HR treats my autistic employee like he’s an incompetent child

A reader writes:

I’m a newly-promoted manager and my very first hire, David, who just started a few weeks ago, recently told me he is on the autistic spectrum. (I had figured that previously during the hiring process, but it’s not like I could just diagnose him.) I approached our head of HR, Danielle, with this new information so she could help me on the best way to communicate with David and not let his condition be an issue. She gave me really good input at first and I feel that really helped David connect with the team, and he even told me how things are going better than he expected.

Here’s the thing: after I talked to Danielle, she’s started acting very ableist towards David — she talks to him in a childish voice, congratulates him for doing everyday stuff, like using the microwave, over-explains basic things like how to open the office window … I understand her intentions are good, but it’s making everyone else uncomfortable. David hasn’t said anything, but he seems uncomfortable as well and looked at me very puzzled the other day when Danielle started making funny faces to him through the glass door.

The rest of the team doensn’t know about David’s disorder, but they are very much aware of Danielle’s bizarre behavior to the point of ridiculing her behind her back. I was very clear that this will not be tolerated, but honestly I can’t blame them: Danielle is making a fool of herself (especially for those who don’t know the reason she is acting this way), and I really worry that her ableism might give us headaches in the future, including legal issues. I shiver to think of what she would do if we had a physically disabled person in the office. How on earth do I approach this?

Oh no. This is awful for David, raises legal issues for your company, and must be especially disappointing from someone who originally gave you good advice.

You’ve got to talk to Danielle; totally aside from your team ridiculing her, she’s stigmatizing and demeaning David by treating him like a child. You could say it this way: “You were really helpful with advice about how to work most effectively with David. Thank you for that! There’s something I need to mention that I don’t think you mean to be doing: Since we talked, you’ve been talking to David like he’s much less capable than he is — for example, I noticed you congratulated him for using the microwave and told him how to open a window — and have done some things I think you’d normally only do with kids, like making funny faces at him. David is really capable, and I can see he’s uncomfortable not being treated like the professional adult he is. Others on my team have been speculating about why you’re interacting with him that way. I know from our conversation earlier that you’d never want to do anything that would make anyone feel patronized, so I wanted to let you know the effect it’s having and ask if you can interact with David just like you would anyone else on our team.”

Now … will this embarrass Danielle? It might. There’s no real way around that; you can’t not address this in order to protect her feelings. You can be kind about it and you can frame it as “I know you’d never do this intentionally,” but it’s got to be addressed. (And truly, embarrassment is warranted; sometimes it’s appropriate for someone to feel that, even at work from a colleague.)

That said, if Danielle is very senior to you and you don’t feel like you’re the one with the standing to have this conversation with her, you could talk with your own manager for guidance — she might think it’s better for her to speak to Danielle herself, or she might assure you it’s fine for you to do it on your own.

Ideally Danielle will get the message and change her behavior. If she doesn’t, at that point your options would be to talk with your legal department if you have one or figure out with your boss how best to take this over Danielle’s head. And meanwhile, it would be a kindness to let David know that you see what’s happening, it’s not okay, and you’re trying to address it.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 436 comments… read them below }

  1. mean green mother*

    This is horrifying. Danielle should definitely not be in HR if this is her understanding of how to treat people with autism.

      1. Pointy Sticks*

        Agreed – that she’s an HR person makes it even more horrifying! Alison needs a thumbs-up/agree button here. I rarely comment, but agree with so many comments posted here.

        1. Anon in case*

          It is horrible coming from an HR person who OUGHT TO KNOW BETTER. Good grief!!
          But I’m not terribly surprised. I’ve seen behavior like this from HR but directed towards older workers.
          (just begging for a discrimination lawsuit)

        1. JessaB*

          And unfortunately being head of something doesn’t always mean you’re any good at dealing with some things.

    1. NYC Taxi*

      How uncomfortable and demeaning to David and embarrassing for Danielle. What a bizarre reaction to an autistic employee.

    2. Lance*

      Agreed; as someone on the high end of the spectrum, I would hate this on so many levels. Explaining basic things like using a microwave? I’m an adult, not a child; my brain may process things differently, but I know how to do simple things like that. Over-explaining? Please just stop and get to the point, or I might stop paying attention.

      This not even getting into the funny faces… she’s flat-out treating him like a child.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        One of my sons is on the spectrum, and was correctly using tools like the screwdriver and wirecutter at the age of TWO. Did all repairs in my house, all of his car maintenance, just moved into a 160 year old house that he bought, is currently wiring it up for his tech and building his own furniture. Used his own trailer for the move, that he’d built and registered and gotten a license plate for when he was moving across the country a few years ago. I was imagining his face as I read this if someone at work had congratulated him on being able to use a microwave! Like where is she getting this garbage from that anyone on the spectrum must be unable to perform basic functions? There is no correlation. Would she maybe like to try this on Bill Gates too, since he’s on the spectrum too?

        1. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

          Is there actual confirmation of this from him? I hadn’t heard that Bill Gates is on the spectrum so I googled it to see (my son is on the high end as well and thought this would be cool to tell him since he’s very tech focused) and I found a lot of speculation but no confirmation. Did I miss it somewhere?

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            Hmm, you’re right. He was presented to me as one of the examples of people on the spectrum when my son was diagnosed, back in 2006, and I never questioned it. I suspect we’ll never get a confirmation if we don’t have it by now. It wasn’t a thing that was widely tested for and diagnosed in his generation, and there’s no reason for him to want to be tested now. Personally, I suspect that have some traits and that I am who my son got his from, but it’s the same with me, never been tested and now there’s no point to, so we’ll never know.

        2. Deejay*

          “Do you need help with the microwave?”
          “Yes, I think the cavity magnetron needs replacing”

        3. Deejay*

          “Do you need help with the microwave?”
          “Yes, I think the cavity magnetron needs replacing”

        4. Snuck*

          Precisely …. My ASD kiddo is currently interacting with Big Name YouTubers explaining how ot beat the bosses in some new indie games so they can record their ‘speed runs’. He’s 9.

          He admittedly doesn’t know how to use a microwave (we don’t have one)… and he only comprehends at a grade / age appropriate level… but I would feel like B- slapping someone if they treated him like this in a few years. He isn’t stupid! He would give them his patented “who p0 0ped on the carpet” look I suspect.

      2. Pipe Organ Guy*

        As we’re coming to realize more and more how broad and complex the autism spectrum is, I’m appalled at this HR person’s behavior. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that there are extremely highly-functioning people on the autism spectrum who could make Danielle’s life pretty miserable, because they’re entirely competent in life, and then some.

        1. A Poster Has No Name*

          Yeah, I was thinking that Danielle’s reaction seems like it came straight out of 1985.

        2. whingedrinking*

          Autism manifests differently, of course, but I’m frankly baffled by Danielle’s responses because they don’t even seem to key into a pop culture understanding of ASD. Like, the stereotype is “not good with people and obsessed with technical details”. I wouldn’t think the top struggle for most people on the spectrum would be “can’t open a window”.

      3. yala*

        I saw red when I got to that part.

        And shoot, not only is it COMPLETELY inappropriate, but also, like…it just seems like it would be super confusing? Like, I’m not the best at picking up on cues, so yeah, I’d feel uncomfortable and patronized, but I’d also be completely at sea as to WHY this person was treating me like that, and have a lot of difficulty articulating just WHY it was so upsetting.

        I really do hope OP pulls her aside and puts an emphatic STOP to this.

    3. Autistic Farm Girl*

      The vast majority of autistic people prefer “autistic people” to “people with autism”. I’m piggy backing here but loads of other comments are also using “people with autism”. The whole “with autism” is mainly pushed by neuro typical parents, non-autistic lead association (autism speaks is the most “famous” one) and the medical community but every survey done with actually autistic folks has always come back that we very much don’t like it (for a series of reason).

      I’m not even going to say what I think of Danielle, I’d be rude.

      1. GreenDoor*

        This is interesting! I work in public education and was recently schooled that the verbiage is “students with special needs” and not “special education students”. (This was in reference to the umbrella term, not toward any specific disability group. I do realize plenty of children with autism don’t need a special education plan). I was told the prevailing guidance is that we are people first, then our descriptors. But you’re saying the opposite. This may also be why “people with autism” is used more frequently. I’ll have to research this all more…

        1. LP*

          So my understanding is that folks in helping professions often learn “person first language” (ie “person with autism”) like you’re describing, but certain disability communities strongly prefer “identity first” language (“autistic person” “blind person” “deaf person”). I can’t speak for autistic people, but I’ve heard folks explain that the person-first pushback from helping professions feels, ironically, dehumanizing and patronizing because it completely ignores the perspectives of the people the professionals are supposedly trying to help.

          1. Old and Don’t Care*

            Analogy alert:

            I was listening to a medical radio show hosted by a surgeon with an endocrinologist as a guest to talk about diabetes. The endocrinologist referred to “diabetics” and the host informed him that the correct terminology was “people with diabetes”. He said that’s ridiculous: I’m a diabetic, that’s how I refer to myself and calling me a person with diabetes won’t change the fact that I’m a diabetic. The host stuck to her guns. They did not come to a meeting of the minds.

            1. Boof*

              There will never be a term everyone is happy with. If someone tells me what they want to be called I will, and otherwise I’ll try to use what I understand is the most inclusive term, but I know I’m not going to please everyone all the time with it, and in 50 years whatever term is ok now might be really cringeworthy. Alas.

              1. Boof*

                also, as an oncologist I have to point out that most folks will say “person with cancer” or “so and so has cancer” not that they are “a cancer person”, but “a cancer patient” might apply. But it varies I mean, it’s usually acceptable to say hemophiliac or someone with hemophilia. And usually we say so and so has sickle cell anemia, but if we reeeeally start seeing a lot and are getting super crunched for time then it might become “sicklers” but that’d be pretty informal jargen there. I’m not sure I have any destination with all this except that language is kind of weird and seems a bit arbitrary.

                1. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

                  As a person with ADHD, I haven’t thought as much about this use of language as I can see many others have, although ADHD is a fundamental part of who I am.

                  There is no adjective for ADHD so maybe that’s why I haven’t really considered it. And any attempt to come up with an adjective would result in something clumsy and forced.

                2. Non. E. Mouse*

                  My understanding of that phenomenon (as an Autistic person) is this.

                  Person with X implies that you can change what X is or that X is something that has happened to them. A person with cancer can and usually wants to change that they have cancer and cancer is something that has happened to them, not something that they are.

                  Autism didn’t happen to me, I didn’t get autism the way someone gets cancer. I was born this way. Similarly, you can’t change being Autistic and while you can change d/Deaf-ness, a lot of capital D Deaf people don’t believe they should have to.

                  You find the same thing with wheelchair bound vs wheelchair user.

                  A lot of people don’t feel bound by their wheelchair, they find that it affords them a level of freedom greater than they had before getting the wheelchair. Maybe that’s not as much freedom as a completely ablebodied person but it can still be considerably more than if you can – say – only stand for fifteen minutes but can wheel yourself around for 45 minutes.

                3. MeepMeep*

                  Well, and that’s the difference – “person with cancer” means that the person could exist without cancer, and in fact, would prefer to exist without cancer. An autistic person would literally be a different person without the autism, and many would not prefer to “exist without the autism”.

                  It’s like saying “person with Blackness” instead of “Black person”.

          2. Snuck*

            I would say that the person who is being referred to should nominate what they want.

            Some would prefer to just be called ‘a person’.

            I would not dream of correcting another person for attempting to be socially delicate and considerate in using “person with Autism” or “Autistic person”… I’d just quietly applaud that they tried to get it right, and let people with autism/the autistic person correct them if they felt an overwhelming need. It’s a bit like the gender pro noun stuff – some want a very specific nomenclature and others just want to be referred to in a general way.

            I have done some reading up on this and both camps (Autistic Person/ Person with Autism) are firmly of the opinion they are each correct, and refuse to allow the other flexibility. I would say “Go with what feels honest for yourself, and be open to being corrected by an individual just as you would about gender pronouns, race or any other ‘labels’ that are tossed on people for various reasons” and I’d add… this label (which ever you choose) should be used sparingly, and only when it’s actually needed. Don’t label a person unless the label has value in the moment. Autism isn’t a trope for the “An Autistic, a Priest and a Builder walked into a bar…” jokes.

          3. BadApple*

            Personally, as someone with a visual impairment, I much prefer person-first language. Some people take the situation with autism and generalize it. After being asked invasive questions about my vision problems my whole life, and having people assume things about my personality due to my vision issue, its liberating to be referred to as a person first. I understand that autistic people feel differently, and that’s fine, but I think a lot of people don’t realize the layers behind the question.

          4. Simonthegreywarden*

            My good friend explains it as, she’s not ashamed to be autistic just like she’s not ashamed to be a woman. Autism is what defines how her brain functions. She isn’t a person ‘with autism’ the way one is a person ‘with a handbag’. She is autistic just like someone is a dancer or is an engineer. It’s central to her identity. She’s involved in a lot of autism awareness and we’ve been friends for going on 15 years so I have seen her thinking evolve from person with autism to autistic.

            That’s not everyone’s perspective, but it is a very predominate one now.

        2. Autistic Farm Girl*

          LP has explained it quite well, there are different reasons for that. The main one is that being autistic is who we are, it can’t be separated from us and it’s our identity. Using “with autism” implies that it’s something that can be separated from who we are, like someone “with a dog” (you take the dog away, you still have the person). It comes usually from people who think that autism is bad, no far off an illness, and that the person can (and should) be separated from their autism. And that’s obviously not only untrue, but really hurtful to us. It’s usually the same people that would say that “autism stole their child” or that there should be a cure for autism, as if it was an illness.

          I’m aware that in the medical/carer field people are encouraged to use that “person first”. Which also means encouraged to ignore what actually autistic people are telling them. When autistic lead associations do surveys for autistic people, over 90% of the people want “autistic person”, this is what the vast majority of us want to be referred as.

          It’s a bit like pronouns if you wish, you wouldn’t ask someone their pronouns and then go “well, a doctor/professional told me to use different pronouns for you so I’m gonna do that”.

          1. KoiFeeder*

            Also, and this is just my autistic opinion, but if people need to call me a person with autism to remind themselves that I’m a person..? My autism ain’t the problem here.

            1. 'Tis Me*

              Especially if we’re primarily talking about people working specifically with any group of people who are “otherable” in any way… Eesh! When you put it like that it is pretty obvious that the “people first” approach isn’t exactly going to achieve its aim..!

              1. Kal*

                I like to compare it so saying saying “a person with tallness” where its just like… why are you trying to dance around the idea of someone being tall like that? It makes it sound like you have some weird issues with people being tall.

            2. another Hero*

              yeah, another argument I’ve seen against pfl from autistic writers is that we don’t use it for things that are widely considered positive – she’s not a person with an Olympic medal, she’s an Olympic medalist. the use of pfl therefore ironically indicates that people view a trait as an impediment to personhood, hence having to build in a reminder

            3. Spencer Hastings*

              Especially since “person with autism” and “autistic person” both have “person” right in there…

          2. Snuck*

            As a person with some solid Autism leanings (not formally dx) I would prefer the other though….

            And another thing is that while there’s a high percentage of members wanting one thing, the reality is that most have probably joined that association because it aligns with their personal views. I wonder if there is some genuinely blind, randomised and impartial research on this – from neither side of the fence. That would be interesting :)

        3. EchoGirl*

          LP and Autistic Farm Girl have explained it pretty well, but another way to think about it is that society doesn’t tend to think in terms of “we are people first, then our descriptors” other than very specific subsets of descriptors (except for in certain contexts, i.e. saying “my Black friend” may be inappropriate depending on context). Using myself as an example, nobody thinks twice about me being called a Jewish person or an American person or a brown-haired person (etc.), but when it comes to autism, which is AT LEAST as much a defining feature of who I am as those others, all of a sudden it’s somehow ignoring a person’s humanity to put the descriptor first like we do for literally everything else.

        4. littledoctor*

          Special needs is actually considered pretty offensive in the disabled community these days! These aren’t kids whose needs are special, they’re children who have disabilities. There’s nothing wrong with having developmental or cognitive disability. When we dance around the actual term like it’s somehow too terrible to name, we stigmatize people who have those disabilities.

          A lot of classes on educating disabled people, social work classes, etc. will wrongly teach people to avoid using the actual word, but that’s quite wrong. Similarly, almost all Autistic adults use Autistic rather than “has Autism.” Look at almost any Autistic-run nonprofit–the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, the Autistic Women’s Network, the Autistic People of Colour Fund, etc. The preference has been made very clear by the Autistic community.

          1. biscuits*

            Yep! Their needs aren’t special — they’re the same needs as everyone else’s (need for good education, access to buildings, access to other normal resources). A short person doesn’t “need” a stool, they need whatever you’ve put up on the high shelf.

          2. Vicky Austin*

            This. “Special” is a word generally used to mean something positive, like your birthday is your special day or your romantic partner is your special friend. Having a disability and needing accommodations isn’t an honor or a privilege. My disability is pretty much a hinderance most of the time, and using cutesy names like “special needs” or “differently abled” doesn’t make it any less so. Disability is an accurate term to describe my condition, as there are some things that I am unable to do, and that’s okay!

        5. Ace in the Hole*

          Based on discussions with my sister (who is autistic, has a degree in communications, and works as a care provider for developmentally disabled adults):

          What you’re describing, person-first language, is ideal for separating the condition/attribute from the identity of the person. Sometimes that’s a very good thing. In many cases, people don’t want a disability to be seen as part of their identity… they think of it as something separate from their identity and want others to acknowledge it that way. That’s why it sounds so awkward to say something like “a covid person” or “a broken leg person” but very natural to say “a person with covid” or “a person with a broken leg.” Covid and bone fractures aren’t things we tend to perceive as *identities,* they are things we perceive as *conditions.*

          The downside of person-first language hits when people DO see something as being part of their identity. By phrasing it in a way that separates it from the person, you can make people feel like you’re disregarding an important part of their identity or even that it’s something that ought to be “fixed.” For example, saying “people with blackness” or “people with deafness” would not go over well because many/most people with those characteristics view them as part of an identity. So it’s much more respectful to say “black people” or “deaf people.”

