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

Remember the letter-writer whose HR rep, Danielle, was treating her autistic employee, David, like an incompetent child? Here’s the update.

I originally wrote you because I had inadvertedly triggered David, and he had a meltdown at work. I had to disclose the information to HR since the situation required different accommodations, but I had his approval to do so.

After everything was settled, I went back to Danielle, with HR, and asked for tips on how to not inadvertedly trigger him again, which I now see was a mistake, since I should’ve just asked David himself. For those wondering, Danielle suggested things like creating a strict time schedule and avoiding excessive noise. Apart from that, she was actually very helpful in accommodating David’s needs regarding his triggers.

Now for the update: as you can imagine, things didn’t go so well with Danielle once I asked her to stop treating him like a child. She was absolutely sure that she was addressing David the “appropriate way” (her words). I actually feel bad for her, because she genuinely seemed to believe that what she was saying was true. Since the conversation was going nowhere, I escalated to my own boss, who is a C-level executive. I followed the readers’ advice and explained the situation without disclosing who I was talking about this time, and was very vague about his condition as well. Since I’m friends with our legal rep, I looped her in too (again, not naming David or his autism), and their combined voices had more weight than mine, so Danielle had to back off. She’s now being very cold and distant towards my team as a whole, so it’s safe to say that I burned this bridge, but at least there’s no more baby talk in the office.

On the other hand, David just finished his probation period and received glowing reviews, so now he’s officially on the team. For his part, he shared that this is his first office job and I quote “is going way better” than he expected, and that he couldn’t be happier. Needless to say, I couldn’t be happier either.

{ 247 comments… read them below }

    1. HelloStranger*

      Speaking as an autistic person: She burned it when she belittled your employee and refused to stop. Your actions were perfectly proportionate and I bet David is relieved. If an HR person behaved like that to me I’d be furious.

      But yeah, on a side note, thank you for not disclosing to more people that necessary and absolutely ask us first about how you can support us as we know our triggers best.

      1. Artemesia*

        This. People make mistakes and in trying to be accommodating she made a mistake. To not correct the behavior when she got feedback was the problem. Glad you intervened and that things are going well for David.

      2. Jennifer Juniper*

        Autistic here. I had no idea until now that we could ask for accommodations relating to our triggers for meltdowns. I thought meltdowns were something that earned us bullying and ostracism at best and termination at worst.

        1. Jules the 3rd*

          My son is autistic, I have sensory processing issues, several of my friends / friend’s kids are autistic or have sensory processing issues.

          In the US, these are protected. I think it’s under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). The magic phrase is “I’d like to talk about an accommodation.” The company is supposed to work with you to find something that is a reasonable compromise (ie, a cube in a remote corner to reduce noise; scent-free workspaces; allowing headphones). Search AAM for “accommodation” to find some of the stories and accommodations people have requested, and gotten. The company that wanted to get an employee a service dog is especially awesome.

          Good luck to you, and internet ((((hug))) if you want it.

          1. HelloStranger*

            Yep! When I’m not WFH I have an agreement with my boss I can go to an isolated space if I’m getting sensory overwhelmed, I just have to let her know what I’m doing.

    2. Bunny*

      OP, Alison, thank you going to bat for your on-the-spectrum employee. I was diagnosed (FINALLY) with a spectrum disorder at 40.

      I’ve been treated like a child by managers who believe they know better than my doctor and myself, who think I can’t read, who think I need things explained in minute detail, who think I’m incapable of independent and clear thought. My tests showed a near-genius verbal IQ. I need help and extra training with things that involve spatial reasoning. That works. I work great.

      I wish more companies would include this kind of inclusive training for employees like us. We can be odd ducks, but we’re unique thinkers and tend to get stuff done. Just don’t make me go to team days. I will die.

      (I also hate that stupid puzzle piece from Autism awareness; I am not missing anything, but that’s a story for another day)

      1. Catire*

        I interpreted the puzzle ribbon the other way. As in you are a part of the whole and all the parts come in different sizes and shapes.

        1. Queer Earthling*

          Your interpretation is a really nice one! But the puzzle pieces are a symbol of Autism Speaks which most autistics regard as a hate group. It indicates that people are “missing” something, or that autistic people are themselves a puzzle, etc.

          1. Keymaster of Gozer*

            Yeah, Autism Speaks has done some…very bad things for the autistic community. There’s a lot of people who regard me and my husband (both on the spectrum, although not the same points) with pity of try to talk over us. Especially me since I have a physical disability too and a lot of people assume that any disability = absolutely no ability to operate on our own.

          2. DKMA*

            Yeah, I have autistic children and the puzzle piece always spoke to me because my kids are so freaking good at puzzles, so it seemed like a fitting symbol. Whatever visual spatial skills are need for those my kids have in spades. I quickly learned to avoid Autism Speaks because they’re monstrous so didn’t realize it was so closely related to their perspective.

        2. JB*

          That’s very nice, but is definitely not how it was intended by Autism Speaks. Their general attitude is ‘autism stole my child and left a personless husk behind’.

  1. ahhh*

    I volunteer with an organization that helps people with a special need/ learning disability find employment. You have no idea how excited I am about this happy ending.

  2. h2olovr*

    I think Danielle’s the one who burned the bridge here. Sounds like you’re the type of manager who has great relationships with people around you and are willing to leverage those to help your employees be successful. It’s inspiring. Thanks for the update!

    1. Super Admin*

      Agreed! OP went to bat for her employee, and has made it a much better environment for David and the rest of the team as a result. Having a manager who acts in that way means a lot, and I’m so pleased to hear David is happy in his job. Thank you for updating us, OP!

    2. Threeve*

      If you’re corrected by anyone telling you a habit is disrespectful–even if they’re wildly, obviously incorrect or unreasonable, like “Carl had a lisp as a child, so you should avoid using words that being with S around him”–it’s still best to agree to give the correction some thought. Immediately doubling down and refusing to listen is pretty much never helpful.

      1. JSPA*

        Exactly! You can say, “I’m not sure how to incorporate that feedback in the context of our essential procedures, but I will give it thought and keep it in mind.”

        And then you should, at least, give it thought, so that the most extreme issues are avoided (i.e. don’t require Carl to repeat back to you, “she sells seashells by the seashore,” just because that’s always been the password, and it’s always been voice-confirmed monthly by the person who sits at Carl’s desk).

    3. Momma Bear*

      I agree. I think her reaction to being informed that no, she really wasn’t as appropriate as she thought she was is juvenile. I hope she takes time to learn from her mistake. Glad things are going well for David!

    4. MusicWithRocksIn*

      You know you are dealing with someone totally unreasonable when they are mad at you and decide to be cold to your entire department as a result.

    5. yala*

      I mean, we already knew OP was the sort of manager who is proactive about providing accommodations, and who takes it upon herself to learn how to communicate with people who have communication issues, rather than expecting them to figure it out themselves, so I’m not surprised at all to see that she went to bat for her employee again, and to hear that he’s very happy working under her.

      Danielle is her own problem, but OP is a Good Manager.

  3. ecnaseener*

    Glad David is doing well and not being (blatantly) mistreated anymore! Here’s hoping Danielle eventually comes across whatever evidence will convince her that autistic people aren’t eternal toddlers, yikes yikes yikes.

  4. Forgot My Last Username*

    So odd how people can get fixated on their ways of behaving. Wouldn’t you think that Danielle, having been told by management what is appropriate, might feel a little bit of the embarrassment Alison thought she ought to be feeling? Instead, it’s all OP’s fault.

