“HELP!!! I’m confused, anxious, overwhelmed!”
This sentiment accurately captures my son’s reaction to transition and change. I should also mention that my son is on the autism spectrum.
Two years ago, my young adult son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), more commonly referred to as Asperger’s Syndrome, high-functioning autism. Two years later we continue to learn and discover what he has experienced (and still experiences) living in a world where he is often misunderstood, a world with unrelenting sensory demands, a world that is constantly changing. I divide time into B.D. (before diagnosis) and A.D. (after diagnosis) because of the radical shift in how we operate.
Among our many learnings, one stands out (attributed to ASD specialist Bill Nason) and has become our mantra – “ASSUME YOUR CHILD IS DOING THE BEST HE CAN, GIVEN THE SITUATION HE IS IN AND HIS CURRENT SKILLS FOR DEALING WITH THE DEMANDS OF HIS ENVIRONMENT.” In addition to radically shifting our expectations and parenting strategies, this principle has fostered greater patience and understanding as we work to continuously provide our son with a supportive and nurturing environment for adjusting to, adapting to, and navigating change. For those on the autism spectrum, environment is everything. It can make the difference between thrive-mode, melt-down, or shut-down.
What I have learned from him has led me to view managing change in the workplace in ways relevant to those with ASD and to their parents, teachers, and caregivers. People thrive when they are a part of a supportive and nurturing environment. We ourselves become more patient, more understanding, and more supportive when we assume the best about others. Imagine if our change management efforts were informed by these four guiding principles.
(1) Realize that it’s not necessarily that individuals are unwilling to accept change. In business we sometimes make the mistake of rushing everyone to embrace change without first taking the time to understand how people are experiencing change and the meaning that change has for THEM. When we push the change agenda without understanding and considering others, we invalidate people. And when people feel invalidated, they will resist change and even perhaps react in hostile ways to change. If, however, early on we adopt the mindset that people do the best they can, given the situation they are in and their current skills for dealing with the demands of their environment, we might discover that what appears to be a resistance or unwillingness might be a case of people lacking the internal resources or the internal reserves to accept change.
My son is constantly navigating an environment which bombards him with sensory overload — sights, sounds, and sensations. He is continuously trying to figure out the nuances of language, social cues, sarcasm, irony, etc., skills which come effortlessly for neurotypicals. His brain, with its slower processing time, is constantly filtering through all the input it receives to keep pace with what is going on around him. All this takes a tremendous toll on his inner resources. In other words, it’s overwhelming and exhausting. However, he is least likely to shut down or express a strong adverse reaction to change when he is in a calm state within a safe place — an environment that makes him feel safe, accepted, and supported in the face of change. In this type of environment, my son flourishes. We are no different. When we are already overwhelmed and exhausted and not feeling safe, accepted, and supported, change puts us in defense mode. Defense mode means being fiercely protective of the familiar and the known and being fiercely reactive against the new and the unknown.
(2) Be clear on the details of change and how it impacts individuals. When flood damage from Hurricane Harvey closed my son’s college campus, it forced the administrators to quickly transition nearly all face-to-face classes to online classes and reduce the semester from 16 weeks of instruction to 12 weeks. This meant that my son’s last semester before earning his Associate of Arts degree would rest on his ability to be successful in shortened classes that would now also be online classes. While the college was hustling with preparation and sending out emergency communication updates to students and parents, we realized that we had to be very pro-active in getting my son ready amid the chaotic widespread impact of Harvey.
We sat down with our son to first explain to him the “what” and “why” of the situation at a macro level and then at a micro level. Once he demonstrated an understanding of what this meant for him, we reviewed with him his new schedule. We helped him to plan his time and to organize his study tools for each class. Along the way, we answered all his questions. We discussed a plan A if X were to happen, and a plan B if Y were to happen. Most importantly, we gave him supportive assurances along the way that no matter what, we were there for him and would never consider him inadequate. We were not fixated on his grades, his grade point average, or his AA degree. We put him before all else to better assist him in maximizing his ability to successfully navigate this new development.
Sometimes a company’s communication strategy regarding the impact of change is heavy and one-sided in favor of the company and its clients/customers while leaving out the people it employs. “The company will be able to X. Our clients/customers will experience Y.” To only supply the big picture is to supply an incomplete picture. What is the full picture for EVERYONE? People want to know, “What does this mean for me?” Communication that is transparent, role specific, and individually relevant contributes to people feeling supported.
(3) Partner with and assist individuals with strategies to help prepare for change. My son is frequently plagued by the anxiety of the new and uncertain. When he was accepted to community college in Houston, we set aside times for a few practice runs to the campus. Our strategy involved him driving the route to and from the campus, accompanied by at least one parent. We also had him to park in the designated student lot. From the parking lot, we walked the routes with him to each of his classes in the various buildings so he would know exactly where they were and how to get to them. The goal was for him to be as comfortable as possible, and to have practice sessions on off-days and times when the campus was nearly deserted.
We also encouraged him to propose strategies of his own that would make him more comfortable. This led to him coming up with a plan to manage snacks and meals while on campus, a plan that we supported. By the first day of class, he knew the driving route, and he knew the walking route on campus to get to each of his classes. And he had a plan for lunch. Without this kind of strategic forethought, a few years earlier B.D. at his prior college campus in Florida, he suffered a panic attack on the first day of class when he got lost and could not find his first class while surrounded by a mob of hustling and bustling co-eds converging on the campus.
A transition into change always works better than an abrupt stop and an abrupt start.
We set people up for success when we are deliberate about ensuring that strategies and processes are in place that do so. When designing strategies and formulating processes, we should ask, “In what way does this reduce or eliminate anxiety and provide individuals with a sense of control over what’s going on?” People’s perspectives and voices should also be sought at various stages. One of the golden rules in business is to “listen to your people.” Think about what happens when we don’t listen but then impose, demand, and pressure. This can cause people to avoid, resist, and mistrust.
(4) Provide both formal and informal ongoing support and a space to ask questions along the way. We hold regular touch-bases with our son that we call family meetings. We give him a choice between this day or that day and let him choose the time. We think of it as structured flexibility. These are times we use to connect and to listen to him about what he needs, what he is experiencing, and what questions he might have. With him as an active participant, we keep it simple and build gradually at his pace. This provides him a sense of control and the stability and security of a familiar mode of connecting and relating.
Because change is not a one-time event but an ongoing process, it means that we in the workplace must also be constantly asking questions of ourselves. “What will help individuals feel supported?” “What can we do to help people feel supported?” A myriad of benefits awaits when we understand, validate, and relate first before trying to guide, teach, and impose change. We must adopt the more helpful paradigm that people are doing the best they can, given the situation they are in, and the skills that they have. In times of change/transition/uncertainty, we either must scale down the demands and/or increase the support. If we take this approach to change the conditions, lower the demands, provide better support, and teach greater skills, change won’t have to be fraught with so much difficulty.
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