          A lot of things are somewhere in the middle, and the ideal language varies depending on context and who you’re talking to. Autism leans toward the identity side vs the condition side, and most autistic people seem to have at least a slight preference against person-first language. But if you’re not sure, the best course of action is to just ask the person/people you’re speaking with what they prefer.

          1. English, not American*

            The “person with blackness” comparison falls a bit flat given how “person of colour” is the currently accepted term for anyone who isn’t white.

            1. Simonthegreywarden*

              In part, I think that’s because “colored person” would be such a loaded and inappropriate term, at least in the US.

              However, I know a number of Black people who do not want to be called ‘person of color’ because they are not ‘of color’, they are Black and proud to be Black.

            2. Ace in the Hole*

              “Person of color” is a widely-accepted term for people who aren’t white… but only in circumstances where specifying an actual racial or ethnic identity is not desirable. It’s a preferred generic term precisely because it doesn’t specify an identity, so it can apply to people of many diverse backgrounds.

              Also, as Simonthegreywarden says, “colored person” has an incredibly charged history in the USA.

          2. Watson*

            I’m on the spectrum and that’s what I say. If I must, I identify myself as being on the autism spectrum, and not autistic, and the core reason is quite horrible really – it absolutely makes a material difference to how I’m treated.

            As a world-champion masker I can absolutely get away with most people assuming I’m neurotypical most of the time and I exercise that privilege to the fullest extent I can. I know that autism is part of my identity but only I know precisely what that means – saying “I’m autistic” has in the past garnered me an array of responses, from others rudely patronising and underestimating me, to outright angering people who think I’m performatively appropriating an identity because I’m “not that bad, and don’t really have a disability” (lawd if they only knew).

            I’m ok admitting that I’m taking a cowardly approach to just avoiding having to educate people a lot of the time. Not everyone gets the luxury of just opting out. But I so powerfully understand how meaningful it is for individuals to have our own feelings on how we are communicated about respected. In so many situations I feel it trumps the need most people have to just be handed the one right way to do things so they don’t have to think about it.

        6. ShortT*

          I’m Greek. One wouldn’t call me a woman with Greekness. It’s part of me and my DNA. Same with ASC. (I much prefer the British acronym.) It’s an intrinsic part of one’s makeup. To my ears, every time I hear person-first language sounds, I hear a misgused attempt to humanize someone, as if there were something intrinsically morally wrong with the person.

          Instead of manufacturing terms to make people feel better, why not go back to the basics, such as not behaving like a pretentious @$$h@t? Performative solicitude suits no one, IMO.

          1. Vicky Austin*

            Good point, however, keep in mind that there are many people who prefer to refer to themselves in person first language. For instance, I prefer to say that I’m a person with disabilities, not a disabled person. There is nothing wrong with having a preference one way or the other.

      2. mean green mother*

        Thanks for saying this! I doubted myself as I was writing it. I’m disabled and strongly prefer being identified as a “disabled person” rather that a “person with disabilities,” but because I’m not autistic I thought maybe I should err on the side of person-first language. But you’re right! It medicalizes what is truly an identity.

  2. Kes*

    Oh man. I totally agree with everything Alison has said here. The one thing I would add is that her behaviour, besides being ableist and patronizing and making her look bad, essentially risks disclosing David’s private health information, which is also not okay.

    1. Kes*

      Also, I think Alison’s script is great in terms of setting them up as on the same team and assuming good intent, which it sounds like is fair given Danielle’s original helpfulness (although it can be a good strategy even without that). Hopefully Danielle will be mortified and adjust her behaviour, but regardless of whether it succeeds, OP definitely needs to raise the issue to protect her employee.

      1. Sara without an H*

        Yes, and I would advise OP not to let this drag on much longer before talking with Danielle. This is one of those things that is much easier to shut down early.

        1. Snuck*

          I feel like it’s a good one for the “WTF” response.

          “Wow! Why on earth are you saying that?”
          “Hrm yes… David learnt to use the microwave shortly after moving to college, when he got sick of 2minute noodles” laugh
          “Oh look” (to EVERYONE in the room) “Danielle is pulling face through the window… let’s do a team face back” (everyone pull faces back through the window at her). But this kind of undermines her ‘authority’. Frankly… .I’m not liking her much right now :P

          1. TeapotNinja*

            She’s already sabotaging her own authority with her behavior.

            Talking to her about her behavior before she ruins her reputation entirely would be a service to her as well.

    2. Rose*

      I was thinking the same. The weird silver lining is that a lot of this (making funny faces like you would at a toddler??) is so bizarre and out of left field and not relevant to any aspect of autism that she just looks like a nut. I wouldn’t be sure what to take out of that if I didn’t know David’s diagnosis. I would think Danielle was just incredibly… off.

      1. sacados*

        Yeah, I’m certain that the only thing David’s coworkers are thinking here is “Wow, wth is up with Danielle?” and not anything along the lines of “oh she must be doing this because of David, in some way.”

    1. Vin Packer*

      I wondered this too. It actually makes me wonder if it might be reasonable for LW to kind of pretend it was *both* of their error by adding something like “I’m sorry — I think I might have given you the wrong impression when I spoke to you about David’s autism . . .” to the beginning of Alison’s script. It could make the conversation easier by allowing Danielle to save face and it could prompt what may be a much-needed reset how *everyone* handles this stuff going forward.

      If David reported being happy with how things were going it suggests that LW is mostly doing ok, but they have a responsibility to at least try to shut this stuff with Danielle down with extreme prejudice.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        This is a good point. Was there something specific OP was looking for advice about and was that issue resolved with Danielle’s advice?

        1. Snuck*

          The OP says they asked for on boarding information, which was given and useful.

          And I would suggest that disclosing to HR is a reasonable course of action as the OP is a manager asking advice specific to the condition being disclosed.

    2. Admin 4 life*

      I was wondering this too! I’m autos and I only disclose it in a need to know basis and it isn’t meant to be shared because people automatically assume you aren’t a competent and fully capable adult. The depiction of autistic individuals in the media is so incredibly harmful for all of us on the autism spectrum.

    3. emmaline*

      Also my first thought! It’s David’s info to report to HR if he wants, not his supervisor’s. And while the supervisor presumably had good intentions here, Danielle’s subsequent behavior shows why employees have a right to want to keep this info to themselves.

      1. Annabeth*

        This doesn’t make any sense. A Manager did the right thing and reached out to HR about preventing any discrimination for a differently-abled employee. She did the right thing. This isn’t a secret medical issue or something, it’s simply a case where an employee might need moderate accommodations occasionally

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yes. It’s fine for managers to consult HR to ensure they’re following the law, providing appropriate accommodations, etc. (Also, in case anyone is wondering, this doesn’t violate any medical privacy law in the U.S. HIPAA, for example, is not in play.)

          1. Random Autistic Person*

            Well, this information is certainly going to prevent me from disclosing my autism spectrum disorder to any future managers.

            1. KaciHall*

              I worked in HR for a bit. I’m definitely never disclosing it to anyone. I live in a conservative state and have disclosed my bisexuality before I would disclose that I was diagnosed with Aspergers.

              1. Hell Job Escapee*

                I’m in the same situation. Diagnosed as an adult a few years ago and I’ve only told two people outside of my immediate family. More people know that I’m bisexual than know I’m autistic (also live in a semi-conservative area.)

          2. Ice and Indigo*

            Legality aside, if the OP did tell HR without discussing it with David, it was at best thoughtless and insensitive.

            Here’s the thing: autistic people almost always have experiences of social rejection and alienation, often for reasons that don’t quite make sense to them or were difficult for them to predict in advance. Obviously not everyone on the spectrum is the same, but it’s far from uncommon for autistic people to experience neurotypical people as unpredictable and liable to turn on you suddenly, because from their point of view, that has happened quite often as far back as they can remember.

            So breaking an autistic person’s privacy is worse than breaking a neurotypical person’s. A neurotypical person might assume that telling their manager carried with it the implicit consent to tell HR, but David may have assumed no such thing. From his point of view, unless he happens to be very up on employment law, the likely thing would be to assume that the OP would keep it to herself unless she explicitly told him otherwise. Things don’t ‘go without saying’ when it comes to autism. I wasn’t there and maybe the OP told David that this information would need to be passed on to HR, but if they didn’t, it might simply not have occurred to him that it would, and he would naturally feel a confidence had been betrayed – especially as it resulted in what was almost certainly his worst fear coming true: that people would treat him poorly because of his autism.

            Would he be right legally? Alison says not, ok, fine. But would he be being unreasonable? Not from his perspective. If this was passed on without giving him explicit warning in advance, that was *in and of itself a bad accommodation of his disability.*

            Maybe OP did warn him, but if they didn’t, the first person to drop the ball on accommodating him was the OP. He needed to be briefed on what would happen next.

            OP needs to make clear to him what was going on, and if they didn’t warn him they were going to pass this on, they need to apologise to him for not talking to him about it in advance. Even if it was legal, it was a failure to accommodate his autism.

            1. Mr Jingles*

              While I see where you come from dealing with such stuff has also legal implications for your manager and your company and that’s what HR is for!
              If you disclose anything medical some companies might even require the manager in question to report to HR so while I feel for you (having severel years of therapy on my back for personality disorders which are just as impacting and stigmatizing than autism makes me really feel for you. It’s hard to explain a one year gap in your resumee if what you did during that time was being institutionalized in a psych ward after an agressive meltdown). Let’s not loose focus here. LW is not in the wrong, the HR lady botched her job.

              1. actually autistic cryptid*

                what possible legal implications are there for a person disclosing they’re autistic and not currently asking for accomodations? what kind of nonsense is this.

                1. Bumblebee*

                  I have always been trained that if you give the impression you are treating someone differently because you believe they have a disability, even if that disability is not documented, you may be in violation of the ADA.

                2. Sheldon Cooper Does Not Represent Me*


                  It is true that ADA can be invoked for anti-discrimination or reasonable accommodation purposes in the case of perceived disability, even if no actual disability exists. However, that was not the case with David and OP. David did not bring discrimination concerns to OP.

            2. Self Employed*


              If any other managers want to know how to get confidential advice on how to accommodate an employee’s disability, the Job Accommodation Network ( is excellent. Besides providing lots of FAQs and white papers, they will do individual consultation and you don’t have to disclose the employee’s name–and they’re outside the organization anyhow. I’ve interacted with them to get advice as an employee and they were both sensible and sensitive.

          3. Sheldon Cooper Does Not Represent Me*

            No. David didn’t ask for accommodations. He wasn’t bringing concerns about discrimination to OP. There was no legal consideration due to autism or membership in a protected class that OP had to ensure she was following the law on.

        2. Student Affairs Sally*

          But the employee is the one who gets to decide if needs accommodations or prefers a certain communication style or whatever. Also, (at least based on the text of the letter) OP didn’t go to HR in order to prevent discrimination – she went because she wanted advice on how to manage that employee. Which is probably a conversation best had with the employee themselves.

          1. Myrin*

            I completely agree in general – I have to admit I made an irritated face when I read OP wanted advice on “the best way to communicate with David” when she had probably communicated with David before during the “few weeks” he had already worked for her and could also just ask him – but I’m also not sure it’s pertinent anymore to the situation as it is now; after all, OP can’t un-tell Danielle, and Danielle’s behaviour is the immediate problem which OP seems very willing to confront head-on. (Nevermind that we don’t actually know whether there wasn’t any specific reason to loop HR in. I feel like OP would’ve mentioned it if there were but there is a chance that she simply didn’t think it important enough to include.)
            So while I do think it’s important for OP to hear that she might have mishandled the beginning of all this just so that she can behave differently should a similar situation arise again, I also don’t think the commentariat should harp on it.

          2. Anti anti-tattoo Carol*

            Yeah, that’s where I come down on this as well. I get that there are things to navigate but people are unique and David is the resident David expert.

            I’m physically disabled. Some days I am fine, some days my limp is very pronounced. Some days I’m confined to the couch. I’d feel upset if my boss went to HR before coming to me. And that is in part because I would worry that HR would decide for me, rather than my boss working directly with me to figure out what I need in order to be productive. If I need accommodations, I’d prefer it to be a plan that my boss, my neurologist, and I present to HR.

            1. kt*

              This is the best analogy I’ve read in this whole discussion here, and thanks for sharing, as I will take it to heart as a manager.

              1. Ice and Indigo*

                Carol’s point is a good one, but may I gently suggest that as a manager, your ‘best’ resource here is the comments of autistic posters, at least when it comes to autism. I get it, I’m an NT who often has to explain things about autistic loved ones to other , and it is sometimes helpful to start with a neuro-cultural intermediary. But the more you read and listen to autistic voices, the better; the rest of us are at best only telling you what they’d tell us. :-)

          3. Caramel & Cheddar*

            Yeah, the question of “How best to I communicate with this person” is best asked *to that person*, not HR (and especially not this HR person, we’ve now learned). Not every autistic person wants to be communicated to the same way!

              1. Lady Heather*

                Adding to that, the things the ‘how to interact with an autistic person’ guides often completely miss the ball – the things autistic persons frequently do have in common are often not the ones that the guides assume.

                You can see some of ASD’s research history in those guides, actually. A lot of it comes from a very stereotypical view of autism – which were also the only people who got diagnosed in the beginning – and has likely been influenced by research in institutional settings.
                (Example: When your schedule is the same every week and you have no control over it, of course it’s a huge problem when the schedule suddenly changes. Most autistic people I know do fine with change – it’s uncertainty they don’t do well with, especially when they have little autonomy, or little confidence in their autonomy (which is the same because a person who doesn’t think they have autonomy does not have autonomy.). But in an institutional setting, uncertainty is most likely to happen when something changes – aggrevated by decreased tolerance to change and uncertainty (because the schedule has been like this for years) and a lack of autonomy (because institution).)

        3. Chilipepper*

          But the employee did not ask for accommodations I don’t think. So is this something that the manager should have taken to HR, should the manager have asked first, etc.

          1. Natalie*

            I don’t think that really matters, there are aspects of the ADA and related laws that apply whether or not an employee requests accommodation.

            1. Natalie*

              To be clear, from the details the LW provided I don’t know whether or not it made sense to alert HR. I just mean that, in general, if someone discloses a disability to their manager they can’t assume that their manager can keep it completely confidential.

              1. Tired of Covid-and People*

                So yes, in general, confidentiality can be assumed. I’ve had a formal ADA accomodation for ten years and would have been mortified if OP had done this, good intentions nothwithstanding.

              2. Natalie*

                You can’t and shouldn’t assume confidentiality between the manager and the company’s *own HR or legal department*. In fact it often works the other way, where HR knows more information than the employee’s direct supervisor.

        4. Disabled trans lesbian*

          Hi, I’m sure you mean well, but please do not use “differently abled”. It’s othering, and I and many Disabled people despise such terms.

            1. littledoctor*

              Yeah, and when we treat “disabled” like it’s some sort of insult or slur, we stigmatise people who are disabled. There’s literally nothing wrong with being disabled. We don’t need to hide from the word.

          1. Self Employed*


            It’s also dismissive–it was coined to show that disabled people aren’t that much different than non-disabled people because we all have different abilities. OK, but your inability to sing on key doesn’t make it impossible to climb the stairs in the office with no elevator or to understand that if you tell your boss your diagnosis they will tell HR about it. (Or make you more susceptible to death from COVID.) Some “different abilities” are substantial enough they need to be recognized and accommodated.

        5. Lady Heather*

          I’ve got to ask – what Different Abilities does David have? Does he fly instead of walk? /s

          He’s autistic. He may or may not consider that a disability. What I do quite confidently assume is that it’s very unlikely he feels his life is so terrible it can only be appropriately described by an ableist euphemism.

          1. Ice and Indigo*

            Oh, he’s probably magical with numbers just like in Rain Man! /end sarcasm.

            (Sorry, I just get tired of asking what ‘special abilities’ my kid has.)

        6. Sheldon Cooper Does Not Represent Me*

          No. David didn’t ask for accommodations. He wasn’t bringing concerns about discrimination to OP.

        7. Sarah*

          I have yet to meet anyone who prefers to be called “differently abled.” It is actually stigmatizing. For example, “differently interested” does not mean the same thing as “disinterested” and is difficult to parse. It actually indicates that you think disabled is a dirty word. Some people are disabled. Big whoop. Differently abled is nonsense but if it weren’t, everyone would be differently abled from everyone else. What you’re actually saying is that disabled people are different. Implicitly, different from people who aren’t disabled, who are just “normal.”

        8. tommy*

          please do not ever say “differently abled” ever again unless you are saying about one specific person who has told you explicitly that they prefer it.

      2. Fed Too*

        But the employee did not keep the information to themselves. They told their supervisor, the LW. Once the LW had that information it was perfectly acceptable and usually advisable to loop in your manager and/or HR. Once I as a manager know of something that falls under a disability or discrimination umbrella I loop HR in so they can help ensure we are following applicable laws and our company’s own policy on handling anything that falls under this.

        The last thing HR wants is there to be an issue down the road, and employee says I told my supervisor when I first started that xx was an issue for me. That brings the company into different legal waters.

        1. pancakes*

          In theory that should be the last thing HR wants, but in some instances, like this one, HR is unable or unwilling to avoid creating terrible issues with their own behavior.

    4. I'm just here for the cats*

      I really don’t thi k LW did anything wrong as I can see it being reasonable for the manager to reach out to HR about how best to communicate with an employee on the spectrum. Just as if an manager needed to reach out to HR for any other accomodations for any other situation. Especially if the company doesn’t have any training, etc for the manager to do by themselves. The only thing I could say would be if the LW been a bit more vague. Like I just learned one of my employees has autism and I want to know how to best to communicate with them. But it might still be very obvious who the LW was talking about.