    What a shame.

    1. ecnaseener*

      You would think. But nobody’s more stubborn than a person who truly thinks they’re somehow helping. No doubt in her mind OP’s the ignorant one, refusing to let her treat David how he needs to be treated for his own good.

      1. Cthulhu's Librarian*

        How’s that quote about the tyranny of the righteous end?

        “Those who torment us for [what they consider] our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” – CS Lewis.

        Pretty sure it would fit what Danielle is thinking.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          Very accurate (does Cthulhu keep books underwater?..) and frequently borne out by experience.

          There’s been several people who honestly believe that by hassling me about my weight 24/7 they are in fact helping me – and because they believe it’s going to make me healthier (I’m obese, will always be) they ignore any calls for them to stop.

      2. Mongrel*

        I have a Mother like this so there’s more tears involved. Hearing “Oh, but I was only trying to be helpful” is a pain.

        1. Snailing*

          Oh do you also get the spiteful “I just won’t try to help anymore, then!” as well? (My mother also likes to add a “just go away!” in there too, it’s very fun.)

          1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            I’m not Mongrel but yes my mother would threaten not to bother to help next time. I never dared say “that’s exactly what we need” because I knew it wouldn’t go down well.
            There was one time when we went to visit in the summer and she had planned every single day, without taking anyone’s needs into account. We’d spent all day travelling by train to get there, and her idea for the first day was to drive an hour or so to a place where we could go on a … train ride. She hadn’t left any down time to relax and mooch about, or for me to go shopping even though she knew I always wanted to stock up on books and VCRs in English (yes this was last century). And she hadn’t asked any of us for any input whatsoever. I put my foot down, saying it was supposed to be a holiday, we needed to relax, we didn’t want to go on a train the next day, even if it was a dinky steam train taking us through wonderful scenery, because we’d been on a train all day that day.
            She got really snippy and upset, and the upshot was that was the last time we went to stay with them except for quick visits at Christmas.

    2. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I’m guessing she was also told to stop bothering David and the OP so this is her petulant way of complying. Since the OP was discreet in telling legal and the C-boss about what exactly is going on, they might not really have had a chance to tell Danielle what IS appropriate.

    3. Littorally*

      She may well be feeling embarrassment. People feeling shame or embarrassment often lash out against the audience, rather than using their feelings as motivation to do better.

      Regardless, her feelings aren’t OP’s business. If she keeps acting like this, she’s jeopardizing her own employment and that’s a personal problem.

      1. CupcakeCounter*

        My MIL is like this. The family brought something to her attention that she didn’t notice (she is very hard of hearing so we she didn’t hear the comments that were made but laughed at them because the person she was with who made the terrible comment laughed and smiled) her response was to tell us we were all terrible people and were picking on them and just didn’t want her to be happy. The “it was just a joke” phrase was used. Now she is all upset because people aren’t hanging out with them very much (all those this is directed at are fully vaccinated).

        1. Sal*

          Oooof that’s an awful dynamic. Sometimes if I think I’m going to encounter this kind of resistance, I will try to preface my comments with an explicit request that the person not respond right now, and see if I can get buy-in to that, make the comment, and then change the subject *really hard* right after.

      2. Elsajeni*

        Yeah, I’m sure she IS embarrassed — she’s just processing that feeling as “OP embarrassed me in front of a bunch of higher-ups,” which is just something to be mad at the OP about, instead of as “I did something really embarrassing,” which would maybe prompt her to change her own behavior.

    4. Tbubui*

      Yeah it’s definitely a weird kind of discrimination/ableism. It’s something I’ve encountered quite a bit as a young woman with a mobility impairment: “Here, I’m going to treat you [and your disability] the way I think you should be treated instead of actually listening to you to find out how you would like to be treated.”

      I’ve been using a cane on and off for seven years. I think I know what I need; I don’t need some able-bodied person telling me what they think I need.

      1. ThatGirl*

        I have unfortunately seen this a LOT with people with all sorts of disabilities – my brother is developmentally disabled so disability access and advocacy has become a big part of my world. And one of the biggest lessons the general public needs to learn is that by and large, we should let people speak for themselves and advocate for themselves — and if you’re speaking on their behalf (as a boss, a friend, a sibling, etc) be clear on what they want and need. It’s not always possible but it should always be the goal.

        1. Skeezix*

          This is what every Sunday afternoon was like. We would take Grama out for lunch and use her wheelchair because it kept her from getting tired. WITHOUT FAIL the waitress would always look at one of use and ask “What would SHE like?” And continue to do so despite my Grama answering for herself or one of us saying “She can order for herself? or “You’ll have to ask her”. Small town where everyone know everyone so my mom never let me speak up and say anything. But we spoke with our tip.

      2. Elizabeth West*

        I ran into this when I brought up ADA at work, in reference to changing my job requirements at Exjob. My boss refused to tell me the information I needed to request appropriate accommodations for my dyscalculia.

        Example: I knew how to use Excel, but I would have needed someone to set up a spreadsheet beforehand since I’m not able to deduce what math processes to use in order to create formulas for certain things. It was necessary for me to know what tasks were expected of me in order to tell them what part of it someone else would have to help me with.

        Instead, I was directed to a tutorial, which I did NOT need, and an advocate. The two of us couldn’t figure out what I would be able to do, since we could not for the life of us get her to actually show us any part of the spreadsheet I would be working on.

        The boss was nice enough, but she couldn’t or didn’t want to spend any time training me, either. She called it “handholding,” even though I had no experience with the responsibilities of her department because the company was so partitioned.

        1. HardlyLovelace*

          I hate the word “handholding” so much. It’s become one of my red flags.
          Requiring assistance does not make anyone a toddler.

          1. Keymaster of Gozer*

            Aye, I’m not fond of it either. I know the fire evacuation procedure for our place DOES require someone to practically hold onto my hand and walk me out of the building but I flinch when it’s described as ‘hand holding’.

            (Am disabled, can get down stairs slowly and with a lot of pain but need someone to stop me falling)

      3. Kal*

        Yeah, I’ve encountered a lot of this too. It often comes down to people who define themselves as helpers, making it all about them and not about the people they ‘help’. Disabled people become props for them to use to show off how good of a person they are.

    5. Sara without an H*

      But she’s a Kind Person! A Compassionate Person! A Helpful Person! So of course, anything she decides you need is what is best for you.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          ‘But I’m so nice! why won’t all these people give me a chance to make their lives better?!’

  5. irene adler*

    Thank you for standing up for David! Hooray for David in completing probation with stellar reviews!
    RE: Danielle
    What is paramount here is respecting David-not Danielle’s feelings. Danielle should be mindful of that.
    You weren’t hurtful to Danielle’s feelings. She let her ego get in her way.
    She burned that bridge-not you. I’m sorry she’s acting childish. Maybe try some baby talk with her? I kid.

    1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      Maybe try some baby talk with her?
      Perfect! Praise her for mundane tasks too. She really did a good job combing her hair today.

  6. Retired Prof*

    I used to manage my late SIL’s medical affairs. She was developmentally disabled from a low oxygen birth, but pretty functional – she graduated from high school and held down a job. I was shocked at the number of doctors who would talk to me instead of her, or talk to her in baby talk. One said in front of her, “How retarded is she? Can she understand me?” She was amazingly good-natured about it while I wanted to punch them (but settled for a cutting remark). Good on you for getting this irritant out of David’s life!

