Being autistic in an open organization

Working openly presents unique challenges—and benefits—for neurodivergent colleagues.
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After a long and complex diagnostic process, I recently came to the realization that I am autistic (I write more about that on LinkedIn). This knowledge is providing me with new insights—into my life, memorable episodes from my past, and the ways I navigate the world. To me, one of the most interesting aspects of this is how I've managed my career.

In many ways, I'm surprised at the level of success I've had. Corporate success didn't just feel out of reach when I was younger; it was something I never really aspired to at all. During college, when I did an internship at a corporate giant in New York City, and after college when I tentatively started navigating the working world, I had some very negative work experiences. This was driven largely by my behavior, my confusion of how to "be" in a corporate setting, and my ambivalent career aspirations. After several years of a winding and incoherent path, through a series of lucky coincidences, I found a job at Red Hat. It was here that I started to feel like I'd "figured out" the formula for navigating life and work in an organization, which eventually led to some tangible success. Inseparable from my success, I believe, is the fact that I have spent the majority of my career working in an open organization.

Here, I want to reflect on that learning process and see it through a new lens: understanding my behavior in the context of being autistic.

While the human desire to adhere to norms is not absent from open organizations, I believe the principles of the open organization can help establish a context where autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people can thrive. Those principles are transparency, inclusivity, adaptability, collaboration, and community. I'll discuss each one briefly in terms of my personal experience working in this environment as an autistic person (note that I can only speak to my own experience, and I try not to assume any generalizations about autistic people at large).

Transparency

Open access to information, clearly articulated goals and intentions, open sharing of direct and honest feedback, honest discussion of successes and failures, desire and expectation to learn from all experiences (positive or negative)—these are all things that are important to me as an autistic person. I am direct (blunt at times), and in the open organization this is not only acceptable but also often expected and encouraged (although improving tact is always appreciated, and I have put a lot of time and energy into improving my delivery). I can't stand to work on something if I don't know why I'm doing it or why it's important; in open organizations, goals and intentions tend to be clearly articulated.

I also want to be honest about what has happened, good or bad, whether it was due to my actions or someone else's (and I probably tend to perseverate on the bad more than the good); in the open organization honesty about failures and mistakes is encouraged in order to promote learning.

Many aspects of transparency can be challenging, and I'll talk more about that when I discuss collaboration, but for the most part I personally find transparency to be well aligned with my needs.

Inclusivity

As a cis-gendered white man, I've long taken for granted that it's easy for me to participate, to express my honest opinion, and to be listened to. As an undiagnosed autistic person, though, I've spent most of my life afraid to participate, expecting people to be put off or offended by my words and actions, expecting to face rejection, always afraid I was going to be wrong, and constantly nervous about expressing my opinion or participating in any kind of group activity.

Working in an open organization was one of the first experiences in my life where I felt like I "fit in." Multiple channels for providing feedback and participating, clear processes for encouraging participation from different perspectives, intentional solicitation of opinions from all participants, expectation of multiple points of view and differing opinions—the environment greatly improved my confidence, I felt more comfortable being myself, and I was encouraged and rewarded to trust and follow my instincts.

While this experience has been incredible for me in many ways, I have come to the realization that my sex, race, and gender all are important factors in both my comfort and the extent to which the inclusivity of the open organization has helped me thrive. A non-white, non-cis, non-male person (neurodivergent or neurotypical) may well not experience it in the same way I do. It is important to acknowledge this truth because I am well aware that not everyone benefits from the open organization principles equitably.

I also find that it's hard for people experiencing the positive aspects of the inclusivity of an open organization to recognize when others are not experiencing them in the same way.

I also find that it's hard for people experiencing the positive aspects of the inclusivity of an open organization to recognize when others are not experiencing them in the same way. People who thrive in open organizations have a strong sense of pride in the ideals it represents, which makes it hard to acknowledge when people in the organization aren't realizing those ideals.

Adaptability

Adaptability takes many forms in the open organization, from flexible processes that can continually adjust based on feedback, to the open sharing of context to explain changes, to a culture of continual learning, and a willingness to change based on new information. As an autistic person, I find the most critical aspect of adaptability is having flexibility and autonomy in how, when, and where I work. Company policies have always been flexible, and people are willing to adjust to meet my needs, even when I didn't realize my needs were anything more than personal preference (before I knew I was autistic or would have thought of my preferences as needing "accommodations"). For example, I can concentrate better when I participate in discussions via phone while I'm walking or pacing. I need to have a quiet and controlled environment to focus. I'm sensitive to changes in lighting and temperature. I'm more likely to be working at four in the morning than four in the afternoon. I need to get up and move around a lot, and I like to talk to myself.

I've worked from home for the past four years, which has gone a long way to accommodating my needs and is also quite common in open organizations. But for years I worked primarily from the office. It was undoubtedly more challenging and less comfortable for me to work in the office, and there were many things that were not adaptable or that I could not control (such as light, temperature, and noise level). But, I always felt free to adjust my schedule, to find a quieter room or corner to work from, to wear headphones, to dress to my comfort, to go for a walk when I needed to, and so forth; I have always been able to make the environment work for me. I believe that this is in part due to the high levels of trust inherent in open organizations; rather than creating rules, there is an assumption that everyone will get their work done in the way that suits them best and meets the needs of the team.