      1. Admin 4 life*

        I disagree. OP could have asked his new hire those questions directly. (What do you need from me as your manager? Are there any accommodations that will help you in the workplace? What are your communication preferences for important details?)

        I would much rather answer for myself than have my manager get some stigmatized misinformation and disclose something that gives people a reason to treat me differently based on the stereotypes that they’re aware of.

        1. Autistic AF*

          Indeed. It’s called the Autism Spectrum for a reason – what works for one Autistic person won’t necessarily work for another. There are commonalities for sure, such difficulty with figurative language or delayed auditory processing, but the expert in David’s needs is David.

          1. Lady Heather*

            Yes. And a PSA that difficulty with figurative language is common (as you say), but very far away from universal – a lot of autistic people have little difficulty with it, some even communicate easier with figurative language than with literal language.

            I experience more difficulty with people assuming I don’t understand figurative language, than I do with them just using figurative language.

            Don’t assume, ask.

            1. 'Tis Me*

              When I’m tired, I find it very difficult to treat statements as anything other than literal (at times even when I’m aware they probably weren’t intended in that light). It’s quite likely I have ADHD (never diagnosed, probably doesn’t affect my life to the extent that a diagnosis would be worth the effort of persuing) but (despite being analytically minded and having an engineer* for a father) I’m pretty sure I’m not autistic.

              *Apparently a LOT of engineers are on the spectrum, and there’s a hereditary component.

          2. Self Employed*

            +1000 here too.

            If someone is working at a job they got through a regular hiring process I would assume they are the first person to talk to about what they need in the workplace. If all they need are things like writing down multi-step procedures, not trying to have conversations where it’s noisy, letting them wear a hat with a brim to reduce glare, HR doesn’t need to be involved. If they need the company to spend money on accommodations such as non-flickering lights or sound absorbing material for their workstation, then the boss should tell the employee that this type of reasonable accommodation needs to go through HR. At the very least, the company needs to track costs to get the deduction for providing accommodations and possibly reimbursement.

            If it seems David is struggling to articulate his needs (which has been a problem for me) then the boss can go to the Job Accommodation Network to get a “menu” of things that typically help to see if David thinks any of them would fit.

      2. kt*

        On the surface this point of view makes sense, but… just thinking through things, if I have an employee with fibromyalgia or undergoing chemo or pregnant (just to name a few things that cause fatigue), I’d ask them what they need and then go to HR. This is what I have done with pregnant employees in the past — ask what types of accommodations they need, then support them as they work with HR. I wouldn’t go to HR first — they’re not doctors, they don’t know what kinds of accommodations people need. Same with someone adopting: once they tell me what they need, I can work with HR to get that support or flexibility for them. Fed Too says above, “Once I as a manager know of something that falls under a disability or discrimination umbrella I loop HR in,” but this is not true for me; I have a non-binary colleague and maybe a trans colleague and I have Black colleagues, and while people have certainly been discriminated against with respect to gender identity and skin color, I don’t need HR’s advice on how to talk with these colleagues. If one of my employees says to me, Hey, I’m not sure how to go about my name change, then I’ll happily take that up with HR, or if someone reports unprofessional behavior, I’ll take that to HR, but… until then, what’s to talk about?

      3. Sheldon Cooper Does Not Represent Me*

        A manager should never reach out to HR for accommodations. A manager should ask the person in question what accommodations they need and reach out to HR if they need help implementing those accommodations.

        1. Snuck*

          A manager can reach out to HR though and ask HOW to approach the subject with an employee. When to, how to phrase it, what is possible in the employment conditions etc….

      4. Snuck*

        I too think it could be appropriate to reach out and ask… the reality is that people who have Autism often, by the nature of their social communication difference, struggle to hold down jobs. I doubt that the OP was aiming for a negative outcome, instead wanting to make the employment a success. While the hire is a good one, and working out well, one could err on the side of caution and ask for support.

        I liken Autism at times to “living in a different culture, with a different social communication language”, so is it wrong to ask someone else for advice on that culture? If you had a person with a very strong ‘other’ culture might you reach out for guidance? (And yes, asking for help from an appropriate Autism Advocacy service would be better, but isn’t that HR’s role? To find one?)

        I would also wonder possibly about any legal ramifications – while the employee hasn’t asked for accommodations/considerations (apparently, the letter doesn’t specify this, but as the commentariat has expressed – one wouldn’t normally disclose Autism without a reason, so could we infer there was an issue where the employee felt the need to explain their difference?) the reality is the employee HAS disclosed a disability. Is there a legal ramification for this? Is there a need to handle the employee differently in future? What sort of changes should be made to how I manage a person who has declared a disability but not asked for accommodations? Should accommodations be offered? What are the next steps? For a Manager not versed in all that this might entail it is ENTIRELY appropriate to reach out to HR and ask. HR should be able to answer these questions and provide support and advice.

        I’d rather be kicking up about the HR Manager who seems to have the mentality of a kindergarten teacher and leave the employee’s manager alone. They’ll learn a lot reading these comments, including the fact that even within the ASD there’s a broad range of opinions and no single one perfect answer… but I don’t want them coming away from this thinking they shouldnt’ ask advice when something is beyond their experience!

        1. Anne*

          Are you autistic? I only ask because I and a number of other commenters here are and you really truly if you have a question about what works and doesn’t work for the autistic employee in general, just ask the employee. The people I have the most “communication issues” with are those who refuse to believe that I could ever understand and communicate what I needed. Communication is a two way street and if the default position by a neurotypical manager is that an autistic employee can’t communicate or explain their own experiences, that’s a communication issue that is squarely the fault of the neurotypical.

          1. Snuck*

            I believe that I would at times meet the criteria for ASD diagnosis yes. I also believe at times I would not… I am one of those that people like Michelle Garcia Winner would describe as functioning so well they don’t ever get a free pass, and people punish because they aren’t quite normal enough. (I am not that much of a fan of the woman, but she covers this stuff fairly well.)

            Communication is a two way street, but the nature of ASD is that the usually the most profound disability is in effective social, nuanced communication. I’m going to stop reading and commenting on this post because I feel like there’s a lot of people who are trying to talk for me – and they don’t – Autism is a spectrum disorder. It has a few key features including non typical, disordered social communication, and with up to 80% of communication not being the words that are spoken but the WAY they are said it’s a profound disability if a person cannot ‘read’ it properly. There is another key feature which is fixed or inflexible thinking… and that is here in ABUNDAN

            1. Snuck*

              Gah keyboard fail…
              The inflexible thinking is here in abundance today…. a lot of people telling other people without diplomacy or rounded out edges what they should think, stridently arguing that their point of view is the best and only. I myself feel my own ASD traits rising and am falling into a similar feet planted stance and I feel stressed, unhappy and pigeon holed when this happens. The price of being a ‘near remission’ ASDer who struggles when stressed, but functions largely ‘normally’ the rest of the time. It seems that a lot of people don’t have full insight (or don’t have enough developed social empathy to care?) about the fact that there’s a range of reactions to people’s own lived experience of ASD, and this post is probably amazingly interesting reading to non-ASD people as they see us ignore, bluntly tell off and blatantly demand things without seeing the nuances and the social norms. As a person with high social anxiety just reading many of the comments on this post stresses me out.

              I think the true thing to remember about ASD is it is a spectrum disorder, and while there’s some key features (social communication is different to ‘normal’, fixed or inflexible thinking/binary/black/white thinking, possible sensory/processing and other limitations, differences into social insight/empathy/community understanding) there’s also a person at the end of this. One who may have traits you are aware of, and some may not. There’s a great many assumptions made about ASD, and while people with ASD are saying ‘you can’t talk for me’ (to the neuro typical world) they are then very busily talking over each other to talk for each other.

              This is crushing to me and the reason I rarely out myself in places like this (and often actively avoid doing so), because I get shouted down, treated as less than, and then where do I fit? Not in the neuro typical world, but not in the ASD one either. There is as many asinine people with ASD as without. ASD isn’t a free pass to be a pain in the butt, and ASD isn’t a reason to treat people differently. As much as the ASD advocacy circles want (and should!) the rest of the world to acknowledge and accept the divergent thinking of ASD, the reality is that ASD is a 1% minority thing and we ASDers need to learn to talk this foreign other language that the ‘normals’ speak. We don’t have to use it all the time, but we need to learn it and use it when we want something from them. Otherwise we are loudly yellling in English at people in a shop in China and no one can quite understand us, even as we gesticulate madly at the shop shelves, the intent gets lost in the shouting, the unclear physical gestures and the miss match of emotion to the situation. Now not all people are wildly inappropriate like this but that’s because they are learning the key social communications of the rest of the world… and because the more stressed and more difficult a moment becomes the harder it is to process and react smoothly, so this scenario hopefully is increasingly rare. But even now, I flounder, in this page, where I am being told very firmly who I am meant to be, by people purporting to be ‘like me’ and they are using absolute language (so too am I… my ASD is hanging out!) and it’s doing my head in.

              I want to also make the following point: ASD has wonderful traits as well that are rarely talked about – extreme loyalty, high levels of stick it ness, an ability to get to the nut of the problem efficiently, high logical processing skills often, all traits suited to all sorts of jobs. Friendships with ASD are characterised with strong trust, loyalty, routine check ins and deep shared interests.

              I am a person lost between normal, and not quite normal enough. I am a person who is accepted by neither entirely, and the more I try to lean into one, or the other, the less I feel accepted. I am a person who stands in the middle, uneasy, disconnected, doing my best.

              1. Simonthegreywarden*

                Just in case people don’t know (not necessarily for you) — ADHD has a lot of traits similar to autism. I am not autistic, but have many characteristics that are often thought of as being autistic traits. Especially in women, both conditions are frequently under-diagnosed OR diagnosed as mood disorders. I was lucky that my ADHD was diagnosed very young and that I’ve outgrown the more ‘hyperactive’ elements, but my brain will never function neurotypically and it is quite impossible to explain to people what it feels like other than, “I have fifteen tabs open in the browser of my brain, two of them are different TED talks and one’s playing Celtic music, the whole thing is powered by coffee and I can’t stop window-shopping on Amazon long enough to submit my tax paperwork for my business.”

    5. kismet*

      I don’t think it’s weird or bad that she shared this with HR; the very first set of trainings I went through when I became a new manager at my company really focused on the fact that being a manager makes you an agent of the company, and the company becomes legally liable for your management-related decisions and actions. So, for instance, you start to have a duty to take action if you observe sexual harassment or someone tells you that they observed or experienced it, regardless of whether the harassed person wants to go to HR. It was a completely different way of understanding that role than I had known before I became a manager, even though I’d been at the company (as an individual contributor) for a decent amount of time.

      Against that backdrop, I think it’s completely reasonable for a new manager to loop in HR when they have an employee disclose a potentially-protected medical condition and make sure they know what they should (or definitely should not!) do. I’d see that as a separate set of considerations around effective communication from what David wants as an individual person. The stuff I’d expect HR to focus on would be along the lines of, “Don’t assume what sort of work assignments the person wants or does not want as a result of their condition, you need to explicitly ask” and guidance around whether/how to ask if David wants any formal accommodations. Or maybe even guidance around how to RECOGNIZE if an employee is requesting accommodations, for example what if they ask for something but don’t use the word “accommodation” – is that still legally considered an accommodations request, and what does the manager need to do to document it if they decline? David knows how he personally wants to be communicated with to be effective, but HR should be providing guidance on what a manager needs to do to avoid running afoul of their legal responsibilities. Different things, both are needed.

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        Yes, in various trainings we got a lot of “please reach out and ask us if you’re ever uncertain” for the different topics, including equal employment opportunity, sexual harassment, and ADA. The main message of the training was “you won’t remember the details of this training, so if you have doubts, call us pronto so we can guide you in not screwing up.”

        They really encouraged us to use the ADA office as a resource, partly because they’ve seen a lot of issues before and may have ideas and suggestions for potential accommodations that a front-line manager might not be aware were options, but also just to be reminded of your legal obligations as a manager in the moment.

        Our ADA office is pretty good, and you’re not likely to run into the staff in other contexts because of how large our company is, so as a manager it wouldn’t occur to me that something like what happened in this letter might be a concern – I’m not even sure it would go in the employee’s regular HR file in a way that non-ADA department staff could see.

      2. Littorally*

        I think it’s questionable that the LW shared the employee’s identity. Going to HR with a general “hey, one of my reports just disclosed they are on the autism spectrum, can you help me navigate my obligations as an agent of the company so I don’t accidentally do something that gets us in trouble” is completely fine and reasonable, and that’s a question that the LW should not be asking David directly. But disclosing his identity makes it an issue, and sets up exactly the kind of situation that is happening, with David singled out by this HR person for negative treatment.

        1. Guacamole Bob*

          Depending on the size of the team and company, this may be impossible. I only have one direct report, for example – should I never ask for this kind of guidance? Often these issues arise with new employees when there’s only one new person on the team, too.

          Which just highlights how much Danielle is the one screwing up here. HR needs to be able to offer support to managers who are trying to do the right thing without spreading it around or making it weird.

      3. HJG*

        Agree with this. At my company (big tech) this most often comes up in trainings around performance management. I.e., if you’re having an underperformance conversation and the employee discloses a disability, hit pause and consult HR to understand the company’s ADA obligations and get advice on reasonable accommodations. Obviously that’s not what happened here, but if you are not a super experienced manager and it’s your first time having an employee disclose a diagnoses, it’s totally reasonable to check in with HR to make sure you are treating your employee fairly and not playing out unconscious bias on your team. This is really just crappy HR. But I also agree with folks on the thread who have concluded they’d be more careful about disclosing information to their managers. It’s always reasonable to assume anything you say to your manager will not be kept 100% confidential- they might feel out of their depth and ask their manager or HR for help (which in a well-functioning company is a good thing!).

        1. DKMA*

          Your company also sounds like it has crappy HR. The point of accommodations is not as some sort of performance management issue get-out-of-jail free card. Framing it this way is actually really bad, as it implies that someone will only need accommodations if they are a low performer, which is not true.

          1. Snuck*

            But most people who haven’t disclosed a disability/need for accommodations up front are likely to hit that button during a performance review if they feel it’s because of their disability. This is the reality of managing people – that there’s a power imbalance issue – if they disclose early they get funny faces and microwave idiocy, if they disclose too late they might be performance managed out. People when faced with losing their jobs might choose that moment to disclose, once it has meaning/weight. Then yes, put the brakes on and work out whether accommodations are needed to assist the person to perform their role. Or should we ride rough shod over a person who finally discloses and say “too late, so sad, too bad, you are now on a PIP and we’ll handle that disability thing separately entirely, as it wasn’t reported before this so even if it applied it didn’t exist”?

            I was the fastest on drive thru. I was the person who completed the most cleaning tasks every shift. I served the most customers. I showed up for every shift, I could put the shake machine together in half the time of anyone else from scratch. Then I was fired from the job as a teenager because I didn’t “smile at every customer, so didn’t give every customer the same level of service”. That’s the sort of thing Autistic people get fired over, and if you disclose it early you get no shifts, if you don’t disclose it (I had no idea as a teen what was going on!) then you get fired because you aren’t ‘like the others’ usually.

      4. Sheldon Cooper Does Not Represent Me*

        There is no such thing as a protected medical condition. There are reasonable accommodations and there is anti-discrimination protection.

  3. kittymommy*

    I’ll be honest, I’m not sure Danielle’s possible embarrassment needs to be that much of a concern. She should be embarrassed. Obviously one doesn’t need to be a jerk about it, but definitely do not worry about pulling any punches in getting the point across.

    Jeez, poor David.

    1. Myrin*

      I was actually surprised Alison brought this up in the first place since as far as I can see Danielle’s potential embarrassment isn’t a topic in the letter at all, so I’d simply assumed that wouldn’t be of concern for the OP.
      On second thought, we hear of the “how do I bring XY up without embarrassing [person-who-should-clearly-be-embarrassed]” angle on here almost daily so it might not be bad to hammer it home regardless, if not for the OP, then for someone else in a similar situation who might need to hear it.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes — people often worry “won’t this hurt their feelings/embarrass them/etc.” and I find it’s helpful to preemptively address that, since it makes people more likely to follow the advice. It’s super common for people not to speak up or to water down the message because they’re worried about that.

        This is real life, where people worry and have qualms about other people’s responses, whether or not we think they should.

        1. Vicky Austin*

          Like when White people avoid talking to Black people because they’re afraid they’ll accidentally say something racist without intending to?

      2. winter frog*

        I think Alison brought up the concern about Danielle’s embarrassment as a way of acknowledging to the LW that the conversation could be an awkward one. The point as I understood it was not so much concern about Danielle as it was to encourage the LW to work through their own potential feelings to so that the LW could be prepared to have the conversation.

      3. Snailing*

        As well, even if LW really doesn’t care if HR lady is embarrassed, it’s generally a good idea to approach matters/disputes/conversations in a neutral or polite way because it makes the person you’re addressing more likely to collaborate with you on it – in general, but especially at work where you’re expected to make an effort to get along with others. And then even more so when the other person is a position of some type of authority like HR, your boss, your manager, a peer manager from another department etc.

        This is why I love Alison’s scripts in general because they “play nice” but also clearly describe why the other person should be embarrassed and correct their behavior.

      1. Momma Bear*

        Agreed. She had good advice and isn’t following it – so she knows how to treat David but refuses to do so. Definitely call a spade a spade here. I wouldn’t worry about how she feels about it. She’s upsetting everyone else.

      2. PollyQ*

        Well, Danielle certainly *should* feel embarrassed, and maybe even ashamed, but OP’s goal shouldn’t be to *make* her feel that way. It should just be to get her to understand why her behavior is wrong and to get her to stop.

        1. Librarian of SHIELD*

          I agree with this. I like that Alison’s advice brings it up in a “this might happen, but it’s not something you need to worry about or try to mitigate” kind of way.

      3. Guacamole Bob*

        Danielle is acting like a jackass, but that doesn’t mean that OP will feel comfortable doing something that may make her feel embarrassed. I cringe away from secondhand embarrassment on TV shows, so this conversation sounds terrible to me, even if Danielle is clearly in the wrong. Having Alison acknowledge that it may be tough but it’s necessary can be useful if the OP is like me.