    1. Super Admin*

      Holy moly, that’s horrific. She must have had the patience of a saint, I’d have straight-up murdered someone saying that about me! Glad she had you in her corner.

    2. the cat's ass*

      same here, except it was my sister-oxy dep at birth, and William’s syndrome. She could get snippy with docs but was also v funny about it. Doc would direct ? to me (I’m an NP) and sis would lean over into their space and wave her arms and say, “heeeey, I’m over here, ask me!”

      God, i miss her.

    3. Quickbeam*

      Same thing happens to Deaf people, all the time. I’m an interpreter and people routinely say unbelievably ignorant things about, around and to Deaf people.

      1. SD*

        When Mom was in her late 80s, I took her to her medical stuff, including a couple of hospital visits. Medical staff, but not doctors, would assume she was suffering from mental decline and either speak to me or give her the baby treatment. Her faculties were 100%, but she had declining hearing. My standard line was, “She understands you fine, but is having a hard time hearing you. Speak up.”

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          My grandmother lived to be 100, & sometimes medical professionals would try to whisper things to family members. She couldn’t see, but her hearing was fine, just selective. (She couldn’t hear you if she didn’t like what you had to say.)

          1. Empress Matilda*

            My grandmother did the same. She could always hear me and my cousins just fine, but for some reason always had trouble hearing my mother and my aunts! Good for her, I say – I plan to do the same as soon as I’m old enough to get away with it.

        2. Momma Bear*

          Unfortunately this is all too often the case. I think my grandmother suffered in her last years from doctors dismissing her as a senile old lady when that was far from the truth.

      2. Noblepower*

        And to the visually impaired, as if having no or low vision has anything to do with their hearing or cognitive abilities!

        1. Pointy's in the North Tower*

          This, so much. Just because my friend can’t see in low light well enough to read the tiny print on your menu doesn’t mean she doesn’t know what she wants to eat. Half the time I can’t see the tiny print in bad light, and I’m just a little near-sighted.

          It’s so much worse when I’m out with my totally blind, braille-using friends. I’m not a fan of being a jerk to waitstaff, but when they ask me what my friend wants when they heard us having a conversation as they come to take our order, I feel no need to go beyond basic civility.

        2. 'Tis Me*

          Did you know being in a wheelchair affects your ability to hear/speak/function cognitively too?

          I was 16 or 17 at a festival, and a guy in a wheelchair decided to go into the standing moshpit area so he could see the band, hear the music properly, etc.

          People around: “Is he OK?”
          After hearing several people worry loudly about him I actually turned to him to ask if all was well. This meant that the security guy who realised something was up then started addressing comments to me… At that point, raising an eyebrow at him after the security man asked questions, listening to the guy answer them, then repeating his words louder worked. Eventually the security man twigged I didn’t know the guy who was perfectly able to speak for himself, and explained the setup at the area set aside for wheelchair users to actually see and hear the acts, at which point the guy was quite happy to be helped over there…

      3. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        Ugh, they absolutely do. I have a mild hearing issue, so occasionally (more often during Plague) have to ask people to repeat, reposition or rephrase.

        Suddenly they get the “deer in the headlights” then proceed as though I’m a six-year-old.

        1. BeenThere*

          This exactly the reason I won’t be returning to the office until we are not wearing masks.

    4. Anonnington*

      I have a physical disability and I’m frequently treated this way. Ableism is extremely widespread and under-recognized for the problem that it is.

    5. I'm just here for the cats*

      same here. I’m the legal guardian of my aunt who is develompentally diabled from birth and unable to speak (and becuase of her disabilities unable to use sign language or technology. Perhaps if she had been born in my genreation she would have but in the 60’s they didnt even think she would walk or live past 5)
      Other family members say similiar things to what your doctors said to your SIL. When my grandmother died Lisa’s caregiver brought her to the funeral. She took one look at the casket and walked right out the door. We had to bring her to another room and she sat with my grandpa. She was visbily upset and knew what was going on. Family were like “Its so nice that they brought lisa. too bad she doesnt know” or “i’m glad lisa doesnt understand, it would be so hard for her.”
      My mom and I called B.S. on that.

    6. Tofu Pie*

      I used to manage a lot of my mum’s financial and medical etc affairs due to her speaking limited English. It was incredibly upsetting to see people treat her like a 3 year old. I even had one employee say to me “don’t worry, I’ll make sure she understands”; then turned to her to ask “WHAAAAAAT IIIIIIS YOUR ADDDDDDRRREEEESSS-SU”. When speaking to her he put on a weird fake Asian accent. The heartbreaking part was that this sort of stuff happened so much she simply accepted it because I suspect she had no energy to battle all the battles.

      I want to point out that this kind of “speaking down” rarely if ever happens to another white person who speaks English as a second language. It is usually a POC who is on the receiving end of blatant condescension.

      1. Observer*

        I want to point out that this kind of “speaking down” rarely if ever happens to another white person who speaks English as a second language.

        I’m not sure this is going to comfort any POC, but this is totally not true. I am speaking from first hand experience. Of course, the fact that most of the people I’ve seen this happen to be very obviously Jewish may be playing in to this…

        1. Bryce*

          Ashkenazi/Sephardi are in an odd place, ethnicity-wise. I tend to describe myself as eggshell; whether I’m white depends on the lighting (metaphorically speaking) and who I’m next to. In general I’m (usually) white, Mom wasn’t white when she was growing up but became white later, and Grandpa was never white. Despite the overlap in our lives. There’s a lot going on there.

    7. tamarack and fireweed*

      A college friend of mine was blind, and the stories she told and the behavior we sometimes got to witness first-hand was quite mind-boggling. A tale that stood out was one of travelling on a train (this is in Europe, so this is a very common way of getting around between major cities) in a compartment with two other women… who *kept remarking on her every gesture to each other*! In particular about her eating her packed lunch. (“Oh, look, I wouldn’t have thought she was able to open the yogurt without problems.” “These people are often quite poor you know.”) When her destination was coming up, she got up, gathered her things and bade the two fellow travelers good-bye and a good rest of the trip. She said listening to their gasp was quite satisfying.

      She was also an international student and even though she could do all of her daily tasks on her own (study, sing in the university choir, where we met…) she liked to have a friend along when dealing every few months or so with the government offices located in an area of town she otherwise wouldn’t visit much. It was happening more often than not that the government worker would address the friend rather than herself (“Has she brought her passport and visa stamp? Has she signed [document X]? Has she traveled outside [country] in the last few months?”) Our mutual friend who was closer to her than myself (they were in the same applied linguistics/translation program while I was in STEM) luckily also was a lot brasher than me at the time and would *pointedly* advise the busybody that W was RIGHT THERE and could answer for herself.

      I learned a lot from both of them.

  7. Anonymous just this once*

    Thank you for this update. I have a child who attends a school for neuro-atypical kids… And this is just lovely to read.

    Thank you!

    1. NotAnotherManager!*


      As the parent of a “David”, it’s nice to see someone advocate for them in the workplace. My kid’s not dumb (and we have loads of expensive neuropsych testing to prove it!), their brain just works differently. They merely require being treated like a human being.

      1. Run mad; don't faint*

        I’m the mother of a couple of “Davids” too and have watched the oldest struggle in the workplace. Thank you, LW.

