'm not going to react to anything you tell me right now, because if I do, it's going to be bad, and I don't want that for both of us. Then, a day, two days later, I'm going to come back to you and say, "yay," "nay."

Participant 9: Last year I found out here that giving constructive feedback or receiving it, actually, activates the same area of your brain as physical pain, which is why maybe some of us have still problems with that. That's really interesting, isn't it? Something that tells me a whole lot when I'm giving constructive feedback is that I'm telling to myself as many times as it is necessary, "I'm here to help." You have to put yourself in that state of mind as you feel you are there to help that person and not more than that, which really makes a difference.

Schneider: It does. To repeat that too from yourself while you're reading and receiving that feedback, "This person's here to help me. They're not here to pick on me. They're not here to be a pain in the ass. They're trying to help me be a better person." Take a second, listen to what they're talking about.

Participant 10: From my perspective, as someone who sits on the spectrum as well, I'd go further and say, be absolutely blunt, because someone like me, we don't pick up on hits. When you communicate something, all the emotional content you put into it is lost. If you try to be vague or ease into it, I've had to explain to people, if you give me a light message, it's going to come across like you're telling me what you had for breakfast, and I'm not going to pay attention to it. I'm "That's nice, you had cereal for breakfast." Be blunt and the message might get across. Unfortunately, repetition's going to be another part of that.

Schneider: Completely. Repetition and from multiple sources if at all possible, because it reinforces, "It's not just this one person. It's the whole team that feels this way." Then, yes, Frying Panda is your friend. Beat us over the head, it's ok. Some people in the spectrum are a little more sensitive than others, so you got to find where that is for the particular individual. If you feel that you might be too blunt in an email or anything like that, throw it at the top, "I think this might be a little rude, a little whatever, but I'm trying to communicate with you this one time. Give me feedback on did this work for you or not."

Participant 11: You've touched on the topic of empathy versus sympathy, and it's one that I'm pretty passionate about. I feel like empathy is fairly crucial, but it also involves making yourself as a person trying to empathize.

Schneider: Vulnerable. Participant 11: Very vulnerable. As you said, letting people know how to deal with something is a first step, that I think it's very important. Although, do you feel like asking somebody to empathize with you would be better? If so, how do you ask somebody to do that?

Schneider: Yes, that would be a good way to frame it, to "I have this issue. Can you give me a little empathy and help me figure out how we can make this work for the team?" That kind of scenario. A Scrum Master might be a good way to handle that, because they can do it for the whole team. "We're having communication issues. How do we do that for the whole team?" I know everybody's going to hate me for this, but trust exercises actually in a team are really good. They don't have to be trust falls, but a quick, "Tell me a time you screwed up," around the room, brand new people, quickest way to get it.

Participant 12: A lot of the ideas you've presented are really helpful for trying to manage folks if you fall somewhere on the spectrum. Have you found any good resources if you are managing folks and you are somewhere on the spectrum and you're trying to figure out how to communicate back to folks who might be more traditional in the business world, I guess, for lack of a better term?

Schneider: The biggest tool that I have actually found is Grammarly. They have a tool where they'll have humans read your writing for you and give you feedback from the point of view of a human, not a machine. You can write an email that is, "I need you to come in on X day or whatever and do this thing you don't want to do," and have feedback from another human so that you don't do the reverse of what we've been asking for, which is the bluntness. Then, in that scenario, you can filter that out. That all being said, current statistics for all this stuff show that introverted and autistic leaders actually do better for organizations than dominant and sales-oriented, because they're hands-off. They let the teams go do what they need to do and only deal with the really big problems, and whereas everybody else micromanages, so then it's, you can never get your work done because your manager is always over your shoulder. Go find the research for that, because it's frigging awesome. "Harvard Business Review" has a couple of articles on that.

Participant 13: I've got a member on my team who I've worked with the past five years. He's definitely neurodiverse. One of the things we found was that giving him less exposure to dynamic and unstructured situations has been really good for him. I give him a task where he can focus deep effort on it, and he's certainly really good. One of the challenges we're having we noticed with this individual though is Slack and the amount of bombardment of comms. His general responses can be very blunt, can be very direct, and a lot of people sort of think they'd pissed him off, whatever. Is there sort of resources or advice you'd give to anyone around this kind of etiquette?

Schneider: I set that in my status, "I might just tick. I may piss you off." In tools like that, just to give everybody that subtle reminder or do the stupid comic face of "insert your favorite character," Dilbert's my favorite, as your icon, because then it sounds like Dilbert said it. Instead of going on the individual, "So you're a little off on that," have another human read it first. If it's a big thing, and you're correct, deep focus is great for people on the spectrum, we love that, and structure. If you're going to have a meeting every week, and you don't have that meeting, freak out. Or we're going to have a giant meeting with VPs, and you know about it five minutes before it happens, freak out.

Participant 13: We used to have a rule, no phones, no laptops, but I can tell when he's getting distracted, and so we're just going to let that go. We know that sort of terms.

Schneider: Yes, the bluntness, you just have to train against it. That's that feedback of "I felt that that was a little blunt." Then they can go, "Ok, how do I soften that? How should I have said that," can be the question of, "This would have come across better if you had said this this way to me," and then you give the clear and concise instant feedback of that.


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Recorded at:

Jan 02, 2020