        1. Maltypass*

          Well said – in reality most people are like that! It’s such a ludicrous situation that to have to say this to Danielle is insanely awkward and it’s a very human thing to back out of it, softening the language is a way to help mitigate that

    2. Autistic AF*

      Having worked with folks like Daniele, I would worry about her response as it has led to people getting defensive and doubling down in my experience. Danielle may deserve to feel embarrassed, but I’d be very worried about DARVO, especially as a new hire without job security.

    3. anonforthis*

      This is what I was thinking! Danielle absolutely deserves to be embarrassed as a consequence of her actions. A common theme in many AAM letters is that impolite people get too much of a pass because polite people walk eggshells around them. I understand the LW might be worried about confronting someone in a position of power, but she shouldn’t worry about preserving Danielle’s ego (Danielle’s dignity is long gone.) Also, f*** giving Danielle the benefit of the doubt – she is a horrible person.

      Also, as other people have mentioned, Danielle’s behavior isn’t just ableist but she is definitely breaching confidentiality as well.

      David is definitely going to bounce as soon as he can.

      1. Maltypass*

        Yeah she deserves to be embarrassed and OP shouldn’t have to worry but in a real life situation Alison’s wording is more likely to get stuff done. I completely agree with you that Danielle sucks here but confronting people can be really hard, like goes against your ingrained instincts hard, especially if they do have power over you, and you’re also just plain more likely to get a good result by approaching her in a way that minimises embarrassment.

        1. anonforthis*

          I totally understand this. I think self preservation is a valid reason not to confront someone super aggressively. Like Alison mentioned above, it’s good to confirm that sometimes the person feeling embarrassed should not be a reason to not have the conversation, but keeping your job is important.

    4. Junior Dev*

      This is all well and good from an abstract standpoint but if she’s already behaving this badly, OP intentionally antagonizing her may well make her defensive and act worse towards David. It depends a lot on the power dynamics here; ideally this would be a situation where OP could shame her into fixing her behavior but it’s not just OP’s feelings on the line if Danielle gets really mad; it’s possibly David’s job.

      This is not an argument against calling her out, it’s an argument for OP doing so tactfully. Marginalized people shouldn’t be tone-policed when standing up to bigotry, but I think if you’re a person who’s in a position to be a more-privileged ally to someone facing discrimination, you do have to be strategic and not just go off at the person behaving badly.

    5. DKMA*

      Danielle’s behavior makes it clear to me that it would be very reasonable for the OP to be worried about making her feel embarrassed. He is on the wrong side of a power dynamic (head of HR!) and the other party has proven she has poor judgement and no respect for boundaries. Pretending this isn’t part of the problem does no one any favors.

  4. starsaphire*

    This is awful. Danielle should be fired. (From a cannon, preferably.)

    OP, best of luck. Don’t be afraid to go over Danielle’s head if she doesn’t respond appropriately.

    1. Bot 2*

      This seems extreme. Danielle should 100% change how she acts around David and apologize, but it doesn’t sound like she’s being malicious.

        1. pcake*

          Detective Amy Santiago, you might be surprised. Lots of people are taught by family to do that with a variety of adults, all babies and children, injured or disabled people and pets.

          Every nurse and orderly at Kaiser, server at the Sizzler and person working at stores treated my 79 year old mother like a child, talking to her in a high-pitched, honeyed voice like you talk to a toddler – btw, I don’t talk to toddlers, babies or pets that way, so I found it especially awful and completely demeaning. When they had something of substance to say, they automatically asked me – even if regarded my mother’s food order. They called her endearments including those who had never met her before. It was so creepy.

          1. Tired of Covid-and People*

            I always corrected folks when they treated my elderly mother in this manner. I don’t think she minded as much as I did, but she was chill and I’m not. Probably part of why she lived to be 91.

          2. Ana Gram*

            Ooh, I agree! I train new EMT’s and they will get a dressing down if they call elderly patients “honey” or “sweetie” or anything like that. It’s Mr. or Mrs. Lastname or what the patient has asked you to call them. Period.

          3. DarnTheMan*

            I used to work for an org that was focused on the rights of older people and that was one of our biggest campaigns that we’d done a number of studies on; addressing older people, especially those experiencing cognitive decline as a result of things like dementia and Alzheimers, as you would any other adult. Our shorthand rule was, if you wouldn’t call someone over the age of 5 that, don’t refer to a senior with it.

        2. kt*

          Replying to you so I can be a sibling commenter to all the comments I want to reply to, Danielle’s intent simply doesn’t matter that much. These kinds of discussions can always fall into the “but she means well” trap — and we’ve got to go back to the “you’re stepping on my foot” analogy. “I am only stepping on your foot because I really have your best interests at heart” is still stepping on my foot and it still hurts.

          Sure, sibling commenters, she was taught to behave that way. Well, she can unlearn it. Whether it’s malicious or not, it’s wrong.

      1. Aquawoman*

        Incompetence is generally an adequate reason to fire someone, so I don’t see why her intentions matter. While I think she should get a warning before being fired, she is creating a hostile work environment for an employee in a protected class. That is bad enough for anyone but especially bad for someone in HR.

      2. oranges & lemons*

        Honestly, I think it is likely she is being malicious. Even if you give her the extreme benefit of the doubt, she’s being wildly, ridiculously ignorant. But given that she’s an HR professional and apparently has access to valid information about accommodating autistic coworkers, malice seems more likely in this case. Perhaps she’s hoping to make David uncomfortable enough that he wants to leave.

      3. Jessen*

        I have to say this sort of thing would make me wonder specifically about whether someone should be working in HR. It’s a very serious thing for HR to be involved in blatant discrimination. And this is discriminatory behavior, no matter how much the HR person might mean well. They’re still treating a competent working adult like a child based on stereotypes about disability.

        I doubt OP can do anything, but I’d be seriously wondering about keeping on an HR person who thought this was ok to do.

      4. Ana Gram*

        Does it matter? She’s the head of HR and she’s treating a grown employee like a child. She’s incompetent and should be disciplined strongly or, my preference, fired.

    2. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

      Not sure she should be fired just for one incident but there should be a harsh conversation and then a follow-up if she does anything like this again, yes.

  5. Oxford Common Sense*

    Ugh. Would love an update on this one at some point. My son is on the spectrum, and although he’s still in school (and I spend a lot of time and energy worrying about that), I do also worry about how he will be treated in the workplace when he gets there.

    1. Louise*

      I do hope this gets better as we all know more and more people on the spectrum. (And the number of people that would likely be considered on the spectrum who may never have been tested as a child for whatever reason.) I know having a family member who is probably on the spectrum has given me way more tools and understanding to deal with anyone I meet in public or at a job who doesn’t communicate the ‘normal’ way or might have a random breakdown in the middle of the store.
      There are degrees of severity for autistic people but honestly the microwave comment is so demeaning. I could only see that being appropriate unless you were in some setting where you were teaching life skills to the person, which is not a traditional work setting.

      1. Autistic AF*

        Especially given that the inventor of the microwave has hallmarks of Autism himself (intense interest in electricity, self-taught) – Simon Baron Cohen just released a book positing connection between invention and Autism.

        1. Sheldon Cooper Does Not Represent Me*

          Simon Baron Cohen has a fairly limited view of autism. He’s the guy who thinks autism is an extreme male brain. And frankly, passion for a subject and autodidacticism are not sufficient to indicate autism. You do autists allistic autodidacs both a disservice by promoting those stereotypes.

          1. Autistic AF*

            Simon Baron Cohen has also been vocal about Hans Asperger’s Nazi past and the benefit in moving away from Aspergers Syndrome. Temple Grandin is looked upon my many in the Autistic community positively, but she has some pretty harmful, ableist views against people with higher support needs. There’s good and bad in a lot of Autism expertise – there’s a lot of nuance here.

            I don’t disagree with you about the extreme male brain theory – I’ve been harmed by it as a late-in-life diagnosed woman. I also dislike the Sheldon Cooper trope. Passion for a subject and autodidactism are still central to MY Autism, however. There’s plenty of room on the Autism spectrum for people to not have those two traits and I’m sorry that I implied otherwise. I don’t believe that having “hallmarks of Autism” indicates one is Autistic, especially respecting the no armchair diagnosis rule here, but that still seems to have been a poor choice of words. I honestly don’t know how to say traits are associated with Autism without needing to be there for one to be Autistic without typing an entire sentence. We’re all still learning and I’m sure that in another 30 years we’ll have even better concepts of Autism.

    2. Anax*

      Autistic here – It can be frustrating, especially in certain positions. I prefer to avoid phone calls and excessive meetings when possible, for instance, and it can be hard for managers to understand that this isn’t social anxiety or inexperience (especially because I’m a twenty-something AFAB), but simply “if I need to do this, I’ll become overloaded, and that will make me much less effective at the rest of my job.” Social anxiety is much more common, and most people not familiar with autistics have trouble recognizing even super obvious overload – handflapping, difficult verbalizing, going to a dark place to cool down.

      But on the plus side – outside those situations, it’s really no big deal. If he can and if it fits with his interests, I would suggest choosing a career path with a lot of neurodivergent people.

      I’m in IT, and for the most part, I’m not regarded as “autistic” – I’m regarded as “a normal software engineer, they’re all like that.” Standard perks in IT include things which are specifically autistic-friendly, because they’re so popular – working from home, wearing comfortable clothing / relaxed dress code, wearing headphones while in the office, etc. Even though the word “autistic” is rarely used, it’s a very welcoming environment!

      I know there are other career paths which are also quite welcoming to neurodivergents – mostly ones which involve long periods of deep focus and limited human interaction, naturally.

      I would also suggest that as he gets older, gently encouraging him toward more “adult” and less “childish” habits would be very useful. For instance, helping him update his wardrobe in his teens and college years would make a huge difference – that’s a difficult one for many autistics, because adjusting to new clothes is a sensory misery, but it makes a huge difference in how we’re perceived. He doesn’t need to “fit in with the crowd”, but knowing what vibes he’s putting out and learning to express himself in a way which aligns with his self-image makes a big difference.

      (Goodness knows I wore shirts from middle school all through college, because they fit fine, why change?? … because Three Wolf Moon has social implications that you don’t actually enjoy, tiny Anax, as do clothes with holes in them.)

      tl;dr – It’s not generally like this, and I think he’ll be fine. :)

    3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      If he ends up in IT, he’ll be fine. We all float, err we are all on the spectrum down here. Cannot speak for other fields as I have no experience with those.

      1. Snuck*

        Look to the medical specialist field for another ASD hunting ground ;) Immunologists, scientists, pathologists etc… a fair few lurking in those corridors too ….

        1. Anax*

          Engineering, too. I would guess that most graduate degree programs and data-focused professions have a lot of autistics; anything where you need to deep-dive into a lot of information tends to be autistic-friendly.

    4. Sarah*

      As someone with a different condition, my advice may or may not be helpful, but sometimes it goes better if you either don’t mention the disability or if you talk about what accommodations you need for your disability without specifying what it is. That isn’t always feasible, though

  6. Sara without an H*

    Now … will this embarrass Danielle?

    If it does — good. Embarrassment would be the appropriate response.

    And Danielle is supposed to be an HR professional???

    1. Anonny*

      Let’s face it, as an autistic person, if I was on the receiving end of this behaviour there’s a good chance I’d call it out very publically, office politics be d*mned. (There is some speculation that is one of the reasons why autism evolved – a person who is uninterested in playing social games and very commited to integrity is useful.)

      Basically, if OP doesn’t put a stop to Danielle’s behaviour, there’s a good chance David will, and he will be a lot less gentle about it.

      (Personally, I’m in favour of embarassing Danielle so hard that she turns into a 3cm diameter ball of cringe whenever she thinks about this, but I understand not everyone would agree with me.)

      1. Ice and Indigo*

        The autistic person I’m closest to, on the other hand, would be too frightened to call it out because of bad experiences in the past. Their mental health would crash through the floor, though. Either way, Danielle needs a SERIOUS word in her ear!

        1. Anonny*

          Yeah, it varies based on our experiences and personalities. But it’s definitely a risk, and I’m sure OP would rather have a quiet but firm word in Danielle’s ear rather than David pulling out a blunt and quite public remark.

          1. Self Employed*

            It is definitely OP’s responsibility to call Danielle out on this harassment of OP’s direct report David. No employee should be in the position of calling out the head of HR for harassing them–and OP is the one who started the harassment by sharing David’s private medical information with Danielle.

            I don’t want to get into oppression Olympics of whether or not David is suffering more than a woman being harassed by HR after disclosing pregnancy or a BIPOC person getting racist harassment. They’re all awful scenarios.

            However, one way this could play out if OP doesn’t take action to support David is that David will run out of f***s to give one day and give Danielle a piece of his mind in a way that will get him fired for insubordination. Who knows, Danielle may be trying to instigate this to have a reason to fire David for cause. (If she gave reasonable advice to OP, it’s less likely she’s just ignorant.) My landlord has a business practice of escalating disputes with tenants so instead of having to solve the underlying issue, they can evict the tenant for cause for being disrespectful to staff. It’s a nice way to get around the just cause eviction clause HUD requires in our leases.

    2. Ice and Indigo*

      Put it this way: Danielle may be embarrassed. It’s very possible that right now, David is *humiliated*.

  7. Sis Boom Bah*

    Is it normal to disclose private health information to other departments? I don’t understand why HR needed to know this. I get that OP was nervous about managing effectively, but HR wouldn’t be the place I would go for this information, specifically because I don’t believe that HR would have this kind of training.

    1. PT*

      Typically stuff like this *has* to be disclosed to HR once it’s disclosed to a manager, to ensure the manager is following the law regarding the employee’s rights. At least that’s been the rules everywhere I have worked.

      I have worked in departments where we opted not to- and thus violated company policy, endangering our own jobs- because somewhere in the HR notification chain was a bad actor such as Danielle, who would make the employee’s life harder and jeopardize their job. Especially if it was something minor where we could provide the necessary accommodation easily (oh we can just adjust your schedule by an hour and make sure you’re not doing any heavy lifting!) while HR would force them on unpaid leave or a Grandboss would insist they be fired.

      1. Random Autistic Person*

        This seems like a suboptimal policy, given that a lot of disabled/neurodivergent people’s response to “if you disclose your condition to your manager, it *has* to be reported to HR even if neither of you want to do that” is going to be “okay, I just won’t disclose then.” I get the intent and obviously it’s super important to make sure that the company is following the law, but I feel like there has to be a better way to accomplish this.

        1. BubbleTea*

          I suppose the thing is that you’re not disclosing to an individual as a person, you’re disclosing to the staff member as a representative of the organisation. I do voluntary work with a teenager and have to occasionally remind her that anything she tells me could go back to the charity I volunteer through. I can’t promise confidentiality from my supervisor, although of course mostly I don’t share what we’ve discussed. But if she discloses something important, she is doing so to BubbleTea the Volunteer with Charity XYZ, not BubbleTea the person who keeps secrets for her friends. Same in the workplace. There’s a legal entity with responsibilities and duties, which is represented by people but is not merely those people.

  8. Justin*

    The double edged sword of disclosing neurodivergence is hoping to receive support and understanding (which OP is doing) but also getting this absolute nonsense.

    I hope she is indeed embarrassed once you tell her.

    1. Keymaster of Gozer*

      This happened to me in 2005. A HR bod AND my manager started treating me like I was an unstable child that was 20 seconds away from attacking my coworkers with my teeth or something (I have not, nor will ever physically attack another person).

      The absolute last time I ever made mention even obliquely to having schizophrenia. I only wanted them to understand that my meds can sometimes make me a bit zombie like. Learnt a hard lesson about how the real world treats people with any mental differences that day.

      I can’t say I’d be calm seeing this happen to a member of my staff. I believe I’d be at the approaching the HR person after one of these comments and going ‘wtf is your problem?’ because I have no patience at all for this kind of rubbish.

      1. Anon for Today*

        My aunt had schizophrenia and I feel this comment so hard. I blame the movies and crime procedurals who portray people with schizophrenia as if they’re all potential spree murderers. My aunt suffered from extreme social anxiety as she got older and would hole up in her apartment for months during her bad times (she struggled a bit with medications when my grandma died – who was her main social outlet). She most certainly never thought about hurting people and was always worried others would hurt her. She died a few years ago from cancer and it was hard hearing that they had to wean her off some of her meds so that they could control her pain (she refused chemo). I guess she had some visual hallucinations near the end and I hated that she had to go through that because she was such a gentle person with a kooky sense of humor that I enjoyed.

      2. littledoctor*

        ! It’s very fun to encounter a fellow schizophrenic out in the wild.

        But yeah, schizophrenia is really something that can never, ever be mentioned without it completely stigmatising you forever. I remember years ago my psychiatrist advised me to lie when I applied for my medical license, because they asked about mental illness and schizophrenic people weren’t (and aren’t) allowed to practice medicine. Maybe someone with anxiety or depression would be able to be licensed, but never someone with schizophrenia. People will see psychiatrists in other provinces to get medication to avoid anyone finding out, it’s insane.

        In fact, when I was diagnosed, my psychiatrist advised me to never tell anyone. Aside from psychiatrists, the only people on Earth who know were three high school teachers and a guidance counsellor (I had a very early onset, at under thirteen). None of my family or friends or partners know or have ever known, and ideally none ever will.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          My husband knows, my parents suspect (grandmother had paranoid schizophrenia and I was frankly a hot mess at 16) and my best friend knows these days. I wish I’d had someone to tell me to keep it quiet when I entered adulthood.

          Honestly thought people admired quirks, especially in IT. Nowadays I’m more scared of a current staff member complaining to the firm that they feel ‘unsafe’ working with a (very well medicated) schizophrenic.