  8. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    I’d say just give Danielle time. The bridge may be more singed than burned and she could thaw out in time. I wouldn’t go above-and-beyond for her, just be patient while she processes everything (and not because it’s best for Danielle, but because it’d be best for you if she does thaw out later).

    In the meantime, congratulations and celebrations!

    1. Dragon_Dreamer*

      As someone with autism… trust me, she won’t. People like her will convince themselves that he’s only succeeding because the OP is “protecting” him or some other such nonsense. She’ll never see him as a person. I’ve dealt with this kind of situation many, MANY times in my life, and those people are lucky they didn’t get decked.

      1. anonymous autist*

        Oh God, yes.
        It’s like a curse – once an autist like me has managed to antagonize a neurotypical person (especially in an office setting), no amount of apology/explanation/plain backing off will ever change that person’s opinion again!
        It’s like falling through the cracks of the social pavement and never finding a way up again.

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          That’s how I’d bet my lunch, too, but I also figure there’s more value in modeling better behavior for Danielle than there is sinking to her level.

          1. KoiFeeder*

            Maybe she’ll even internalize it coming from a neurotypical. She certainly wouldn’t care if it came from David.

        2. JSPA*

          That’s true for anyone who’s reached BEC stage with somebody, isn’t it?

          Apologies and explanation serve to explain, and to re-contextualize. They may even excuse. But they don’t erase the lived experience.

          If one person finds another person grating or painful to deal with, sure, they still have to be minimally professional…but no, they don’t have to somehow blank out their own memory or their own reactions, based on whether or not the other person “meant it that way.”

          It’s the difference between someone mistreating a horse that’s trod on their foot–not ever OK–vs giving the horse extra space and keeping a close eye on it.

          That reaction is completely understandable for two reasons. One is self-preservation (based on, “horse will not automatically avoid standing on me, as evidenced by horse having stood on me.”) The other is, “current experiences are tinged by past experiences, regardless of ongoing risk.”

          Even when they don’t rise to the obvious level of PTSD, memories are not separate from our flesh; our lived experience, as we experienced it at the time, marks us, and is written on us. Additional context is great, but it’s not an eraser.

          Extreme example: I had a friend of a friend go through a psychotic episode, while newly medicated with incompatible compounds, in which she tried (very ineffectually but repeatedly) to stab me with a fork, while violating basically every aspect of the social compact. My willingness to interact with her stopped cold at that point. Not because I think she’s a horrible fork murderer (or an actual bigot, or a “bad person,” whatever that may be). But because nothing in our nodding acquaintanceship up to that point makes it worth my while to get over the lived experience of what felt like hours, warding off a slurring, smelly, biggoted-oath-spewing, partially naked person who was trying to poke me with a fork. (There were several of us there, protecting her from hurting others and herself, while waiting for emergency services.)

          Intellectually, bygones are bygones! There’s not even anything to apologize for! If asked to describe her to a third party, this incident would not enter into the summary, nor even color it. Nevertheless, the incident (which she doesn’t remember) remains with me, on a gut level.

          In smaller ways, smaller violations of the social contract also mark people who’ve experienced them. They’re allowed to feel (proportionally) queasy, as a result.

          That’s not because anybody is evil, or inhuman, or inhumane. That’s because we all inhabit actual bodies, store and retrieve our memories in a process that involves cells, neurotransmitters, hormones and emotions, and can’t redefine causality in the same way you’d cleanly rewrite computer memory.

          1. Stephen*

            You’ve missed the point. People are generally willing to move past mild office embarrassments, rudeness, whatever. They happen. But if they know the person is autistic, then it’s more likely that they won’t be willing to let it go. It’s similar to being a member of any marked class – people with any form of marginalization are always given less forgiveness. The specific dynamics of that are different depending on the situation, so I’ll let the autistic people here speak to how it actually plays out for them.

            Your reply is not an appropriate response to people discussing the ways in which they are systematically oppressed. People have emotional responses which last in the body. Fine. True enough! We’re talking about something else here.

            1. Fleapot*

              Thank you, Stephen, for stepping in there. I was initially confused about the intent of that comment; I’m autistic, and am pretty sure that I have some mild PTSD from workplace harassment. The implication that a Danielle might be distressed because a David violated the social contract–and that she might therefore be justified in treating him poorly–is pretty horrifying.

              I might refine the point you’re making about forgiveness of marginalized people. I think the phenomenon you describe *looks* a lot like it’s a matter of forgiveness, but is actually closer to some kind of confirmation bias.

              Say that Jane is autistic, and Fergus thinks she’s been too blunt in pointing out a problem with his teapot prototype. If Fergus knows that Jane is autistic, he might not chalk that bluntness up to Jane having a bad day; instead, Jane has a bad *brain* and lacks social skills. If she realizes that he’s been offended, she can apologize, and he can accept the apology, but he’s still looking at her as defective or deficient, and that perception will colour every interaction they have.

              I’d say that it doesn’t matter whether or not Jane was right about the teapot–but if Jane is right, the whole thing is likely to be worse for her. Fergus’s pleasure in thinking of Jane as defective will be all the greater if she’s twigged his ego by pointing out a legitimate error. (And if Fergus is also a misogynist, look out. I can virtually guarantee that Jane is getting fired.)

              Not all neurotypicals, of course! OP and many posts in this thread make that clear. But enough to make most workplaces hard to bear.

          2. SarahKay*

            This seems to me to be implying that David is to blame for Danielle being embarrassed. Which seems… highly unreasonable. As far as I can tell nothing in either of OP’s letters says that Danielle was directly affected by David’s behaviour; in fact it’s the opposite, where she was infantilising him.
            Danielle is embarrassed because she treated an adult like a child, wouldn’t listen to OP tactfully telling her to stop, and had to be reined in more firmly by the C-suite. That’s on her, and I don’t care what her body is telling her or how ‘proportionally’ queasy she might feel at having behaved badly, she needs to step up and start to behave properly, not blank OP and her whole team!

          3. just another person on the spectrum*

            JSPA, I think that anonymous autistic was probably talking about something more along the lines of saying something odd or missing the sort of social cue an allistic person wouldn’t have. Not….stabbing people with a fork during a medical emergency?

        3. Dragon_dreamer*

          In my case, I became TOO good at my job. (Sales.) I had the experience and the confidence to help folks get the technology they needed, and be able to explain the whys.

          But my coworkers, ESPECIALLY one supervisor, were convinced that my numbers were so good only because management had to have “helped” me. Despite them rarely stepping in.

          I also have physical disabilities that made it hard to do things like bend down a lot to put up signs. The supervisor became convinced I was lazy AND stupid. So he not only baby talked me, he did it with a lot of insults.

          HR backed him up when I complained, saying I must have “provoked” him. They also told me more than once my autism was why I would never be “eligible” for management. (I DO NOT miss retail!)

  9. TexasTeacher*

    Great update. Instead of the bridge with Danielle, think of the bridge you’re building with David as he continues to work for and with you.

    1. HR Jeanne*

      Beautifully said TexasTeacher. We need all types of thinkers in businesses. We can no longer expect everyone to act the same way, do the same things, and think the same way. A diverse population will only make our teams more successful and our businesses grow. We don’t want to miss out on people like David! I’m sorry the LW has such short-sited, narrow-minded HR person.

      1. Self Employed*

        Danielle in HR may be burning enough bridges to be out of the company sooner or later if this is an example of her professional skills in action…

    2. Empress Matilda*

      Yup, exactly. David’s bridge is more important than Danielle’s – and probably more satisfying for both of you!