I have to add, though, that just like with inclusivity, adaptability isn't equally distributed. It's subject to individual biases, the level of trust between a given manager and employee, the specific norms that a team might establish, and other factors. I know that not everyone has been extended the same trust and flexibility as I've been, and it's important to acknowledge that open principles are aspirational; they don't account for the realities of unconscious bias, systemic racism, misogyny, or any other form of discrimination. It is all too easy for a majority group to think they have created an equitable environment when minority groups may not experience it that way.

Collaboration

Collaboration is both a critical pillar of working in an open organization and a topic of continual challenge and debate. In general, everybody wants to express their opinion and to have a say in anything they find interesting or important (whether they have expertise in that area or not). This means sharing work early and often, collaborating early in the process rather than asking for feedback on an almost-finished project, being patient while others review your work, going to sometimes onerous and extended efforts to ensure people have time and different mechanism by which to participate, and openly incorporating feedback into your work (or clearly explaining why you chose not to).

As an autistic person, an introvert, and a person with significant anxiety, I find collaboration to be a continual challenge. On the one hand, I love the ability to say what I think, to provide my opinion in the way I prefer to provide it, to be honest (even blunt), and to feel like I can operate freely. On the other hand, I don't like it when people do this to me! Collaborating on someone else's work is one thing, but inviting collaboration on my work is completely different. It has taken a lot of work, and intentional mindset changing, to be comfortable in this environment.

As an autistic person, an introvert, and a person with significant anxiety, I find collaboration to be a continual challenge.

The key for me was to tell myself this: Being solely responsible for a given piece of work, a focus area, a team of people, or even an entire organization is incredibly stressful. It is much easier when you realize that you are not responsible for everything, that you don't have to know everything, and that nobody expects you to do it all yourself. If you share your work with others, they are doing your work with you! And as such, they're sharing the accountability for success and failure. It alleviates some of the pressure to be the sole point of expertise. It makes your workload more manageable. It allows you to breathe easier. Looking through this frame has made embracing the kind of collaboration that's expected in an open organization much easier for me.

Community

The word "community" raises many challenging emotions and memories for me, which I now understand is related to the social challenges I've had as an undiagnosed autistic person. It has always been hard for me to fit in with any kind of community, and I have rarely ever felt that I was part of a group or included in a community. I've often felt that people don't understand me, and I just as frequently find myself not understanding others. If given a choice between participating in a group activity or not, I will always choose not to without even thinking about it. Saying no to anything that I think will involve other people is a natural reflex for me, even if it's doing something that most people would find fun (or even if it is an activity that I greatly enjoy when I do it alone).

"Community" is a complex term and concept in itself, and it has different meanings in different contexts. In an open source software company, for example, community usually refers to the "upstream" community of developers and contributors who write the code and create the software projects that the company commercializes. But the term can also refer to the community of employees inside the company, or it could refer to a group of employees who are coming together to pursue a common interest (a community of practice, or a community of neurodivergent employees, for example). The concept of community runs throughout open organizations in many different permutations, and each community has its own social contract, its own code of conduct, its own standards to which its members adhere (ideally these are written down, but often they are assumed, which can be problematic). Generalizing the concept of "community" is therefore rather difficult.

These kinds of principles are very helpful for me as an autistic person, because they represent structure.

In my personal experience with communities in and around open organizations, participation has been welcomed in the way that each person prefers (via email, or instant message, but not necessarily in person). Communities have downplayed the importance of shared social interaction and focused more so on shared values, a strong sense of accountability, feeling empowered to share opinions and ideas, and sharing a common language to help us communicate as the hallmarks of community. These kinds of principles are very helpful for me as an autistic person, because they represent structure. They provide a framework, guidelines, boundaries to operate between. All of those things are comforting and make it easier for me to share and participate, because I know that I'm doing it in the way that the community has agreed to. This contrasts with the kind of community that I might find at a university or in my neighborhood, for example, where the norms are not written down, there isn't a clearly articulated protocol, but somehow everyone (except me, of course) seems to understand what the unwritten rules are.

Conclusion

No organizational model is perfect. And just as with any organization, an open one can present challenges for many people, including neurodivergent people. Organizations are social contexts, and as such they will often insist that people adapt behaviors, suppress some of their tendencies, or act in ways they think are more aligned with the group's social norms. I believe these are all strategies many underrepresented people employ—because whether you are in an open organization or not, everyone feels some degree of pressure to adhere to the prevailing norms and preferences of a majority group.

Still, I consider myself fortunate. I've never experienced some of the challenges I've heard other autistic people describe encountering in their organizations (such as being denied the ability to sit in a location with lower levels of sensory disturbance, lack of flexibility in scheduling, refusal to allow work from home, or pressure to participate in social events). When I review core open organizational tenets through the lens of autism as a neuro-variation, I can see many examples of ways open organizations can be naturally better suited to neurodivergent members.

Picture of Sam in his home office smiling at the camera. Sam is a white man. He has long curly brown hair and is wearing a dark green zip up fleece hoody.
I lead a team in Red Hat focused on providing context, knowledge, connection and alignment to our Product and Technologies employees, as well as working to ensure they have an inclusive, equitable, and safe environment to work and grow in. I am a late-diagnosed autistic person and I co-chair Red Hat's neurodiversity employee resource group.

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