    2. MeepMeep*

      Yup. I know for 99% sure that I’m on the spectrum, but garbage like this is the reason I never pursued a formal diagnosis or sought any sort of accommodations from any workplace I’ve ever been in. I know for sure that the likelihood of a negative outcome resulting from disclosing a stigmatized “condition” to a corporation is far higher than the likelihood of any sort of positive outcome. I feel for David.

  9. Detective Amy Santiago*

    This needs to be escalated above Danielle immediately. And if you have in house legal, loop them in. Because holy hell is this bad.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          I’m honestly stunned that Alison didn’t bring up the potential (ENORMOUS) legal ramifications of this.

          This is a whole can of worms.

          1. Justin*

            Yes, it’s one of the things that is a positive of disclosure, that they can make a legal fight, but of course, that so rarely ends well for the worker, who then has to spend a lot of time and money, which is why it’s so hard to deal with for things below the level of outright slurs/violence.

            I wish him luck.

          1. JSPA*

            Being neuroatypical…does that intrinsically count as a disability / perceived disability? I suppose one could argue that her behavior negates the need for such a determination, because it only makes sense if she considers him disabled in some regard…

            But otherwise, any argument of different treatment would have to be made on a statistical basis, and you can’t make an argument on that basis when N = 1.

            1. Aquawoman*

              I don’t understand your second paragraph. There are other employees in the office, they are not treated this way. The one (known) autistic person is treated this way. That is differential treatment.

              1. JSPA*

                I was enquiring whether every formal diagnosis of ASD (or for that matter, self-reporting of “being autistic,” as those are not the same thing) is automatically covered under the ADA. After all, the ADA is not primarily based on a list of traits. Rather, A person has protection for disability under the ADA if they have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; if they have a record of such an impairment; or if they are regarded as having an impairment.”

                If I treat someone with an ADA recognized condition or disability differently, with regards to hiring, firing, promoting (etc) or by way of creating a hostile environment on the basis of that condition or disability, it’s illegal. (In contrast, it’s entirely legal to treat someone differently per the terms of a requested accommodation; that’s what an accommodation is.)

                If I am not intentionally treating people differently [in those ways] on the basis of a real or perceived condition, but it turns out that statistically, all the people in Class A make 50% more than all the people in Class Not A, my intentions are moot; there is discrimination, whether or not it’s intentional, and that, too, is illegal.

                With a single individual, when this isn’t affecting hiring, firing, pay, promotion (etc), does “the HR lady acts like a freaking idiot in this employee’s presence, such that people mock her, not him” rise to the level of discrimination, let alone hostile environment not only in the court of common opinion (where: yes, yes, it does) but in a court of law (where I’m less certain this is so).

                1. Self Employed*

                  Well, the fact that Danielle started treating David differently based on knowing about his ASD diagnosis clearly fits the “regarded as having an impairment” part of that.

                  After all, she regards David as possibly having difficulty using common small appliances…

                  This, and the way Keymaster of Gozer said he was treated as being potentially violent after disclosing to keep them in the loop about med side effects, seem to be examples of discrimination based on “regarded as having an impairment.”

                  It would also cover Danielle doing this to some other employee based on hearing lunchroom banter about them being in a model train club. (“Oooh! They must be autistic, everyone knows model railroad clubs are just autism social clubs! I must make sure he knows I’m proud of him for operating the microwave and copier because my cousin the ABA therapist says you need to reinforce good behavior!) I suppose there are non-Autistic people in model railroad clubs too, but it’s a stereotype with a grain of truth the size of an avocado pit.

                2. Sheldon Cooper Does Not Represent Me*

                  Conditions are not covered under the ADA. There is no such thing as an ADA recognized condition. The ADA lists examples of disabilities, but those are examples, not an encompassing list of what constitutes a disability.

                  Accommodations are covered under the ADA. You aren’t actually required to disclose what your diagnosis is when you request an accommodation–you just need to document that you have a need for the accommodation.

                  And no, just having autism doesn’t make one disabled anymore than needing glasses makes one disabled.

            2. Autistic AF*

              Neurodivergence in itself isn’t necessarily a disability. Autism doesn’t have to be a disability, but it’s diagnosed based on disabling symptoms. Danielle started treating David like a child once she learned he was Autistic. There is plenty of evidence around infantilization and Autism.

                1. Autistic AF*

                  I’m not American, but AFAIK legal supports require a formal diagnosis when it comes to Autism or the like. It’s very difficult to get a formal Autism diagnosis if one doesn’t present to stereotypes such as a lack of empathy, so women and racial minorities are more likely not to be diagnosed. Adult resources are expensive and difficult to find. Those of us who learned to hide our traits (it’s called “masking”) at the expense of our health have a much harder time for several reasons.

                  There are companies that will support self-diagnosis, which is fantastic… but there’s no way to know what result disclosure will have, and even companies that start out fantastic can turn discriminatory (like in David’s case).

                2. BubbleTea*

                  I’m not American either, but in my country it is absolutely not required that you have a diagnosis to get legal protection or support at work. And in terms of discrimination, it is also illegal to discriminate because you THINK someone has a disability even if they don’t, or it isn’t the disability you think it is.

                3. Autistic AF*

                  I’d love to know more details if Autism accommodations can be mandated without an Autism diagnosis in your country. Even with that legal protection, the problem is that the burden of activating it falls on the marginalized person. Lots of illegal stuff happens because people don’t have the time, money, or spoons to fight it.

              1. Self Employed*

                I agree that it’s very difficult that the victim bears the burden of proof that the company discriminated. This is why OP needs to stand up for David after opening this can of worms by bringing David’s diagnosis to Danielle in HR.

                There’s nothing in the letter about whether or not David offered OP with medical documentation or what accommodations David may have requested–it could’ve been something as simple as “The reason I keep mis-hearing you is that I have difficulty making out words over background noise and it takes me a beat to decode spoken language anyhow” or “I’m taking my breaks at my desk because the acoustics in the lunchroom hurt my ears, not because I hate my coworkers.” If David had been requesting a private office and replacement of all fluorescent lighting, I think OP would’ve included that in the letter.

                But Danielle clearly regards David as a person with a condition affecting tasks of daily living. Infantilization like that has NO place in the workplace. It’s not just gross because he’s not intellectually disabled, it would be gross then too. (A friend is a supervisor of a work team of people with IDs and other disabilities and is furious if anyone where she works tries that.) Even if she just assumed he was autistic because she picked up on it like OP did, her behavior is terrible.

                Companies can often get away with illegal behavior because it’s so difficult for employees to sue, but if David found a lawyer willing to work on contingency, this would be very difficult for them to defend. All the lawyer would need to do is depose the coworkers who have been noticing Danielle’s inappropriate behavior.

                1. Autistic AF*

                  I realize now that my statement about Autism being diagnosed based on disabling symptoms may have been misinterpreted! The diagnostic model of Autism is built around the bad stuff, whether someone was assessed as a child or has come to self-identity as an adult. The bad stuff is often a response to a bad environment, however, so with the right environment Autism doesn’t have to be a disability (it’s 100% valid for anyone to consider their Autism to be a disability, though). I’ve had that conversation with managers and stated that I didn’t need any specific accommodation.

                  Back to legal stuff, I’ve been in similar circumstances to David. I made it long enough under several layers of bullying to get a severance offer, and obtained legal advice that it wasn’t worth a lengthy court battle. Being taken on contingency doesn’t pay my bills, or find me a new job, or counteract the other stresses of a lengthy David (ha) vs. Goliath battle.

                  David’s not in identical circumstances and a lawyer may advise him differently – I’d certainly suggest he ask if he were the one writing in. Illegality in itself doesn’t prevent illegal things from happening, though, and discrimination against neurodivergent folk can be very subtle and deep-rooted.

            3. Minimal Pear*

              I’m neurodivergent and I consider my various Brain Things to be disabilities. There are some things that I’m just not as good at as a neurotypical person, and that’s fine! I also find a ton of support and community with other disabled people and am proud to identify that way.
              I know some neurodivergent people don’t identify as disabled, and I totally get why. However, assuming that their neurodivergence seriously affects a life activity, those people are legally disabled in the U.S. If the employee here does not identify as disabled, he still most likely qualifies for accommodations and legal protection.
              I’m not sure why you say just having his case here means you can’t prove different treatment. This isn’t a scientific study and we don’t need to statistically analyze it. Does HR baby talk other employees, make faces at them, over-explain simple concepts, etc.? No? Then the fact that she is treating an Autistic employee that way, when she knows he’s Autistic, means she’s treating him differently from the other employees.

              1. Ryn*

                Yup, there’s a difference between “disabled” as a political identity and “disabled” as in “I have protections under ADA.” For example, I have mental illnesses that qualifies me for ADA protections, but I don’t identify as disabled. Some people with the same mental illnesses do, and that’s a-okay.

            4. Pirhana Plant*

              Autism is considered a disability, as are a host of other neurodivergencies – ADHD, OCD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and others – and is subject to ADA protections, yeah.

              And changing your behavior entirely when an employee (or their boss) discloses their disability, and the new behavior is in line with a misunderstanding of said disability and isn’t being directed at anyone else…like, this isn’t hard.

              1. Self Employed*

                And she’s being so blatantly public with it–David’s coworkers are noticing Danielle’s weird behavior. It isn’t like she turned David down for a promotion to “Teapot Painter” from “Teapot Painter Trainee” when his painting skills and rate are about as good as the trainees who got promoted and he suspects it’s because he’s Autistic. If David lawyered up, all it would take is a deposition where his coworkers honestly answered questions about how Danielle treated David before and after the time OP disclosed his autism. Hopefully they’re not terrified of Danielle to the point of perjuring themselves…

            5. Anonny*

              Neurodivergence is a very wide spectrum, including mental illness and learning/mental disabilities. Most neurodivergent people are considered disabled.

              (BTW, we started using ‘neurodivergent’ rather than ‘neuroatypical’ because the similarities between neuroatypical and neurotypical were causing problems for people with dyslexia and other conditions that make reading difficult.)

            6. Natalie*

              Any permanent physical or mental characteristic that “substantially alters” a “major life activity” is covered by the ADA. Perceived disability is also covered.

            7. Random Autistic Person*

              She started treating him differently from everyone else when she found out he was autistic. Not sure why you think disability is necessary. Being gay isn’t a disability, but if one of my coworkers came out as gay and everyone suddenly started treating them differently than everyone else, I’d consider that adequate evidence that that person was being differently treated on the basis of group membership.

              1. Natalie*

                I think they are mentioning disability because the relevant law here would be the Americans with Disabilities Act. There’s no law that generally prohibits treating people differently based on any kind of group membership. There are laws prohibiting it based on specific kinds of group membership, and the one that protects David is the ADA.

                1. Self Employed*

                  The thing is, you don’t need medical proof of his autism diagnosis to prove that he is being treated differently on the PERCEPTION that he is autistic. The ADA includes that. It would include it even if Danielle’s belief he was autistic was incorrect. It would include her behavior if she tried to say “I thought he had an intellectual disability” even though David seems to have ASD without ID. It would also cover this harassment if she had just assumed, like OP, that David was autistic based on observation and he hadn’t disclosed.

            8. Ice and Indigo*

              Legally, it surely must. It’s membership of a vulnerable group.

              In practice? Depends on the person. You get people who genuinely are ‘Different, not disabled.’ You get people who are different AND disabled – they have major strengths in some areas and struggle a lot in others. You get people who can chug along ok in one situation and have big problems coping if, say, they move to a different working environment. And you get some people who are never going to be able to live, work or manage independently. (The latter are the least likely to advocate for themselves, bceause one of their problem areas is communication. Non-verbal people don’t give TED talks!)

              This is another reason why ‘How to accommodate David’ is a question only David could answer. ‘How do we cover our backs legally?’ is a question for HR, sure, but how to make sure David feels comfortable and able to work as his most effective self? There are things only he knows. Does he have sensory sensitivities? What are his executive function strengths and weaknesses? How much does he mask, and how does he feel about that? Danielle doesn’t seem to know her asterisk from her elbow, but even another autistic person couldn’t answer those questions for David.

              1. Self Employed*

                And there’s also a problem that people conflate the ability to communicate with speech with the ability to live, work, or manage independently. In one direction, that means people who can’t speak don’t even get the option to try other communication methods to show whether or not they can learn (life skills or academics). In the other direction, that means if you can speak you are assumed to need little or no support in other areas.

            9. fluffy*

              Neurodivergence can come in many forms and to many different degrees, and whether it is considered a disability primarily depends on how the person feels about it. For some people their neurodivergence can make it difficult for them to deal with certain amounts of office politics or various interpersonal relationships, for example, and there can also be some co-occurrent issues.

              As an example, my chronic pain disorder is likely coupled with my ADHD, and both of them make certain activities extremely overwhelming or exhausting to me, and also affect the sorts of work I’m capable of doing. But on the other hand, my ADHD is also a huge benefit to my problem-solving style and my ability to innovate in my career space, so it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.

              It definitely affects my work style to a pretty significant degree, though, and this is a thing that I’ve historically had trouble conveying (and getting supported with) in corporate America. And of course it’s also highly-stigmatized, as most neurodivergences are.

    1. Keymaster of Gozer*

      I rarely check with our legal team but frankly if the HR bod doesn’t stop this I would. Under UK laws, I think, they’d choke on their coffee.

    2. Willis*

      I like AAM’s script for a first attempt at fixing this, but was a little disappointed that the advice kind of stopped after “hopefully she’ll change how she’s behaving.” The OP can’t just tell David, “yeah, I know she’s discriminating against you, I tried to address it, sorry it didn’t work,” and then do nothing.

      If the OP or her manager talk to Danielle but her actions don’t change, it definitely needs to be escalated (to legal, to whoever’s over Danielle, etc.). And yeah, maybe those people should already be looped in. I would be seriously concerned about my head of HR’s judgment if this was how she treated someone after learning they may need some type of accommodation. Plus concerns from a legal perspective, especially since it sounds like this has been going on awhile…so long that other employees are picking up on it and are mocking Danielle.

    3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      Who *is* above Danielle, if she’s head of HR? Would that be the person she reports to?

      I tend to agree that this is the course of action. I don’t know what talking to Danielle will accomplish at this point.

      1. Natalie*

        Typically the CEO, in my experience. There may also be a board and/or legal counsel that would have sway over the HR department.

      2. Detective Amy Santiago*

        I’d guess a VP of something or other, depending on the size of the org. If it’s smaller, then it’s probably the CEO/President/Owner/whatever.

  10. ellex42*

    Danielle has already embarrassed herself. She just isn’t aware of it yet. Better to nip it in the bud before the (completely understandable, if unprofessional) ridiculing by others gets back to her.

    1. Clorinda*

      She’s making faces through the window. She isn’t just embarrassing David and herself, she’s embarrassing EVERYONE. My shoulders are up around my ears right now. Ugh, Danielle, just be normal.

    2. Kiki*

      Yeah, if Danielle is emotionally intelligent at all, she’ll realize LW is saving her from further embarrassment, not creating embarrassment. Granted… Danielle has not demonstrated that capability thus-far, but it would be best for LW to move forward and stop this behavior from continuing.

  11. barnacle boy*

    I’m baffled at the disconnect between “gave good advice” and then… how she’s treating him. Also a little confused as to why OP went to HR for tips on how to communicate with autistic people in the first place, honestly.

    But as a probably-autistic person myself (I have testing scheduled in a few weeks!!!!) ugh. There is a conversation I *want* to have with my boss after I have a diagnosis to say “here are the ways you can communicate with me most effectively”… but knowing my company at large, I am skeptical that anyone outside of my immediate department would handle the disclosure well. This story is a horror story.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Also, I have to question OP’s understanding of people with autism because there is no one size fits all advice in how to communicate effectively with them. The only reason HR should be looped in is if David requested some kind of accommodations and OP needed approval or wanted to document them.

      1. AthenaC*

        I’m surprised that the advice on how to communicate with David … didn’t come from David himself? Surely David is the expert on himself and what sort of messaging he picks up on and what sort of messaging doesn’t work well?

        1. Lance*

          That also very much stood out to me. While I’m glad things are apparently going well (outside Danielle’s behavior)… this should have first and foremost been a conversation with him.

        2. Worldwalker*

          Also, isn’t that pretty much true of *everyone*? I’d think it would make sense as a general thing to learn what works best for each employee, whether the reason that works best for them has a name or not. It’s much like how people have different learning styles … some are more visual, some more verbal, some more hands-on, and so on.

          Also, Danielle is positively horrible. I know having to work with her (and she’s HR!) means catering to her, so her feelings are paramount, but holy Moses, she is bad and she should feel bad.

        3. JSPA*

          If he’s newish to the workplace, that may not be so. Spectrum or not, not everyone self-analyses effectively unless forced to do so (and sometimes, not even then). That would, however, have been the best place to start.

          If his response is, “treat me like everyone else, but cut some slack if my responses occasionally seem other-than-standard or if I have to duck out of a conversation” the manager’s job is then to observe before intervening. If the awkwardness stays firmly in the realm of style points, sit back and chalk it up to, “a lovely world full of interesting and different people.”

          If there are actual miscommunications or some level of perceived offensiveness, it’s time to have a conversation about how something isn’t getting received as sent. And that it’s time to revisit communication strategies. Not because the employee is on the spectrum, but because any employee would need managing, in that situation.

          1. AthenaC*

            That’s a good point, but I guess I was assuming that since David had an actual diagnosis, he must have self-analyzed enough to figure out that he needed to consult with someone, who then diagnosed him. I would think that in David getting to that point, that level of self-analysis would yield some notes and actionable advice.

            1. DerJungerLudendorff*

              It also seems like the obvious first step to dicuss it with David first. If that’s not enough you can always pull in HR or some other expert to help.

            2. Self Employed*

              That’s a huge assumption.

              In my experience, the people who do evaluations don’t know much about actual workplaces and give terrible advice–such as that it was a waste for me to get a master’s degree because Autistic people have to have simple repetitive jobs because they get “too agitated” if anything changes. How would I take that advice and go to a boss and explain exactly what wasn’t working about their communication style or the work environment?