      I find when someone is being “cold” or giving the silent treatment, very often it’s a relief to the people around them anyway. Often it’s because they lack communications skills, which means they can be pretty difficult to deal with even when they’re at their best. So it’s not always a bad thing when they withdraw like this.

      1. ceiswyn*

        Yes, I still remember the team manager who washed his hands of a project after he made himself look like an idiot (he waffled on for a good five minutes in a phone meeting about a ‘big problem’ with my part of the project, refusing to let me interrupt him at any point. At the end of it, I was finally able to get in that the assumption he’d based the ‘problem’ on was wrong, and he’d just been insistently talking nonsense).

        His intent was clearly that the project would fail without his input. In fact, we all breathed a sigh of relief that we would never have to listen to him waffle ignorantly on again and got on with making the project such an overwhelming success that it is still on my CV ten years later.

        (He was a big reason I left that job after only 18 months. None of my successors managed to put up with him nearly as long.)

    3. Brooks Brothers Stan*

      Oh I REALLY enjoy this phrase and point of view. I am definitely going to use it in the future.

    4. Keymaster of Gozer*

      Danielles bridge: made out of rotting planks of wood and a couple of lashed together with rope barrels
      David’s bridge: Clifton Suspension Bridge.

  10. pickaduck*

    Thank you so much for caring so much about this and addressing it! Otherwise David may have just given up and quit on finding employment altogether.

  11. EPLawyer*

    this is wonderful that David likes his job and feels supported.

    On the other hand what the hell is Danielle doing in HR if her reaction to the merest suggestion that she should treat and adult like an adult is met with petulant childishness? SERIOUSLY.

    1. ecnaseener*

      Maybe someone should try baby-talking to her, since she thinks it’s such a nice thing to do and she wants to act like a child anyway. *eye roll*

      1. esmerelda*

        Haha, YES! This is a tried and true method when the normal method of asking them to stop doesn’t work.

        I have a sexist coworker (male) who used to constantly comment on whether he thought my hair (I am female) was pretty or not. Daily unwarranted comments. “Your hair is beautiful today,” or “I liked it better yesterday.” I asked him to stop and told him is was odd to make my hair such a topic of conversation. He said it was totally fine because he meant well. I said “ok, I’ll just comment on your hair everyday!” That comment alone was enough to make him stagger backwards in shock and offense. He hasn’t commented on my hair since. Win!

    2. Sara without an H*

      +1. Am I the only one who is still gobsmacked at this kind of behavior coming from an HR professional??!?!

      1. RagingADHD*

        Appalled, yes. Gobsmacked, no.
        I’ve met plenty of HR folks (any field, really) to know that a vague sense of touchy-feeliness often substitutes for awareness, empathy, or competence.

      2. Calliope*

        IME, HR professionals tend to be among the least clued in on actual social interaction.

      3. Autistic AF*

        I’m not surprised in the least. Some of my worst experiences have been with HR, like the rep who forced me to self-disclose, afraid that I’d be fired for something I couldn’t magically fix. Stereotypes about autism are super pervasive, as is ableist fragility.

        I’m glad issues like this are being discussed, but shocked reactions remind me of men realizing how often women get catcalled/spoken down to/etc.

        1. Sara without the H*

          I guess I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked with some truly brilliant HR people, some who were just competent, but nobody as awful as Danielle.

      4. Carol*

        Having worked in HR, I’m sadly not surprised. Many competent, professional and ethical folks, but also more than a few people who get into it because they feel like they have access to confidential information and/or gossip, and others who are in it because “I’m so nice and good at people”, which maybe sounds like the case here. Have witnessed or heard credibly about major ethics violations within HR teams.

    3. Observer*

      On the other hand what the hell is Danielle doing in HR if her reaction to the merest suggestion that she should treat and adult like an adult is met with petulant childishness? SERIOUSLY.

      That’s a really good question. I mean this is not good behavior in ANY profession that requires interaction with people. But HR? That’s just a whole added layer of ridiculousness.

    4. Keymaster of Gozer*

      I’ve encountered some truly shocking HR people in my career: one who told me that they wouldn’t provide any disability accomodations until I lost some weight, the one who told me that Creepy Guy A didn’t mean anything when he kept trying to ask me out on dates/accost me in the kitchen…

      My theory is it’s the same as what drives truly horrible IT persons (and I’ve worked with a few of those): control. They absolutely love being in a position where they can cantrol others, by restricting their internet rights/reading their emails in the case of IT, or making others dance to their tune in the case of HR.

  12. Abogado Avocado*

    Magnificent work! May every differently abled person out there who wants or needs greater understanding at the office have a manager like you!

    1. BookishMiss*

      Just a note – many people in the disabled community dislike the phrase “differently abled.”

      My spouse has Parkinson’s – being one’s own massage chair isn’t really an ability…

    2. Dahlia*

      As a disabled person, I do not know a single disabled person who prefers “differently abled”. I personally find it really condescending. Like BookishMiss said, “pain” is not an ability.

      1. Worldwalker*

        In a company I worked for in the early 80s, we got this guy whose job was … well, it was actually unclear what his job was. But he was apparently supposed to improve things for employees who were in any way disabled. I’ve got a bum knee — it ranges from annoying to crippling, depending on the weather. (air pressure sensitive) His sole action was to demand that I refer to my bum knee as a “mobility impairment”. Could he get me an office on the ground floor, which is what I really needed? (my office was up a very steep flight of steps, and I had to go up and down them at least a dozen times a day) No, that wasn’t something he could do. But he could insist, with the company to back him up, that I called my knee a “mobility impairment”. Because that apparently hurts less than a bum knee.

        It’s been almost 40 years. I don’t remember his name. And my bum knee still hurts, no matter what I call it (which is rarely printable).

      2. Autistic AF*

        Yeah, “differently abled” is still speaking down to us. There’s a great article titled ‘How “Differently Abled” Marginalizes Disabled People’ that gets into why this is bad in more detail.

      3. Keymaster of Gozer*

        I have no additional abilities for being epileptic/having a busted spine/having arthritis.

        (Had to tell someone last week to NOT correct me when I say I’m epileptic. They were insistent that I was ‘a person with epilepsy’)

        1. 'Tis Me*

          But you might forget that you are still a full person whose lived experiences are just as valid as they would otherwise be, if you don’t, no..?

      4. 'Tis Me*

        I’d like to think that living with chronic pain and invisible conditions crud makes me more empathetic and understanding.

        Some days it just makes me more irritable and brain-fogged though (curse you, self awareness, not letting me lie to myself)…

      5. BelleMorte*

        totally agree, I hate these euphemisms that make disabled a dirty word. I also find it wildly abelist when people insist they don’t have a disability as if it’s such a horrible, disgusting thing to have.

        From a logistic standpoint when I am looking for services for people with disabilities, it’s always a wild guess as to what pseudo-woke term the service will be using to detract from the disability. Differently-abled, special services, ability services, or the worst recently “possibility services”.

  13. StoneColdJaneAusten*

    My wife is an aspie and telling her boss that her new job was going way better than she expected is 100 percent something she would do. I’m charmed. I’m glad LW is too!

    1. Liz*

      I’m an aspie and it’s only now reading your comment that it occurred that this perhaps would not be something a neurotypical person would say.

      I too have very kind, understanding managers and it makes the world of difference. Keep it up, LW. And thank you.

      1. I'm just here for the cats*

        I think it depends on the relationship of the boss and employee. It seems like LW and David have a great relationship and I can see why he said this. I think I would say something like what David did.

