Neurotypical Accommodations and Unwritten Rules

Neurotypical Accommodations and Unwritten Rules

I was on a video call a while ago, and at the beginning of the meeting someone said that there’s an “unwritten rule” that people must have their camera on at all times. Someone in chat rightly said that this causes zoom fatigue. I took the more practical approach and suggested that people might need to turn their cameras off because there are often bandwidth issues.

An hour goes by and the person who mentioned the rule shares their screen. The audio is starting to cut out on their video. I don’t see anyone else letting them know, so of course, I’m the one who interrupts them and speaks up about it. I let them know that they’re cutting out. Instead of turning the video off, they try to go to another part of their building to get a better connection. No dice. Eventually they say “I know I’m breaking my own rule, but you’ve already seen my face so I guess it’s fine.” They continue on with their presentation.

Within the span of an hour, an allistic person

  1. Expected us to know about a rule that was never written down.
  2. Expected us to follow that rule, which couldn’t be followed in specific situations.
  3. Exempted themself from that rule for the same reasons that I mentioned would happen.

Neurotypical society in general does this a lot. People implement these hidden expectations for others and then act like we should have known all along. The worst part is that these rules always apply to other people, but never apply consistently to the person who’s enforcing them. Because you see, they have a reason why they can’t follow the rule, so that’s okay. But if other people had that same reason, they would not be granted the same leeway.

I hate to break it to you allistic people, but “unwritten rules” are not rules.

Here’s the definition of a rule from the Oxford Dictionary:

rule. Noun.

  1. one of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere.

Therefore, an “unwritten rule” (otherwise known as an unacknowledged and unexplained rule) by that very definition above, cannot be a rule, because a rule must be explicit and understood to begin with.

Allistic people don’t make rules. Instead, they create expectation traps for those of us who can’t “read between the lines.”

The reasoning behind this “unwritten rule” we were told was because “it’s helpful to be able to see everyone’s facial expressions to give me feedback.” Now, me being the tired autistic person I am, I refused to mask my facial expressions or do anything different than I would if I was off camera. Guess what – my facial expression doesn’t change much when I’m sitting in a meeting listening to a presentation, because I’m autistic and have a flat affect! I don’t think seeing my same facial expression over hours is going to help the speaker.

The only reason this request isn’t seen as a “special need” or an accommodation is because it’s something neurotypical culture expects. When neurotypical people expect things, it becomes “how it’s always been done” instead of an exception. Requests are only exceptions if disabled people request them.

When abled people suddenly need to work remotely, their request becomes acceptable, even though so many people with chronic illnesses and other disabilities were refused work from home for no other reason than office culture for decades.

Autistic Traits in the Workplace

When neurotypical people suddenly need more direct communication in the workplace, it becomes a positive attribute and something for everyone to strive for, even though that’s the hallmark of natural autistic communication. Yet autistic people are usually taught that being direct is a bad thing and are often told to be more indirect or even lie when interacting with others.

When neurotypical people suddenly need honesty, it becomes a positive attribute. Autistic people have so many traits that are now being taught as “good qualities” in the workplace, yet autistic people themselves are still being told off or judged for those same qualities – qualities that include not always knowing the “unwritten rules” that no one would ever speak out loud.

Even workplaces who are providing flexibility and consideration for disabled people still have a lot of work to do when it comes to everyone truly understanding how autistic people in the workplace function and the implicit biases all allistic people develop (many autistic people do as well, and this is called internalized ableism).

Just from the interactions I’ve had with other autistic people on twitter, and my own experiences, I can give you some examples of what would be considered surprising to many allistic people –

  • That many autistic people would prefer to work an entire 8 hours if that meant not having to go to social events or listen to presentations with no relevant substance behind them.
  • That many autistic people enjoy making things more efficient or doing the same tasks over and over again, especially if it’s in solitude and a sensory-controlled environment (quiet, no fluorescent lights, no one walking by all the time).
  • That many autistic people enjoy working with a team and exchanging ideas.
  • That many autistic people would drain all of their energy by going to a social work event but would drain significant less energy by doing their jobs (if the job wasn’t in customer service or retail).

My version of hell as an autistic person is having to mask at social events where no one is really saying anything, no information is exchanged, there’s a lot of people, formal attire is required, and people are talking very, very slowly (my auditory processing takes up a ton of energy when people talk slowly).

In case you’re wondering, yes I did just describe most social work events.

The Consequences of Neurotypical Accommodation

What I have described here doesn’t seem very dire, does it? I mean yea, it’s annoying, but it’s only a few days, right? It’s not like there’s a social work event every day or every week at most office jobs.

I used a very obvious example regarding cameras, but unfortunately, this same principle applies to all kinds of typical small workplace interactions.

Here are a few scenarios I thought of in the past 3 minutes:

  • Should I put an exclamation point in an email?
  • Am I coming off too strong?
  • Will it sound critical?
  • Do I speak up to add to an idea when I would be interrupting someone but can’t find a time to speak?
  • Do I type in chat and hope somebody notices? Other people are using emojis, am I supposed to use one?
  • Do I reply to an email when someone thanks me?
  • Do I say “you’re welcome” or “no worries” or “thanks so much” back?
  • Do I email versus message versus wait until a meeting to talk to someone?
  • Do I laugh at a joke even though I didn’t think it was funny so I don’t offend them?
  • How do I explain PTO for something I don’t want to disclose?
  • How early do I join a meeting, and can I join it too early before people arrive and I’m not supposed to be on?
  • Am I sounding like a team player?
  • Are people mistaking my genuine enthusiasm with my words with sarcasm because of my tone of voice?
  • Should I never joke in case people misinterpret my tone and think I’m being serious?