              1. AthenaC*

                I wasn’t thinking that the evaluation itself would provide the information – as I mentioned above, David clearly has enough self-awareness to go get evaluated for autism. As part of that self-awareness, I would think David would know something about what works and what doesn’t work with respect to communication.

                1. Autistic AF*

                  David could have had a childhood diagnosis. It’s a spectrum and there’s a wide range of self-awareness, even while maintaining the ability to work a fulfilling job.

    2. Admin 4 life*

      There are ways to phrase your needs without disclosing your diagnosis. I’m autistic and I lean on things like migraines, exhaustion from parenting, short illnesses like sinus infections, back injury, etc to deal with exceptions for lighting, noise, and a need for movement. It may be disingenuous but I’ve found I’m listened to more consistently and not infantalized in the work place.

      I also state my organization preferences for communication (email, text or IM are preferred) because I need to be able to reference the info as I go through a project. If it’s calls you prefer I might say it was so you can ask relevant questions without the back and forth of email.

      And good luck with your testing!

    3. Dust Bunny*

      The LW doesn’t say that David had her permission to share this information, and if she didn’t, then her judgment on what constitutes good information can be called into question.

    4. JSPA*

      A lightbulb moment for me was realizing that it’s possible to have the, “I respond effectively to X, less so, to Y” discussion even without a formal diagnosis. After all, if it turns out that you’re a point or two shy of a diagnosis, that doesn’t change your communication patterns, nor does it mean that “trying harder” will magically produce a different outcome.

      It’s like using clear tubs for organizing. If you lose track of things when they’re out of sight, but need to box up things to prevent dust-gathering clutter, you fit the applicable criteria for, “likely helped by using clear boxes.” Even if you’re not officially ADD, and even if you’re officially not ADD.

      “I find I spend ridiculous amounts of mental time and energy parsing X” is enough of a reason to suggest, “maybe try phrasing X as Y.”

    5. Aquawoman*

      Also probably autistic. You don’t need a diagnosis to know what communication style works better for you, right? I think you can just have that conversation (assuming a decent manager). I sometimes describe myself in personality terms like “very concrete” or “liking to make sure everything is clear.” Or ask follow-up questions like, let me make sure I understand what you want me to do here. Stuff like that.

  12. Admin 4 life*

    Being autistic in the workplace is hard enough. I have a feeling she’s getting her information from places like Autism Speaks (whom the Actually Autistic community consider a hate group). The information available tends to focus on children and only the most obvious adult autistics (like those who don’t use spoken words and use more stereotypical stims like hand flapping). The Autistic Self Advocacy Network May have information that OP could use to better inform Danielle about how ableist she’s being.

      1. Zephy*

        I am neurodivergent. The Autism Speaks approach to autism treats it like a disease to be cured, rather than just a different way of being – their ideal future is one where autistic people don’t exist, because we “cured” it. It’s extremely ableist – the message that many autistic folks get is “you were born wrong, we want to find a way to fix you.” It’d be like if there was a group out there advocating for “curing” blue eyes or straight hair. I don’t want to be cured or fixed, there’s nothing wrong with me. I just want to be understood.

        1. Jessen*

          In addition there’s some heavy criticism that they focus almost entirely on the parents of autistic children while ignoring or dismissing the voices of adults with autism. It rapidly becomes a place for family members to talk about how difficult it is to have to deal with autistic people while acting like the people they’re talking about don’t have anything worthwhile to say. There’s a problem with a lot of neurodivergence “support” that the focus ends up being on getting neurodivergent individuals to act in ways that make allistic people more comfortable, without really considering the needs and desires of the people affected.

          1. Zephy*

            Yes, that’s it exactly. A coworker of mine has a son who is on the spectrum and it hurts my heart to listen to him talk about his son’s ABA “therapy.” I don’t want to derail on how terribad ABA is, look it up if you’re curious, but “the focus ends up being on getting neurodivergent individuals to act in ways that make allistic people more comfortable” is a good way to sum it up.

            1. littledoctor*

              I remember I used to babysit a kid who was receiving ABA, back when I was a teenager. It made me so uncomfortable–I used to give her bowls of the rainbow mini marshmallows she usually only got as an ABA incentive to ease my guilt.

      2. Detective Amy Santiago*

        The podcast “You’re Wrong About” just released an episode about autism and the anti-vax movement that explains this very well.

        1. Not So Little My*

          Yes! I just listened to that yesterday and I thought it summarized the problem with AS very well. That “I am Autism” PSA they played a clip from had me bodily cringing and yelling “that’s awful!” in my yard as I pruned the hydrangea!

      3. Grace*

        In addition to the general aims of Autism Speaks (to eradicate autism entirely) they have a history of being really really gross in terms of individual actions, as well.

        Like, for example, the short film they put out where a woman talks about how she wanted to drive herself and her autistic daughter off a cliff to their deaths and only didn’t because she thought about how it would impact her neurotypical child. She said this in the presence of her autistic daughter.

        They also spent years pushing the idea that vaccines have links to autism, and have no autistic people in positions of power at the charity at all. (There used to be one – John Elder Robinson – but he’s since resigned due to how they continually talk over and ignore actual autistic people.)

        1. That's Ms to you*

          Oops! We simul-posted–but you said it better re: positions of power! That’s a huge flag for me in a “charity”.

      4. That's Ms to you*

        To add to other commenters, Autism Speaks is also a very disingenuous name–at least back when I dealt with them, there were no actual non-neurotypical people employed in our local branch. It’s about making the PARENTS of those with autism feel better, like they can “fix” their child, versus actually making a difference for those on the spectrum.

      5. JSPA*

        In part because it falsely equates neurodivergence with being nonfunctional. (This isn’t to say that some forms of autism don’t produce dramatic challenges to self-awareness, function in shared space, communication, etc.! But as this post illustrates, plenty of people on the spectrum have strong cognitive abilities, a sense of operating in a shared society, self-determination, and the ability to coordinate their own accommodations–if any are even needed.)

        In part because it in effect, promotes infantilization and control of people who are autistic, due to an over-focus on the experience of parents of autistic children, rather than the experiences of people on the spectrum.

        In part because a lot of the programs they support are primarily focused on making autistic people pass as neurotypical (regardless of the mental and psychological burden of that task) as opposed to focusing on ways to be whole, healthy, happy, kind, and able to communicate.

        (If the public can deal with the fact that some people wear glasses, they can learn deal with the fact that some people rock or touch their fingertips together.)

        And in large part because the idea of defining the genetic “defects,” teasing out any other “triggers” and “finding a cure” broadly implies that autism as a state is intrinsically more negative than positive, and that the world would be better either without autistic people, or with a “Cure for Autism.”

        For some people, being anywhere on the spectrum is a huge and unwanted burden. I don’t mean to diminish that experience. But–even leaving aside the outliers on the top end, who have contributed so greatly to music, philosophy, the hard sciences, visual art, engineering / design / architecture (the list goes on)–others of us rather treasure the insights and awareness and life histories we’ve had.

        “Hate group” is not the most nuanced take on that–I mean, there have been regimes who explicitly wanted to round up the “unfit” and execute them. But it’s like asking LGBTQ people who have survived “conversion therapy” how they feel about groups who support conversion therapy–intense negative reactions are absolutely appropriate.

        1. Self Employed*

          Speaking of conversion therapy–which is now illegal in many jurisdictions–it was invented by the same person who invented ABA and both use similar techniques. Why is ABA considered the “gold standard of autism treatment” to quote my medical group when conversion therapy is banned in my state? Because Autism Speaks spearheaded the lobbying to get it covered by insurance, using negative propaganda about autistic children.

          1. Boof*

            I was reading The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum – Temple Grandin likens ABA to freud – a revolutionary concept because before ABA, there was just this feeling that nothing at all could be done for autism. Old pavlovian ABA therapy is misguided, the original goal was to stop autistic behaviors and try to get patients to “look normal”, which is silly, but the idea that therapy can help was huge, even if the goals are more appropriately to help patients and caregivers achieve as much of their own goals as possible, and the actual type of therapy/ies that may be helpful pretty different
            At least that’s what I took away from her book and a few others like ido in autismland

      6. I've Escaped Cubicle Land*

        Back ground in early childhood education here. Autism Speaks also promotes punishing kids to get them to comply with more normal presenting behaviors. Some of their methods are considered at best neglectful to darn near abusive. I’ve flat out told a parent that I was not going to follow X with their child because that would be cruel and against daycare regulations no matter if the advice came from their Autism Speaks rep or not.

      7. Librarian of SHIELD*

        In addition to the information people have already given here, Autism Speaks also regularly tells parents they need to take time to grieve over having an autistic child. The idea that your disabled child is capable of having a fulfilling and successful life is not one that they are at all interested in conveying to parents, and that has an overall harmful effect on how autistic kids are treated by parents and teachers.

        1. littledoctor*

          I encounter the “grief” narrative of Autism a lot in my daily life, and it makes me sad and it makes me angry, on behalf of those children. Kids want and need the adults in their lives to see them and approve of them. That’s impossible when parents can only see this lost fantasy of a child who never existed. Children, even very young children, can tell when they are a deep disappointment to the adults in their lives. That hurts them, and it especially hurts them when the thing about them that is unloved by their parent is something they cannot change. Parents might struggle to come to terms with the existence of the child they actually have, but it’s children who are ACTUALLY struggling as they attempt to cope with being parented by people who do not perceive them as acceptable children.

      8. Ciela*

        I’m sure it’s not there now, but maybe 10 years ago when I was looking for resources for adults on the spectrum, like myself, I was on the Autism Speaks website. They had one of their stated goals of eliminating autism through the use of pre-natal genetic screening. So telling pregnant women if their unborn child had a gene that would give their child a pre-disposition for autism, so they could terminate the pregnancy.
        WTAF?!? Yeah, I may be socially awkward. I may get really agitated by unexpected changes. I may only want to wear clothes in the same 4 colors. I may sometimes fail my arms wildly. None of that means my life is not worth living.
        Autism Speaks is live a group claiming to be an advocate for women and girls, but being run by only cis-gendered men.

      9. littledoctor*

        They think Autism is a bad thing, and would like to “cure” it. They don’t respect concepts like neurodiversity, or the idea that Autism is a good thing that has evolutionary benefits.

        You should read Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism. (It’s much better and less twee than the title makes it sound.)

  13. RagingADHD*

    I’m really surprised that anyone who thinks neurodivergence is synonymous with a *cognitive* impairment was able to give any relevant or useful advice in the first place.

    1. Littorally*

      My money is on Danielle’s advice being something she was taught from above from a standard playbook of advice, rather than something she knows from personal experience or even agrees with.

            1. JSPA*

              Eh, Danielle passed along words. (Maybe from Google. Who knows.) OP understood and applied the words with sensitivity and discretion. Or at least, I don’t get the sense that they did role-play, or anything terribly in-depth.

              It’s also possible that Danielle does have in-person experience, but only with one specific person. Mistaking “what my nephew on the spectrum responds to” for “the way to talk to autistic people” absolutely does lead to this sort of bullcrap.

              1. Anonny*

                … That seems disturbingly plausible. There have been a number of people who don’t believe I’m autistic because I don’t act like their primary-school-aged relative. Yeah, the fact that I’m twenty-nine might have something to do with that…

    2. oranges & lemons*

      My best guess is that she realizes that David is capable of operating a microwave and wouldn’t be thrilled to see a coworker making faces at him, and is just being a jerk and a bigot. I wonder if this is her way of signaling to other coworkers that he’s autistic. I can’t imagine she can possibly think this is for his benefit.

    3. Natalie*

      Or anyone that thinks this behavior would be appropriate for an employee with a cognitive impairment, for that matter.

      I have a relative who is developmentally disabled from a birth injury, and he has worked through a supportive program since graduating from high school. This kind of behavior wouldn’t be less gross/insulting directed at him.

      1. Homophone Hattie*

        Yes, this. Even with adults with cognitive impairments, there is a difference between speaking to them on a level they can understand/are operating at, and treating them condescendingly as if they are children.

        1. allathian*

          Indeed. One of my cousins who’s in her mid-20s now has a developmental disability and in some ways, her intellectual age is around 8. She can do a lot of things and a few years ago she graduated from a vocational program for facility maintenance. She’s limited in what she can do, but within those limits she’s perfectly capable of doing a good job. She can deal with small amounts of money, such as go to the store on her own and buy groceries, and to travel on her own once she’s given an itinerary, but she has no long-term planning skills and will need an advocate to handle her finances for the rest of her life. She lives in group housing for disabled adults and there’s a social worker to keep an eye on things.

          She’s also one of the most cheerful and kind people I know.

  14. Dust Bunny*

    For the record: I’m on the spectrum.

    Was the LW asked by David/have David’s permission to tell HR about this? Because if I were David and the LW shared this without my permission I’d be pretty honked off, even if it was well-meant. Whether and to what extend I need accommodations at work is my call, thank you, so if the LW shared this unbidden then she’s guilty of being patronizing and demeaning, as well, since she apparently assumed David couldn’t advocate for himself. She’s not as badly in the wrong as is Danielle, but she’s not off the hook. (I didn’t tell my supervisor until we’d worked together for years. I’m in a job where I don’t really need accommodation. David may not be so fortunate, but if he’s high-functioning enough to be employed in a job where he might need it, he’s probably high-functioning enough to say so.)

    Danielle needs to be hauled in by the ear, though. This is not OK.

    1. mreasy*

      ASD is an ADA-protected condition. If I were told by an employee I manage about an ADA-protected condition they have, I would feel obligated to let HR know, to ensure we’re ready for any requested accomms but also to be sensitive and open to the employee’s needs. I wouldn’t expect my HR to act like total idiots. I would also not expect my employee to think I would keep this from relevant parties. (I say this as a person with an ADA-protected invisible disability that I have not disclosed in my current workplace .)

      1. Dust Bunny*

        “Sensitive to an employee’s needs” can go wrong, as demonstrated here.

        I would still be angry. It’s my call whether or not I need accommodation and my employer can’t necessarily guarantee that whoever is responsible for it isn’t a blabbermouth or a Danielle-esque bonehead. Unless and until they can, I don’t want them telling HR doodly-squat.

        Which means I apparently cannot tell my employer in the first place.

        1. JSPA*

          Life never comes with a “no boneheads” clause. Ditto a “no would-be-helpful meddlers” clause.”

          However, if you are comfortable raising the topic with a manager, remember that “ASD” is a medical diagnosis. Being “kind of on the spectrum” is a broader social acknowledgement, separate from that diagnosis.

          IANAL. However, if want to avoid the risk of a reporting mandate, I think you could say, “I’m not saying I meet the Autism diagnosis–and this is absolutely not something to report to HR or note in a file. However, on the level of mutual interpersonal understanding, I’m letting you know that I know and acknowledge that there’s something spectrum-y about how I operate. We don’t have to discuss it. You don’t have to plan around it. But I want you to feel that you can bring the topic up with me, if you think it provides useful context, or gives you insight if there’s some point where we’re communicating at cross purposes.”

          1. Not So Little My*

            JSPA, thank you for that script! I’ve been becoming more aware of my spectrumy traits and am on the waiting list for getting a diagnosis from a provider in my state who actually understands how to diagnose middle-aged women. I’ve been wondering how to disclose at work without being stigmatized (my company is really good with diversity in general but I’m still paranoid), and have been thinking of it in terms of communication style/learning style conversations, and this script will be really useful. (You know how we love social scripts!) I already told my boss I don’t want to be a manager and that I prefer to guide from a peer position rather than leading.

      2. Tired of Covid-and People*

        No. Companies don’t have to be ready for any potentially requested accommodations that may or may not materialize. This is not required under the law.

      3. Random Autistic Person*

        As the employee in this hypothetical scenario, it would never occur to me that HR was a relevant party unless I requested some specific accommodation. It would also never occur to me that being “sensitive and open to [my] needs” required HR to be informed without my knowledge.

        1. Adultiest Adult*

          If you disclose a disability to your manager, your manager can and should loop in HR for ADA reasons. I periodically have to remind people that conversations with your manager are not confidential, and certain disclosures come with a mandate to act. It sounds like the LW acted appropriately and did indeed receive some useful advice. Danielle’s reaction in response is just bizarre.

          1. allathian*

            I’m not in the US, so I may have misunderstood something. But surely, even if the employee discloses a condition to the manager, the manager only needs to loop in HR if the employee also asks for an ADA accommodation? And if someone discloses a diagnosis to their manager, it’s up to the manager to inform the employee that if the employee needs an accommodation, HR needs to be looped in?

            In any case, I think the LW should at least have told David that they’re going to contact HR. All that said, Danielle needs to stop her stupid behavior. All that this will have accomplished is that David’s going to be less likely to disclose his ASD to any future managers.

      4. actually autistic cryptid*

        the whole point is that the op shouldn’t have assumed that David would just automatically get the implication that hr would need to be involved or disclosed to – as an autistic person, I would never have made that leap from telling my manager a fact about myself to hr getting roped in, and it’s not unlikely that David didn’t expect it, either.

      5. Sheldon Cooper Does Not Represent Me*

        There is no such thing as an ADA-protected condition. The ADA grants the right to request and be granted reasonable accommodations and to be free from discrimination. It doesn’t cover conditions. In fact, the ADA prohibits employers from asking about a diagnosis when employees request accommodations. The employee needs documentation of the necessity of the accommodation but doesn’t need to present a diagnosis.

    2. Just Another Zebra*

      I think part of it, too, is right in the first sentence – OP is a newly-promoted manager, and David is her first new hire. She went to HR for advice, which is something we often encourage people to do on this site. I don’t think it was with the intention of “outing” David, but rather a “I’m new and this is new to me, what guidance can you offer”. And I think under normal circumstances, with a normal HR person, this all would have been a nonissue.

    3. Jellybeans*

      Well… Ideally OP would have said she had an autistic employee without naming him. But it was probably obvious who she was talking about.