        1. Liz*

          Yes, this makes the world of difference. My workplace has been amazing in terms of accommodation. When they offered me the role, I came in to meet with my line manager and I sat in a meeting room with her and honestly CRIED because I was so overwhelmed by the prospect of returning to work, but it was something I wanted to do and had been building towards for years. She was very patient and understanding and assured me that she thought I’d be great, and would do all she could to support me back into working life (I had not held a job for 7 years). That was almost 3 years ago. I have a new line manager now who is equally amazing, and I’m now good friends with that manager who took the time to make me feel welcome and supported. I don’t think I could have made that transition without such a supportive team.

      2. Kate 1*

        Me too! It’s amazing the things we don’t know are “weird” to an NT, since they are normal to us.

  14. AutismMom*

    Thank you so much for standing up for David. My son is on the spectrum, and I get anxious every time he has to venture out into the world without me. People like you make me feel better about my son’s future.

    1. Tiny*

      I am sure you have called yourself AutismMom through love, but many autistic people feel that using your child’s disability as part of your identity is not respectful. You are a mum to an autistic person. You are only an Autism Mom if you are actually autistic (in which case you would probably be an Autistic Mom)

      1. Autistic AF*

        This is good until the last sentence – “Autism Mom” is a subtler but still-harmful offshoot of “Autism Warrior Mom”, wherein the fight is against Autism (children are forced to adopt foreign behaviours at the expense of their mental health, parents advocate for cures on a slippery slope to eugenics, etc.). An “Autistic Mom” is very different from an “Autism Mom”.

  15. Seeking Second Childhood*

    OP, I’d also point out something else you did right — realizing you did something wrong, and then move ahead calmly to make things right.
    That is all too rare a bird these days — three cheers for you

    1. What’s behind curtain number three*

      Exactly! I wish I could upvote this. So often people dig in their heels. Thank you to OP for listening and putting our feedback into practice.

    2. Observer*

      I’d also point out something else you did right — realizing you did something wrong, and then move ahead calmly to make things right.

      Yes. This is a trait that you should work to keep, because it will ultimately serve you well.

  16. CoveredInBees*

    I’m glad it’s going well and that David had someone with the experience and capital to put an end to this nonsense.

  17. Bookworm*

    Yeeesh. I was prepared for a bad ending but I’m SO glad it wasn’t. Thanks for writing in, OP, with the update. :)

  18. anon4this*

    Everyone keep saying “autism” but David appears to have Aspergers, which is a milder form of autism. It’s very distinguishable from more severe forms of autism which can involve mental retardation, limited verbal ability, etc.

    Danielle is certainly acting cringe worthy, but she probably doesn’t understand autism is a spectrum, and David falls on the functioning end.

    Has that been explained to Danielle? Dismissing everything she’s saying without explanation might be a real disservice to her as she continues to double down and embarrass herself.

    I’m not saying David or the OP owe Danielle an explanation, but it may help in de-escalating the situation.

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      Everyone keep saying “autism” but David appears to have Aspergers, which is a milder form of autism.

      Everyone’s saying it not out of conflation, but because they’re no longer considered separate diagnoses.

      1. anon4this*

        I get what your saying it, but Danielle may not understand autism is on a spectrum, so mild and severe autism may seem extremely similar to her and require explanation.

        For someone with severe autism, Danielle’s actions may not seem as offensive as for someone with Aspergers.

          1. anon4this*

            I actually don’t know, I think it depends on how functioning the individual is, how open the company is and the actual job itself.

            1. Worldwalker*

              If they can work in an office, you don’t talk baby talk to them and make funny faces at them.

        1. ThatGirl*

          Just a note – you’ve already been corrected on this, but mild vs severe is a little inaccurate too. Nonverbal people are not less intelligent because they’re nonverbal, for instance; they just have higher support needs. Our understanding of autism has come a long way in the last 40 years; you should read up on what actually autistic people have to say.

        2. KoiFeeder*

          It’s a color wheel, not black and white. I am “severely” autistic because I have the social skills of a particularly cynical oyster and can’t make eye contact, but I would be deeply offended to be treated like she chose to treat David.

          1. anon4this*

            I do apologize, in further reading the term is “high-functioning autism vs low-functioning autism”.

            I did not mean to offend or imply autistic folks who can’t make eye contact and have limited social skills are low-functioning.

            I’m just a student of life, still learning!

            1. nearly dx autistic*

              Heads-up: many people dislike the “functioning” labels because they describe how the person manages to conform to a NT world (eg economic productivity) far more than they describe the experience of that person (eg day-long masking and extreme anxiety).

            2. Autistic AF*

              Functioning labels have been rejected by the majority of the autistic community. Some reasons:

              -They deny people at the higher end of that range of support and deny people at the lower end of autonomy.
              -People aren’t static. Functioning levels vary within individuals.

              “Support needs” is a better term, used commonly – it’s not great in my opinion, but it’s still more respectful.

              1. Anonymously autistic*

                Yes, this. I’m autistic, diagnosed late teens. I was “high functioning” enough to have survived high school and got into a good college, good at masking, and consequently was told I needed no support (because I was doing so well! I must know it all already!) and spent years struggling and thinking I wasn’t entitled to any.

                As it happened, undergraduate studies I could manage with pretty much no extra support. Navigating grad school and the world of work – not so much. The good masking has been a double-edged sword in that I often have people tell me I’m not “really” autistic, because they know autistic people and I’m “not like that.” Sigh. I’m still luckier than many.

                1. Boat on a Similar Heading*

                  Oh wow do I hear that. Yeah, being “high functioning” (maybe instead read: someone who is trained to mask well and develops some consistent capacity to do so) can make a mess of trying to get any sort of support for anything.

                  I remember job hunting, and simply needing the accommodation of interviewers understanding that if my answer makes no sense, then I probably just interpreted the question a different way (think “What color is the sky?” and I say “Three.” or something). So many HR people who think I wanted to just be handed the answers as an accommodation. Like, no, all I need is for your folks in the room to realize that if my answer is the type of answer you’re looking for but bad, then that’s fine; if my answer is bad because it’s the wrong type of answer though, and I’m asking point blank if my answer made sense, then please just rephrase the question and see if I produce an answer that makes more sense.

                  I can at least say that there exist jobs that have folks who do a better job of this, and if you can find one then those jobs can be quite nice, but it’s such a pain that so many folks can’t recognize a wider spectrum of disability. If you’re several deviations outside of “normal” then it’s no question to figure out support (whether the support system is adequate being a whole different question), but get too close to the main curve and suddenly people assume you’re just not trying hard enough, even if you’re only so close because you’re exhausting yourself (in the case of being autistic, often involuntarily due to extensive training as a child if you’re in that group) trying to conform because there’s not enough support.

                  I hope you’re able to find the places in the world of work where people have some basic background in this at some point.

                  (Also, that “not really autistic because … [you’re] not like that” totally reminded me of a certain celebrity who begs us to please not comment about any successfully positively portrayed heavily autistic characteristics in prominent roles, and I hope the folks telling you that aren’t giving you the sense that I get from that kind of comment.)

              2. Divergent*

                And to bring it right around, the OP originally was trying to figure out what specific support needs David had; they luckily didn’t pick up assumptions from a high-functioning or low-functioning label and instead (eventually) went to the source to ask.