There are likely “unwritten rules” at workplaces that many autistic people simply will never figure out because no one will tell them. Even asking about them would require disclosure of some sort, even if the person didn’t use the word “autistic.”

Autistic people have been fired for a lot of different reasons, but I think many of them have to do with unwritten rules and the lack of directness from their allistic peers to let them know that they’re not following other people’s hidden expectations. If allistic people would speak up earlier when a rule isn’t really a rule, or when a suggestion really is a requirement, or that their emails are too informal, or that they need to dress differently, or that they need to update their co-workers more regularly, maybe they would still be employed.

However, it wouldn’t surprise me if a big reason for getting fired was because an autistic person simply refused to mask. And again, what our society considers to be “autistic traits” (honesty, directness, detailed, being intense) is somehow good and positive for neurotypical people but easily backfires for us. At the end of the day, it’s because what so many allistic people want is neurotypical honesty, neurotypical directness, and neurotypical intensity. Our autisticness is palpable, visible, obvious, jarring, and “too much” for many allistic people around us.

There’s a really big difference between people who say they support autistic people to be themselves, and people who act it. And so far in my life I’ve seen a lot of the former and a handful of the latter.

What “Back To Normal” Really Means

Since the pandemic started (and is still continuing today), there have been some good articles about how to support employees with remote work. However, I wish these same articles existed before the pandemic started because autistic people needed explicit expectations then, too.

It’s frustrating to see allistic people get so many accommodations that are the exact opposite to what many autistic people need (camera on during video calls) or that autistic people have asked for for a long time, but are only now being implemented in the workplace because neurotypical people need them (explicit expectations). Finally, when the environment suits many autistic people, when we don’t have to be in an office with 20 people all talking at once, suddenly it’s time to accommodate allistic people to mimic the inaccessible way it was before.

If there’s a better way to do something, why revert back to what wasn’t working before? Why make employees less productive by requiring cameras on at all times or forcing in-person events without proper COVID precautions? How many people truly want to be in that world right now?  Is it really that the majority of employees want those things, or is it because allistic extroverts have always been accommodated in the workplace as the default?

All I ask is that we call their requests for “back to normal” what they are – Accommodations.

Note: There are autistic people who may also want similar accommodations regarding cameras. There are also autistic people who may be enforcing these “unwritten rules” after learning about them and assuming they indeed are rules, when allistic people interpret these “rules” more as strong recommendations/more flexible when applied to themselves. It’s not that these “unwritten rules” are solely enforced by neurotypical people, but these “unwritten rules” are based on how most neurotypical people operate and are therefore enforced in our schools and workplaces. These “unwritten rules” themselves are based within neurotypical norms and the general standard of our society.

Neurotypical Awareness Exercise

Here’s a challenge for allistic people –

Write down 10 things you can think of that are “unwritten rules” in your life, whether that’s interacting with co-workers, family, or friends.

If you’ve made your list, here’s a second exercise for you:

  1. Are there ways you operate that you expect other people to do as well?
    • Have you communicated that to the people in your life?
  2. Are you putting undue assumptions and judgements on others because of how they phrase things or their tone of voice or gestures?
    • Have you directly asked for clarity?
  3. Are there things you frown upon that aren’t causing anyone harm?
    • What are they, and why do you think you’ve learned to judge that?

6 thoughts on “Neurotypical Accommodations and Unwritten Rules

  1. Here, Here!!! Without a doubt the best response to allistic ‘rule’ setting. They don’t make rules, they make expectation traps. Boom. Mic drop.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yup. It was a bit triggering to me to read this, since I’d experienced everything you described. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to retire from my office job during the pandemic, and this post highlights all the challenges I walked away from. I left good things, too (everything in your list of work preferences), so it balances out. This post helps delineate the challenges and needs for accommodation.


  3. I’ve decided the only way to deal with this entire situation is with humor. Fortunately I’m retired and happily married. Therefore I have no compelling reason to subject myself to the abusive behavior I have received since I can remember. The word retard hasn’t been used of late but I can recall all too many instances where friend and foe alike have used this term to describe my behavior or my opinions.

    Trying to educate the non-autistic community is worthless.

    I’ve come to the place where I realize that I’m a teacher who in fact is just another brick in their wall. LOL!!

    A brick in the wall of ignorance is not my idea of a fun thing to do.

    I applaud your efforts but in the end seclusion and isolation are the only reasonably attainable alternatives to any attempt to communicate what simply can’t be understood by anyone who isn’t actually autistic.


  4. Allistic people don’t make rules. Instead, they create expectation traps for those of us who can’t “read between the lines.”

    just a perfect summary of allistic nonsense!

    i’m 53 and was diagnosed as autistic 5 months ago. trying to fit into the working world without knowing that i’m autistic and trying to understand and trying to fit into that world broke me. i’m on disability.

    i really hope for every other autist out there, who is still able to work, that all of you are more successful at not being broken and at being yourself!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.