      1. Finland*

        Or the manager could have even said “I have questions about Autism in the workplace”, without naming anyone and (given that David was seemingly well-regarded by HR before) it could have applied to any of the workers or could have just been a curiosity of the manager for the future. Conscientious managers love pre-emptive information anyway. That could have been the angle (and could be for the future if another episode regarding medical privacy and/or accommodations rears it’s head).

  15. BlueBelle*

    WTAF? I am horrified. Poor David, he must be so confused by this. LW you have to talk to her, this can’t continue. Good luck, please give us an update.

    1. Ryn*

      Lol I’d be surprised if David was confused. Neurodivergent people might not always pick up on sarcasm or tone, but most nerodivergent folks I know are well aware of when they’re being discriminated against or treated differently because of the way their brain works.

      1. Random Autistic Person*

        As an autistic person, I would be confused, but not about why she was doing it. I would just wonder why her behavior didn’t embarrass *her*, because I can almost guarantee anyone who’s seen her doing this thinks she’s a complete loon.

    2. JoyMonkey*

      Yeah, as someone who has been suspected of and suspected myself of being on the spectrum (I’m not getting tested because I’d rather not know for sure, and want to keep managing my life as it is) I can assure you David most likely knows exactly what’s going on and probably suspects his boss told HR. That, or that Danielle found out some other way. I despise being pitied and patronized so I’d probably tell Danielle to knock it off immediately, but David is at a new job and probably isn’t at that comfort level yet.

    3. Finland*

      LW, please talk to David first before you go to HR. Acknowledge that you told HR, but did not at all expect that HR would behave like this. Tell David that you absolutely despise this behavior and must confront HR about this. Get direct statements from David about it. Ask David for input on what to do as well, and incorporate that. Acknowledge that you must confront HR AND that there is the option for David to influence your interaction with HR. You already did the potential disservice of telling HR without David’s concurrence or knowledge; don’t do it again by confronting HR without David’s input. HR could very well be more humiliating in their attempt to save face.

  16. Madtown Maven*

    I’m wondering whether the manager asked David about his communication preferences. Many autistic people know what works better/best for them. Building relationship with David is a great way to find out how he works and what he thinks. Seems like asking any HR professional about autism is not the best way to go.

  17. LGC*

    …and this is my nightmare scenario.

    So, I’m pretty openly an Autistic Guy here, and my advice would be…if I were David, I’d really like to be asked if I wanted to address this myself first. I’ve gotten more assertive, but it took me a long time to learn that – hey – I wouldn’t get yeeted out the door if I said something made me uncomfortable. (And that just because I’m on the spectrum, I’m allowed to feel uncomfortable.

    Of course it does need to be addressed, even if he’s hesitant to do it himself. But he might feel better if he said it himself – I know I would.

  18. AKchic*

    WTaF Danielle? Pull yourself together.
    I would be dropping literature on the topic of autism on her desk about how autism is not the same as having a “child’s mind”.

    This is an awkward conversation, yes. But only because Danielle has created a needlessly awkward situation. I feel for David. This is just so ridiculously… ridiculous. Danielle should be ashamed.

    1. Ryn*

      Yeah honestly this is why language around “mental age” and autism is so so harmful. Not only is it an inaccurate and demeaning way to refer to people whose neurodivergence does interfere with their daily lives, but it creates horrible misconceptions that lead to, well, this.

  19. Mannheim Steamroller*

    [“I know you’d never do this intentionally….”]

    The fact that Danielle is doing this at all strongly suggests that it IS intentional. OP should call her on it.

      1. Willis*

        It might be helpful to talk about what the OP could do if this first, assuming-good-intent effort doesn’t work. As is, the answer doesn’t mention escalating this to anyone beyond OP’s manager, but I think it would be important to do that if the infantilizing continues after a talk with Danielle. And sure, maybe there’s a decent chance that Danielle will amend her actions once they’re pointed out to her, but I think it would be good to point out to the OP that their job is not necessarily done after one attempt to fix this, which is kind of how it currently sounds at the end of the answer.

          1. Empress Matilda*

            In addition to that last point, about OP letting David know that she sees the behaviour and is working to address it – I would also add that OP could do her best to shield David from the HR person entirely.

            We have that awesome example from last year of the OP who was managing John, who was transgender and kept getting deadnamed by a coworker. The OP did everything she could to protect John, to the point of rearranging the entire department’s workflows so that Lizzy could not talk to him directly.

            Not saying this OP necessarily has to go that far, but there’s some good concrete action she can take here to keep David away from Danielle.

    1. Autistic AF*

      Nope! I’ve frequently been treated the same way, like a child or a zoo animal. Is it more likely that all of those people (including strangers) have it out for me, or that they don’t understand Autism?

      1. Arts Akimbo*

        I wonder about that. I briefly went to a dentist who, upon finding out I was on the spectrum, began treating me like a 6-year-old. Despite the fact that I was reading vol. 1 of the Feynman Lectures at the time. Maybe she thought I was just highlighting random bits of it for fun??

        1. Autistic AF*

          My gut feeling is that the medical system is a couple of decades behind in how this stuff was taught. None of that excuses the infantilization, of course!

  20. grogu*

    Why did LW ask HR for advice on how to make an autistic employee comfortable? As opposed to asking the employee himself how they could help make him more comfortable?

    1. ChemistryChick*

      Because HR and the company are required to provide reasonable workplace accomodations for David. It’d be the same as someone in a wheelchair needed accesability concerns addressed. Yes, the person in the chair knows what they need, but a company needs to be notified so they can provide those changes.

      1. Sam*

        There’s no mention of accomodations in the letter. It sounds a lot more like OP got some basic communication tips from Danielle that David could well have provided himself.

          1. ChemistryChick*

            Maybe accomodations wasn’t the correct term to use.

            In a case like this, HR would have the knowledge and resources to guide OP on how to provide what David needs without opening the company up to legal issues.

            The fact that Danielle is now opening them up to legal issues entirely on her own is….wow.

            1. Student Affairs Sally*

              The thing is, though, is that DAVID also probably has a lot of knowledge about what he needs, and should be given the agency to share that information himself. It doesn’t sound like OP had a conversation with David about how she could best communicate with or support him – she just went straight to HR. If I were David, I think my trust in my manager would take a big hit from this, even if Danielle wasn’t acting like a total buffoon about it.

            2. Aquawoman*

              There’s a saying in the Autistic community that I’ve seen… when you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. Asking HR to give info on autism and how to communicate with an autistic person rather than David means asking people who probably know less about autism and definitely know less about David’s autism. That’s an act of erasure.

              1. Self Employed*


                I could see that if David asked for something OP didn’t think was reasonable, or that would cost money, OP would go to HR. But why not tell David you need to check with HR? Just because you can disclose an employee’s disability to HR doesn’t mean you have to keep it confidential from the employee that you’re going to do this.

                Also, if managers (or employees) are unclear about what types of accommodations tend to be useful (and reasonable) in the workplace, that’s what the Job Accommodation Network is there to help with! Lots of FAQs and white papers plus they answer questions. You can get information without outing your employee or yourself to HR.

            3. Autistic AF*

              HR has never had the knowledge or resources to guide managers in my experience. One HR rep forced me to self-disclose under fear of being fired on the spot, another outright told my OT he didn’t know that OTs dealt with cognitive issues (my cognition is above average, but extreme, sustained anxiety isn’t good for anyone’s brain). Danielle evidently does not have that knowledge or resources either!

      2. Tired of Covid-and People*

        In this case the employee was able to advocate for on their own behalf. Don’t know why so many people are so eager to blab to HR when that may not be what the employee wants and may be counterproductive.

    2. bubbleon*

      It sounds like LW went to HR to make sure they didn’t do/say anything incorrectly. It’s not like they never intended to talk to David themselves, but it’s not unreasonable to think “hm, I’m not 100% sure how to navigate this situation, let me check in with HR before I misstep.” If things had ended after “She gave me good advice, things are going well,” everyone involved would’ve considered it a success. Danielle is the problem here, not LW.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Bingo. First round info could well be the company’s carefully written policies & procedures. The grossness beyond that is all on Danielle.
        I wonder how long she’s been head of HR because I would not be surprised if she inherited the company policies from a better trained predecessor.

      2. LGC*

        That’s what I’m thinking myself-and it wasn’t wrong for LW to go to HR for advice on handling the situation. Danielle is just REALLY overstepping her boundaries here to say the least.

      3. Just Another Zebra*

        I mentioned this upthread, but the thing most commenters seem to be overlooking is the first sentence.

        “I’m a newly-promoted manager and my very first hire, David…”

        OP is a new manager who went to HR looking for advice. I think that’s really understandable.

      4. Littorally*

        Right, exactly. David would be the one to go to for questions like “how do we best accommodate your needs” but he’s not the person to ask about company policies or best practices for legal compliance.

  21. Watry*

    *Sigh*. The reason I was never evaluated is because when I was a child in the 90s, the perception of an autistic person was one with high support needs–nonverbal, frequent and overt stimming, zero eye contact, etc. Not that the why matters so much, but I wonder if Danielle has some unexamined ideas from media.

    This needs to be addressed ASAP–it’s going to discourage people from disclosing when it can make everything so much smoother.

    1. Kesnit*

      I had a similar thought. LW does not say what David’s job is, but it could make a difference. Obviously if David is in a job which requires extensive education and qualifications, Danielle is just being an idiot. But if his job is one that does not require extensive qualifications, I wonder if Danielle is making an assumption that all autism is low-functioning. (i.e. she assumes that because he is autistic, he really is at the level of an child.)

    2. Self Employed*

      I was a child in the 1970s and people are still arguing with me about why I didn’t get a diagnosis when I was in school.

      And there are a lot of people doing official trainings on autism who don’t know what they’re doing and just spread falsehoods and stereotypes. The local Independent Living Center (a nonprofit run by disabled people for disabled people) got a training on autism after they hired an Autistic person and he said it took a month to refute all the misinformation they got. Also, Autism Speaks does a lot of training (especially in medical settings) and I presume it will be as bad as their other fundraising materials.

    3. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

      Same reason I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD and my sibling wasn’t diagnosed as autistic in the 70s and 80s. We didn’t conform to the stereotypes. I was only diagnosed at 40 and they were only diagnosed in their late 40s.

  22. Autistic AF*

    I’ve been in similar circumstances to David (although I am female). My mental health suffered significantly and I ended up having to take a much lower-paying job to escape. While I don’t hold anyone’s bias against them personally, I wouldn’t trust a working environment like what you’re describing.

    Job Accommodation Network has good information on Autism and anxiety, which tends to also be an issue. ASAN is a good organization as well – Autism Speaks is not. There are coaches you can hire to help make your workplace more neurodivergent-friendly as well (I’ve enjoyed Barbara Bissonette’s writing in the past, although the term Aspergers has a checkered past and isn’t commonly used anymore).

  23. Zephy*

    This whole story is horrifying. Making funny faces at an adult human being who is at work (while you yourself are also at work)? Literally what is Danielle doing? And I’m looking askance at LW because it really does sound like they shared David’s private health information without any kind of permission to do so – just because David disclosed his autism to you, LW, doesn’t make it suddenly OK to share that information with anyone else.

    Let me be clear, the broad impulse to consult HR on accommodating employees with differing needs was not a bad thing, but accommodations are one area where being proactive is so much more likely to backfire that you really should have waited for David to request a specific accommodation before looping in HR.

    1. Batgirl*

      LW’s descriptor of “childish” is a good one… but this is not how you would even speak to a child. I teach kids and if I praised them for working out how to use a microwave and made silly faces at them apropos of nothing; they’d conclude that “Miss has the brains of a vegetable”, and my life would not be worth living from then on. I read this whole thing peeping through my fingers with my shoulders above my ears.

  24. Heather*

    That is so inappropriate. My office had an intern on the spectrum. Many of my colleagues wouldn’t give him projects because they weren’t sure how to interact with him. I took the time to learn what types of tasks he was best at and he did some amazing work for me. I sometimes need very attention to detail tasks done that many neurotypical interns struggle with. This particular intern did them flawlessly and without complaint because they fit his skill set.

    1. allathian*

      Yay! Did you also give pointers to your coworkers about what kind of projects they could give him?

    1. Jessen*

      I’d be seriously considering responding by making hand gestures through the same glass door. Probably not actually a good idea, but I’d think it.

  25. Ryn*

    I know LW is trying to be kind and give HR the benefit of the doubt, but I’m really sick of seeing bigotry excused as having “good intentions” because ablism is a form of bigotry (that has deadly consequences on a systemic level) and should be treated with just as much seriousness.

    1. LurkityLurker*

      Seconding this so much. I truly rolled my eyes at that part because I’ve seen so much ableism handwaved away with that excuse. Intentions do not negate the actual impact of what people do and say.

    2. Aquawoman*

      I’ll sign on to this comment. Somehow whenever any kind of ism happens, people consider the perpetrator’s intention the key fact, with a heavy benefit of the doubt. In any other area, gross incompetence is treated like gross incompetence. If someone got drunk and drove through your living room window, or your surgeon cut off the wrong limb, you wouldn’t stop and wonder about whether they were malicious, you’d see the harm they did through their negligence. The harm of bigotry needs to be treated this way as well.

    3. Hiring Mgr*

      It sounds like it could also be lack of training more than anything.. It seems pretty clear the HR rep had zero idea of what to do here.

    4. actually autistic cryptid*

      right? like, a likely scenario here is David moves on to a job where he doesn’t disclose and possibly misses out on helpful accomodations, because he can’t trust that disclosure is safe. this can permanently, negatively impact his career. lw has poisoned the well and hr should be fired.

    5. Sorabain*

      My read of “good intentions” was less that LW should assume good intentions in and of itself, and more that LW should offer it during the necessary conversation as an out for Danielle to stop with the, er, poor judgement calls (to put it mildly). Giving Danielle a chance to come to her senses and save face, so there’s less stress and tension overall, rather than dragging it out and leading to someone (potentially David) walking away after a lengthy battle.

      Of course, that assumes Danielle is capable of being reasonable. If she’s not and chooses to double down instead, the battle will happen anyway, but there’ll be the sense that at least LW tried (and isn’t responsible for it all going belly-up).

      In no world is there any way Danielle is actually acting out of good intentions… but there’s a chance she’s the sort of person who wants to be perceived as such (whether or not she is). The script AAM suggests is targeted at that wish to be perceived that way, and using it to redirect Danielle’s poor choice of actions into something less embarrassing for her (and less unpleasant for David).

  26. Volunteer Enforcer*

    As an employee with SPD (similar to Aspergers), it is definitely true that any form of autism can exist without a learning difficulty. Danielle is treating David as though he has a learning difficulty. Autism without LD means that the person may just need support socially.

    1. Self Employed*

      It isn’t even appropriate if he has a learning/intellectual disability. It’s not appropriate if he’s in a day program let alone in a mainstream workplace.

      There are a lot of minor adjustments that Autistic employees may need that fall into “universal design” that help other people too. Getting clear written instructions and training documents, not being expected to follow conversations over noise, not being interrupted at tasks unnecessarily, that kind of thing.

  27. MollyG*

    I want to give a kudos to the LW for properly accommodating the employee so that they can do well in the job and standing up for them. They are following both the letter and the spirit of the ADA.

  28. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

    Does Danielle know she’s nuking her reputation in front of LW and David’s coworkers? For example, I still remember a teacher at high school who talked to us like we were kids in kindergarten, and that was fifteen years ago. Years from now, her colleagues will say someone is “pulling a Danielle” when doing something like this.

  29. RB*

    Did this letter-writer consult with her employee before approaching HR with this? There doesn’t seem to be any mention of that.

  30. Laure001*

    Is something wrong with Danielle though? I mean as the OP says, her actions are bizarre. They are bigoted and wrong, yes, but it’s more than that. The faces through the glass? The child voices? It’s a little unhinged.

  31. boop the first*

    The moment has passed and all, but unless the advice was information about policies in play, I’m wondering how Danielle would know more about how to work with David than David himself? Seems a bit like a fluke that her advice worked at all?

  32. Sleeping Late Every Day*

    Oh, dear, it’s Holly and Kevin from The Office all over again. And that was how many years ago?

    1. Random Autistic Person*

      Seriously, I thought the idea that someone would actually behave this way to another employee was a joke. (Although, IIRC, didn’t someone deliberately mislead Holly in order to get her to embarrass herself?)

      1. RagingADHD*

        Yes, they actually told her that Kevin was cognitively impaired. I believe they used the term “slow.”

      2. PT*

        Yes, Dwight told Holly that Kevin was hired through a special program that creates jobs for people with cognitive disabilities.

    2. SweetFancyPancakes*

      This is exactly what came to mind when reading this letter, and I wanted to scroll through to see if someone else brought it up before I did. If your behavior brings up comparisons to a gag from a sitcom played for laughs, then you’re obviously doing something wrong.

    3. Roci*

      Yes, I thought someone was submitting plots from TV as a joke. When you’re copying The Office beat for beat you’re doing it wrong…

  33. Morning Flowers*

    I have to say, as an autistic adult, if this went on much longer, first I’d ask for it to stop. Then I’d sue. And the idea of legal proceedings gives me a panic attack, so that should communicate how bad this behavior really is.

    OP, it’s a good idea to first re-approach Danielle assuming best intentions — the difference between an a$$hole and a decent person who’s acting like one is openness to education. My autistic sister once had a nurse express surprise she could talk. A NURSE. Ignorance is everywhere, but the reality is a lot of it is “real” ignorance, not prejudice. Step one is to correct any real ignorance. Behavior that persists after that is the fruit of prejudice and you should respond to it just like racism, sexism, etc.

    Thanks, by the way, for taking preemptive steps to do well with your autistic employee. That’s supremely thoughtful of you!

  34. HR Exec Popping In*

    This type of letter makes me enraged as an HR professional. I know that there are poor performers in all disciplines including HR, but it frustrates me so much. As always, Alison’s guidance is excellent. I would just like to add that if the OP’s conversation with Danielle does not go well or if Danielle does not change her behavior toward David she needs to escalate this. I know some managers are hesitant to go over HR’s head, but it is critically important that this is resolved. If you have a law department, you can take your concerns with Danielle there or talk to Danielle’s manager. The conversation would be very similar to what Alison outlined for the initial conversation with Danielle, but you would add in that you discussed your concern with Danielle directly and what the outcome was.