              3. What’s behind curtain number three*

                I do find functioning labels incredibly offensive. An autistic person (like myself) can have differing support needs regardless of how they “present”. Functioning labels describe how valuable we are to a capitalist society. IE can we produce labor or not.

                Also, I pass for NT but I still need the kind of support that would categorize me as “low functioning” when I’m going through a personal crisis.

                1. Brit*

                  Yes, exactly. I’m ND and can do things others think are hard and ‘high functioning’ but I also struggling with some things that are generally considered ‘easy’ and people can’t reconcile it at all.

                  For example I may struggle to figure out a different microwave if controls are overwhelming, but this doesn’t mean I would want to be patronised or congratulated about it, it would be embarrassing.

                  I am also pretty good about coming up with my own work around. In the case of a confusing microwave with lots of controls, I might ask if I could put a colour overlay sticker on the main buttons so it’s less confusing. This would likely help others as well, as when there are 10 + buttons on the darn things and they all work differently, highlighting the buttons to just heat your food (not defrost or grill etc) should make it more usable for everyone.

                  In the past I made some laminated sheets for calculating some processes and colleagues used them too. No one even realised I made them until a manager decided it was ‘unprofessional’ and we needed to be doing it in our heads. Personally I think making errors is unprofessional, whether due to being ND or just stressed or distracted.

            3. KoiFeeder*

              Wait, I was implying that I’m low-functioning! Because according to the DSM, depending on how you look at it, you can make the argument either way. My point was that “functioning” and “severity” and such aren’t helpful in determining the capacities and abilities of any given autistic person. I can hold down a job and get into arguments on the internet, but I lack the ability to “mask” my autism and people cross the street when they see me.

              Or, basically, the fact that I can’t pass as allistic is why I would be considered low-functioning/severely autistic/whatever, not my actual capabilities as a person.

              And in my experience, a pretty sizable chunk of people considered that way are similarly “obviously” autistic, or just as often considered that way solely because they’re nonverbal.

          2. Anononon*

            I’ve read some really interested articles about how the idea that autism is a “spectrum” is greatly misinterpreted. I love the phrase “color wheel” because it really emphasizes what a spectrum is. People hear spectrum and think it means a single linear axis, one end high functioning, one end low functioning.

          3. CMT*

            I just want to say that “hav[ing] the social skills of a particularly cynical oyster” is a *brilliant* descriptor! Every way I parse it is awesome. Thank you for that!

            It also reminds me of a favorite sign in Brasil: “Caution! High risk of incident with oysters!”

        3. JB*

          You really don’t understand, I’m sorry to say.

          The ‘autism spectrum’ does not work the way NT people want it to work. It’s really not a scale of less to more severe, a sliding scale between two polar points where one is ‘almost normal’ and the other is ‘permanent child’.

          Any adult you encounter in the workplace (or in most situations) should be spoken to like an adult, regardless of their disabilities or what accomodations they might need. The situations in which it is appropriate to baby-talk an adult are so rare that you should assume that it is never the case.

    2. history geek*

      Also, hi, Autism is a spectrum as you said, so maaaaybbeee don’t try to put labels where they don’t belong and talk about ‘severe forms’. Going none verbal does not mean I cannot think. Having cognitive issues does not mean I’m an idiot. So uh, maybe educate yourself a tad more.

    3. Tofu Pie*

      Aspergers isn’t used any more – it is considered a part of the autistic spectrum. Lots of reading available on this, so if this is a topic of interest do go have a read for updated information.

      1. anon4this*

        Thank you for this comment!

        I did do a little light reading and it appears the exclusion of Aspergers is actually a point of contention in the community, which happened when the DSM-V decided to umbrella Asperger’s Syndrome under the autism spectrum, while also grouping it and high-functioning autism as the same thing. I think?

        Plenty of commentators used the term “aspie” in this AAM post alone and “autism speaks” uses the term in tons of their literature, so it’s not 100% out of usage.

        I, however, won’t be using that term again as it does seem dated/culturally unpopular.

        1. nearly dx autistic*

          While you’re reading, look at why autistic people don’t like Autism Speaks…

          1. Agreed, Autism Speaks is a BAD citation here*

            I got to that part and was immediately ready to hit reply when I read those words, then I saw that (thankfully) the first response already said the short version of my response.

            Yeah, the organization broadly known as Autism Speaks does speaking less for autistic people and more for those poor neurotypicals who have to suffer dealing with an autistic relative/partner/friend/whatever (emphasis meant to imply tone, such that it is clear I do not mean those words for a literal value).

            I can’t think of a good comparison that isn’t actively wildly controversial in at least some circles right now, but suffice it to say asking Autism Speaks about autistic experiences and needs right now is probably more effective if you then work from the opposite of what Autism Speaks says. It’s right up there with how most of the folks who tell us we need to use person-first language tend to be relatives of autistic people, and if you ask actually autistic people directly then you suddenly find a whole different conversation.

            1. nearly dx autistic*

              The name “Autism Speaks” is an oxymoron because it is all about other people speaking about and “for” autistic people, with little or no autistic voices ever being heard let alone amplified.

        2. Autistic AF*

          The name comes from Hans Asperger, who did a lot of research but also collaborated in the murder of “lower-functioning” children in Nazi Germany. I would have had such a diagnosis had it happened before the DSM-V, and others will still identify with it, but I do not want a label associated with a Nazi collaborator. Please continue with your research, including why Autism Speaks is considered to be a hate group by much of the autistic population.

          1. Fleapot*

            Some people who were diagnosed with Asperger’s before the diagnoses were merged still identify as “aspie,” and IMO that’s generally fine. It’s quite different from

            Autism Speaks is a straight-up eugenicist organization, and they advocate really harmful ‘treatments’ for autistic kids. You’ll find better resources if you focus on material produced by autistic people.

            1. Fleapot*

              Sorry–I hit the wrong button while I was still typing. Trying again:

              Asperger originated the distinction because he wanted to shield “useful” and “high-functioning” autistic children from Nazi extermination. That history makes it clear that the insistence on differentiating ASD from Asperger’s or “high functioning” from “low functioning” is fundamentally eugenicist. For me, it’s not just a matter of not wanting to be associated with a Nazi collaborator, but also of rejecting the idea that some autistic people are more tolerable–or more human–than others.

              That said, some people who were diagnosed with Asperger’s before the diagnoses were merged still identify as “aspie,” and IMO that’s generally fine. I’m not invested in taking that away from anybody, unless they’re insisting that they’re superior to autistic people.

              Autism Speaks is a straight-up eugenicist organization, and they advocate really harmful ‘treatments’ for autistic kids. Anon4this, you’ll find better resources if you focus on material produced by autistic people.

              And: I’m pretty sure that you will not find “high functioning” or “low functioning” in the DSM-V. The criteria describes three levels of support needs, which IMO is a much better model. “Functioning” is always measured in terms of deficits (or compensation for deficits), but “support needs” provides useful information about the resources that an autistic person requires to live well.

              1. Autistic AF*

                To add to this, Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, Autistics 4 Autistics, Autism Women & Nonbinary Network, or Neuroclastic would be good starting points for autistic-led autism information.

        3. Single Noun*

          oh dear god, don’t get your information about autism from Autism Speaks. Try the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, or Mel Baggs, or anyplace where actual adult autistics are speaking instead of parents and therapists.

        4. Allypopx*

          “In the community” some people still use Aspergers for a variety of reasons – outdated education, an aversion to be labeled autistic, or very commonly because that is their official diagnosis from a different time and they need to use it to access medical care and benefits in their area.