    OP, thank you for being such a good manager and working to create an inclusive environment for your employees.

  35. BethDH*

    I wonder whether it might be a good idea for OP to loop in her boss or the HR person’s boss anyway to get this on the record? I could see this bias affecting HR person’s treatment of the employee in subtler ways later that might be hard to call out if the only thing on the record is the good advice.

  36. voyager1*

    I have to wonder if the LW opened this can of worms with this:

    “David, who just started a few weeks ago, recently told me he is on the autistic spectrum. (I had figured that previously during the hiring process, but it’s not like I could just diagnose him.) I approached our head of HR, Danielle, with this new information so she could help me on the best way to communicate with David and not let his condition be an issue.”

    You should have asked David what he needed. You don’t talk about his work product at all. But in short you basically ran to HR and unfortunately got someone who thinks that David has a cognitive disorder, and that is the best interpretation of Danielle.

    Honestly you need to ask Danielle to stop, it is distracting and cruel. And you need to talk to David about anything that will help him in his role.

    Lastly don’t trust Danielle in the future, and if you can report her to someone you should.

    1. Knitting Cat Lady*

      I had to fight bureaucracy to get my accommodations, I am in Germany, after all.
      But all talk about accommodations? Originated with me.

      As an Actually Autistic Adult Human that whole thing made me cringe.
      And the whole communication thing? ASK US! We know what we need…

  37. lilsheba*

    This is a horrible way to treat anyone. That was one of the many reasons I left my last job, they treated everyone like a child. I know how to talk to people on the damn phone already!

  38. staceyizme*

    This really hurts to see even as an observer via narrative! I don’t think that you had the standing to disclose your new hire’s condition to anybody, not even HR. Why? Because situations like this one arise. Do you see that the whole narrative of “I went to someone to see how I could help my employee” is, in itself, ableist? Because, despite your best intentions, you treated him differently before the need for accommodation arose. Disclosure of any neurodivergent condition is a highly, highly personal matter. You had no right to decide this on behalf of your employee. If you needed advice, you could perhaps have gone with an anonymous narrative- “someone in my circle might be on the spectrum and I wondered about your perspective on how best to address concerns that may arise…”. But even then, to do so in the absence of an actual, specific need isn’t ideal. Pandora’s box is open and Danielle isn’t Pandora. Unfortunately, this type of objectification is hostile, inescapably so. I don’t envy you in your quest to sort this out. But please, if you ever run into another similar situation, don’t disclose to anyone on behalf of another person. It simply isn’t your narrative to share, even if you’re managing them.

  39. Likethecity*

    This has to stop. As far as Danielle’s embarrassment…she should be embarrassed. My husband is on the spectrum and there are hardly words to describe how infuriated I would be if someone treated him this way. I’m sure he would be highly upset and would be looking for a different job. He is a highly intelligent, skilled employee who works very hard and should be treated as such. This is ridiculous and David deserves a huge apology from Danielle.

    1. Batgirl*

      Yeah, this. I don’t think sparing Danielle’s blushes should be on the to do list. If you were to somehow slide past her ego and get it over as a mere FYI that he’s actually an adult, then she would still be a loose and highly ableist canon. She needs to do the kind of soul searching that only comes from deep embarrassment and shame. Hopefully she really does have the good intentions to facillitate that. If so, all OP needs to do is not sugarcoat it.

  40. Jam Today*

    Nothing much to add here to suggestions, just wanted to chime in to say Danielle’s behavior is *unbelievably* strange. What is the matter with her?

  41. Anonymous271*

    I understand that anything ADA protected really does need to be disclosed to HR, much as I freaking hate it.

    I will say, that if David is open enough about his ASD diagnosis that it comes out later to the team, and then they think back to how Danielle treated David, that is also going to cause so much harm.

    Many females (and some males, of course) who are on the spectrum, especially those not diagnosed until much later in life, can frequently pass as NT. I’m one of them. I tend to wait and watch until I know it is safe to disclose. And I can tell you, if I saw Danielle’s treatment of David, I would never disclose my autism at work. Even if something came up that I needed accommodations on. Regardless of how awesome the LW has been with David, I have to assume that the majority company is going to think of me, and treat me, in the same way that Danielle is.

    1. No Name #1*

      I put this in my comment but if LW absolutely had to tell HR, she should have at least informed David of that during their conversation.

    2. staceyizme*

      Disclosure is voluntary, I think, UNTIL special accommodation is required. Otherwise, people could be bullied into disclosing a tremendous amount of private data that could be exploited against them.

      1. Natalie*

        I think you’re thinking of disclosure on the part of the employee, which is voluntary. You could decide not to disclose until you needed an accommodation, and at that point your company couldn’t hold the lack of earlier disclosure against you.

        Within a company, there are facts that may need to be disclosed between a manager and other departments, that is not voluntary. And example people are more familiar with is sexual harassment – generally if you disclose that to your manager, you cannot ask them to keep it to themselves because they have certain responsibilities that require sharing the information.

    3. Sheldon Cooper Does Not Represent Me*

      The only thing that is ADA protected is your right to ask for and be granted reasonable accommodation. You don’t need to present a diagnosis, and they are prohibited from asking. You do need documentation of the need for the accommodation, but not of the root cause.

  42. Random Autistic Person*

    This is exactly why most invisibly-disabled people that I’ve known (myself included) never disclose their disability in the workplace. I’ve seen too many people who should have known better lose any shred of tact or social judgement upon the disclosure of a disability to assume that any random HR rep would handle it appropriately.

  43. BBA*

    Thank you for first and foremost saying this is awful for David. So often autistic people are talked about as, like, objects (or problems) rather than subjects/humans with agency and feeling and awareness.

  44. Hiring Mgr*

    Are HR folks generally trained to deal with this sort of thing? If an employee told me she was on the spectrum, personally it wouldn’t occur to me to inform HR. Not because HR is incompetent or awful, but more because I’m not sure what the point of telling them would be (unless the employee had asked me to for some reason).

    1. Random Autistic Person*

      Apparently some companies require ADA-protected conditions to be reported to HR whether or not either the manager or the employee want to do that. OP also mentioned that she’s a new manager and David is her first hire, so she may have been unsure how to handle this, and it’s not unreasonable to expect that HR would know better (even though they apparently don’t).

    2. Batgirl*

      “Danielle, I’ve noticed you’ve been talking to David like he’s a child, or less intelligent. Where did you get the idea to do this? (Pause) Honestly, its been extremely awkward to watch and it’s neither legal nor appropriate to treat someone that way just because they need some minor accommodations. I’m seriously concerned and I must ask that it stop”
      Honestly though, even if she’s all mortified apologies I’d still consider her an unexploded bomb around anyone who…well, anyone! I might just go above her head with my concerns. She obviously needs rigorous training.

  45. Chickaletta*

    Danielle’s clearly not spent much time around autistic people, or perhaps her only encounter was a severe case. Anyhow, my ex was recently diagnosed on the autism spectrum and if I was to congratulate him on simple tasks or treat him like a child, it would be completely rude and bitchy of me and a pretty sure way to upset him. I can’t even imagine doing that! It’s so far off base, it makes me wonder if Danielle’s original advice working out well was just a stroke of luck.

  46. No Name #1*

    If LW absolutely had to tell HR, she should have given David a heads up first! I can’t believe that LW wouldn’t consider the fact that maybe David believed he was having this conversation in confidence. At least if LW informed David that she had to pass this on, he would have the ability to weigh in on how he wanted that conversation to go and potentially participate in it. But really, these conversations should not have to be disclosed to HR. David did something brave in disclosing he’s autistic to a new employer and if (or frankly, when) he catches wind of what happened, it will probably deter him from doing that in the future. I do not mean to sound like I am speaking for David, but I am neurodivergent (not autistic) and this is a nightmare.

      1. No Name #1*

        Yeah, I didn’t want to speak for anyone else but I really feel for David here. To LW- as a bunch of the other comments have stated, you should have asked David about how you can support him as a manager in terms of things like communication. I would encourage you to look into Autistic Self Advocacy Network and other groups that are led by autistic people to educate yourself on autism. as others have said, autistic people are not all the same but I am more suggesting that you become more informed about issues that autistic people face in the workplace and learn more about discrimination against them more broadly.

  47. Alda*

    Oh wow, this makes me so grateful for how my company has treated my telling them about being autistic. My manager also told HR, but my HR person responded by asking me what accommodations they could make, and then asking for a meeting to pick my brains about inconsistencies in the i boarding process, because she’d noticed that I’d noticed a lot of them.

    Also, the two times in six months I’ve had sensory overload and cried (and removed myself with a polite excuse), the HR person has discreetly pulled me aside afterwards to check in and see if they’d messed up in some way they could do better in future (yes, make better announcements when you’re going to test the fire alarm).

    It’s sad that I should be so delighted by something that ought to be just natural, but it feels so so good to be treated as a capable adult, with some need of accommodation like shorter work hours and clearer information, and that the need for accommodations doesn’t detract from my competence in any way, and whose skills are seen as those of a skilled professional rather than as some Rain Man superpower too.

  48. Elizabeth West*

    So you all know I have a learning disability. Certain members of my family do this, and I HATE IT. The patronizing tone just makes me want to scream. Not only that, but it calls their sincerity into question when they praise something I’ve done. It doesn’t just matter what you say but how you say it.

    I would doubly hate it at work. Even if I need help or accommodation on some tasks, that does not mean I’m incompetent or a child. I think some people equate autism or learning disabilities with intellectual disabilities like Down syndrome, and they are not at all the same thing. But, no one should be treating an adult with Down syndrome like this either.

    Somebody needs to pull Danielle up short, and probably send her to some classes or something, because she is dragging the company straight toward a giant lawsuit if she doesn’t get a clue. Maybe David won’t be the one to file it, but somebody will be if this keeps up.

    Also, the phrase “differently abled” makes me think of the character Joyce in Edward Scissorhands who smarmily said to Edward, “Don’t be ridiculous! You’re not HANDICAPPED, you’re… What do they call that… exceptional?” *gag*

  49. Pigeon*

    Embarrassment is an excellent teacher. I’m not saying go out of your way to humiliate her when you bring this up, but also don’t coddle her… frankly her behavior is embarrassing and that is part of the conversation when it comes to professionalism. It also perpetuates a common trend when it comes to correcting discrimination of all kinds, which is to preference the feelings of the person who is being (in this case) ableist above those of the person she is discriminating against. And it runs the risk that she won’t get the message.

  50. Elizabeth Tudor*

    This infuriates me. You need to tell Danielle that autism does into make a person into a child and adults with autism should not be treated as such. David is an adult and I’m sure he has a lot of traits that make him extremely qualified for the job he’s in.

    1. Self Employed*

      Yes, David apparently qualified for his job through a standard interview process, not a “disability hiring program” so there is no reason to presume less of him unless he brings up a problem or it’s showing up in his performance. And you would still address it in a respectful adult manner befitting a workplace.

  51. Metropolitan Mike*

    Kudos to the LW for taking ableism seriously and for being knowledgeable about autism. I’m on the spectrum myself, and though my close friends and my immediate supervisor know, I don’t commonly disclose to co-workers or casual acquaintances because of the weird reactions it produces. People either react like Danielle or make dismissive comments like “no, you’re not!” or “that seems like a misdiagnosis. Have you gotten a second opinion?” Most people perceive me as neurotypical, and the only times that people would likely notice are in situations that I purposefully avoid, like being in loud, crowded spaces like nightclubs or stadiums.

    I agree that talking to Danielle about it directly is the way to go. It doesn’t need to be embarrassing (although Danielle might be embarassed as a result). I’d just be matter-of-fact about it.

    1. KoiFeeder*

      Oh, my favorite, “but you don’t look autistic!” because clearly we all have giant tattoos on our forehead that say “AUTISM” in big block letters.

  52. Ready to Yeet Danielle into the Actual Sea*

    Welp, that answers my drafted question about whether or not to disclose my autism at work. Senior professionals in 2021 actually think autism makes people incapably stupid?

    And they think we’re the unempathetic ones. Ye Gods.

    (also everyone please stop using the outdated phrases “high/low functioning” because almost certainly what you actually mean is “better/worse at masking”)

    I don’t think LW should go back to Danielle. I think she should immediately escalate, with a tone of “this is totally gross and also places us over a legal trapdoor yikes yikes yikes”.

    1. Admin 4 life*

      Your handle made me chuckle.

      I really wouldn’t disclose it. I run into so many stereotyped expectations like Sheldon or Rain Man and the really awful one that “women can’t be autistic.” I work in tech so it’s an unspoken thing that a lot of us are autistic but regardless you don’t confirm it because it’s such a misunderstood thing.

      I blame other “acceptable” conditions if I need accommodations for anything. Damaged hearing, allergies, migraines, a bad back, etc are all taken at face value and with little to no judgement. The few times I’ve disclosed it to people, I’ve watched them instantly presume incompetence like they flipped a switch in their head and then I usually get asked if I’m good at math or have a weird special interest. I don’t tell anyone who can impact my career (I’m in the US so I don’t know what it’s like in other countries.)

    2. Former Employee*

      I always thought that “high/low functioning” had to do with whether or not someone could hold down a job, live on their own, etc., or not.

      A high functioning person is someone who could be a co-worker or someone who lives in my building.

      A low functioning person would be rather limited, possibly even nonverbal, and would have to live with family or in a group home.

      To me it never had anything to do with “masking”, which I am guessing means hiding that they have autism.

      1. DKMA*

        My understanding is that high/low functioning framing manages to be bad on many levels. First, it is itself ableist regards to supposed “low functioning” autistic people. It sets up the mindset that some people are “low functioning” and can be distinguished from “high functioning” autists and ergo less deserving of being treated like real people.

        Second, it diminishes the needs of supposed “high functioning” autistic people. I think Yeet is referring to this second point. “High functioning” autists may be better at masking their autistic traits, but may have many of the challenges, or may have challenges in certain settings. They may also feel compelled to maintain those masks so they don’t face the consequence (like people acting like the head of HR in this letter, but with more social approval) of being perceived as “low functioning”.

      2. littledoctor*

        “A high functioning person is someone who could be a co-worker or someone who lives in my building. A low functioning person would be rather limited, possibly even nonverbal, and would have to live with family or in a group home.”

        I think a lot of people’s problem with these terms, besides the ways they’re stigmatising, is that they create a really false dichotomy. Someone can be “””low functioning””” in some ways or at some times, and “””high functioning””” in other ways. I personally have known an Autistic man who was completely nonverbal (to my knowledge, he had never spoken) and who worked as a physician. Autism comes with a range of traits that are experienced in different ways. Most Autistic people struggle significantly with some aspects of Autism, while not struggling at all with other aspects. Many Autistic people are nonverbal some of the time, and verbalise easily at other times.

        1. Sunny*

          That’s interesting, that your acquaintance was able to work as a doctor without speaking. Was he a radiologist or some other specialty that communicates with patients almost entirely through writing, or did he use sign language, or did he have another workaround I didn’t think of? I’m always interested in hearing about ways people adapt the world to their needs!

          1. KoiFeeder*

            I know a “low-functioning” girl who’s becoming a physicist, and she uses sign. I don’t think it’s in the DSM, but in my experience a nonverbal autistic person (or even someone who has selective mutism!) will be diagnosed as “low-functioning” irregardless of whether or not they actually qualify in any other way. So besides all the other arguments above, it doesn’t even necessarily reflect how well an autistic person can mask!

    3. Sunny*

      My go-to is a “neurological condition”, and different people get different pieces of what the “neurological condition” means depending on what I need from them. This person hears that I have issues with understanding tone of voice, this one hears that I have issues with bright lights and loud noises hurting me, this one hears that I have muscle coordination problems. No one gets the whole thing except medical professionals. Probably not entirely autism-advocate approved, but it works for me.

  53. actually autistic cryptid*

    all of this is going to teach David not to disclose – like it has taught many of us who can pass (kinda) not to disclose. does it make us look flaky or kind of bad at our jobs, because we can’t ask for the accomodations we need? sure does! my work history is a MESS because of unmet, unspoken expectations I was supposed to magically pick up.

    I’ve disclosed twice: one job required me to submit reams of paperwork proving that my proposed accomodation (a regular 5 day work week instead of 6/4 over 2 weeks, working the unpopular weekend days to “make up” for the hassle of giving me a consistent 2 days off to recharge) would actually help and was absolutely necessary, then harassed me periodically in a similar way to how Danielle is behaving here; the 2nd laughed at me when I requested the same accomodation as before, told me that it was never possible no matter what I submitted, that I could not be autistic because I can talk, and ignored follow-up requests about ada compliance. that hr also misgendered me and incorrectly assigned me a label in their system, so I wasn’t exactly going to ask them for help. and now I just don’t disclose! I suffer and fuck it up and it’s still better than how I’ve been treated.

  54. Former Employee*

    I think that the OP should just start making faces back at Danielle.

    When Danielle asks the OP what’s up, the OP can say that she thought it was something Danielle liked to do.

    (Maybe not.)

  55. Boof*

    The combination of Danielle giving some good advice, but then doing some random stuff like making faces – almost makes me wonder if Danielle has a relative with autism with a very different set of abilities and preferences. Yes Danielle should know better and yes I think OP should have a go with the scripts Allison suggested to point out kindly but firmly it’s not appropriate

  56. yala*

    Gonna just say, thank you for being the kind of manager who takes it upon yourself to seek out resources for methods to improve communication with an Autistic employee, instead of making said employee try and suss out how to appropriately communicate their communication needs, and getting mad if you don’t understand them.

  57. KL*

    This is concerning. But my question is why did you feel the need to tell Danielle about your employee being on the spectrum. I don’t think that was necessary for you to share unless he was requesting an accommodation under the ADAAA and needed support through that process. I don’t think it should have been shared, not even with your HR rep.

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