          If you’re citing Autism Speaks, I can’t imagine you’re doing more than a google search. Please don’t use spend 30 seconds with a web browser and turn around to tell people who are talking to you from their real life experience that you’ve “educated yourself” or “done research”. That goes for any topic.

        5. Bryce*

          To follow up other comments with an explanation of why, Autism Speaks takes a position of “the parents of autistic children are the real victims, we need to teach these kids to act ‘normal’ for suffering mothers’ sakes.”

          I’ve heard of some attempts to pivot in the last year or two, but they’ve burned any ounce of goodwill from the community so I haven’t heard if those paid off. Not worth the time of day.

    4. I'm just here for the cats*

      I think it is up to Danielle’s boss to make sure that the HR people have proper training. I think the most that the LW could do is mention to Danielle’s boss, if they don’t know already, how Danielle is acting.

      But I think the message will fall on deaf ears because it seems like Danielle thinks she is in the right. I think even if David spoke directly to her she still wouldn’t understand.

    5. Book Badger, Attorney-at-Claw*

      I don’t think Danielle’s behavior is appropriate regardless of the person’s abilities or skills. Unless you’re talking to an actual child, using baby talk and praising someone for basic tasks is patronizing and belittling. The conversation with Danielle shouldn’t be, “It’s inappropriate to speak to David that way because he’s ‘higher functioning’ and so more capable than you believe,” because that implies that she’d be justified in speaking that way to someone who is, say, nonverbal. It should be, “It is inappropriate to speak to any adult that way, particularly one who is your workplace peer.”

    6. Observer*

      Danielle is certainly acting cringe worthy, but she probably doesn’t understand autism is a spectrum, and David falls on the functioning end.

      I’m not sure how this makes anything better. The simple fact is that she was given all of the information she needs, and she refused to act on it. When the got pushback from someone who essentially pulled rank on her (perfectly appropriately!) she doubled down and started acting like a cranky toddler who’s trying to keep from spitting.

      No needed to explain all this to Danielle. If she was confounded, she could have asked some questions or she could have done some research. She did neither. That’s TOTALLY on her. It’s not on the OP to start training HR on how to function as HR.

    7. Worldwalker*

      If a person is intellectually capable of holding a job, even if it’s just sorting donated things in a sheltered workshop, let alone an ordinary office (!), it is totally inappropriate to speak baby talk to them — LET ALONE making funny faces at them! (frankly, I would argue that it’s not even appropriate to speak baby talk to an actual toddler) She understands, all right, because David is RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF HER. She just rejects that knowledge because “she knows better”.

    8. Wants Green Things*

      David identified himself as autistic. Therefore, he is autistic. You claiming he seems to be “higher functioning” is the same kind of backwards logic that gets people like Danielle thinking baby talk is appropriate.

      It does not matter where David does or does not fall in the spectrum. Danielle’s actions were widly inappropriate and doubling down on them was just insulting.

  19. Divergent*

    I’ve realized I’m on the spectrum in the time since the first letter came out. This supports my decision not to come out at work.

    1. KoiFeeder*

      Honestly, every time I hear about autism in the workplace, it’s always “HR has decided autistic people are infants” or “this person’s boss beheaded their stuffed animals!” and it just confirms that I should never, ever, let people know about it.

      1. Divergent*

        My workplace doesn’t talk about it. At least with gender stuff there’s enough ambient that I can float it into a conversation and feel things out– or convince an ally to float it into a conversation and watch. Ha.

    2. nearly dx autistic*

      Similar. I’ll have a formal dx by Memorial Day and letters like this give me pause. I know two of TPTB have children with ASD but you can’t unsay a thing or undisclose a condition.

      I just quietly look up lists of things autistic people are good at (“autism gold” is a good search term) and remind myself how valuable those are in the workplace. Attention to detail, loves finding the best way to do a thing then do that thing a lot of times, integrity, etc.

      1. Divergent*

        I’m beginning to suspect my previous workplace was actually full of undiagnosed autistic people. My current one is more difficult, and I’ve spent some time trying to reverse-engineer the criteria for autism to figure out how neurotypicals think and what they want. I wish I could find a place like my previous again.

        Luckily I’m not the only person I know going on this journey.

      2. Self Employed*

        Parents of Autistic children can occasionally “get it” and be trying to make a better world for their kids, but it’s more common that they will be more of a problem than people who don’t have a personal connection. Common problems dealing with family members of Autistic people include comparing you to their Autistic relative and either concluding “you’re not like my child, therefore you’re not really Autistic” or “I will assume you are just like my child and ignore anything you say about your own needs.”

    3. Allypopx*

      With many things like this – neurodivergence, mental illness, general disability – I typically advise not ‘outing’ yourself at work unless you a) need a specific accommodation b) are in a unique situation (like you’re less ‘obviously’ autistic and you see Daniel being treated this way, and use that as leverage to either connect with him or push back on others as appropriate) c) you have found reason to REALLY trust your employer. B is a highly personal choice and not required of anyone, btw, but I’d consider it a valid reason to go against my default of “play it close to the vest”.

    4. What’s behind curtain number three*

      It’s a very tricky thing to deal with. I personally don’t recommend it. A lot of big companies are now pushing for neurodiversity in the workplace but i keep watching them get it wrong and I don’t want to be tokenized and infantilized. My current employer is partnering with a not for profit that is strongly disliked by the autistic community so I’m keeping my guard up. My boss is aware but that’s it and that only happened because I outed myself talking about my son. I trust her though.

      If you need accommodations, there are plenty of other ways to get them without disclosing your diagnosis or self diagnosis.

      1. Self Employed*

        Yes, you do NOT have to disclose your diagnosis–just the needs. You will need to have a letter from a medical professional at some point; however, you will have to find a way to overrule their assumption the letter is to confirm a diagnosis. What you need is a letter that says you have Impairment X that can be mitigated with Accommodation Y. A letter saying you have Diagnosis Z is not helpful even if Diagnosis Z is not something you’re concerned could be used against you, because there’s no ADA book that says “If an employee has Diagnosis Z, give them Accommodation Y.”

        I ran into this when trying to get Fair Housing accommodations. My doctor carefully rewrote the letter from the disability attorney to remove anything about my needs or the requested accommodations because he had no idea what would help me and didn’t want to get in the way of my landlord being able to come up with something more creative. The result was that the landlord’s attorney said that there was no medical evidence to back up the accommodations requested–and that they don’t need to accommodate people with autism because we are supposed to live in group homes or institutions anyway.

  20. Polly Styrene*

    I’m glad David has been accommodated and has assimilated into the team. But I think you could have handled Danielle better. Without an actual example or soundbyte to help see the problem, it is difficult to know how over the top she was. Was her way of speaking to David bothering David, or just you?

    People gravitating towards HR tend to be “carers” and a useful personality type in an organization as visionary as yours is, in it’s hiring policy anyway. You have to respect everyone’s approach and style. You needed Danielle’s help, she gave it well as you said, and then you threw her under the bus, so to speak, with C-suite and influential executives, diminishing her contributions and possibly self esteem. Don’t expect any help next time you trigger a meltdown with David or anyone else. Not great office politics from where I sit, and borderline abuse of influence and disrespect of a colleague who helped you out of a tough spot.

    1. DKMA*

      She made funny faces at him through a glass door and congratulated him for figuring out how to use a microwave. And then she reacted poorly to this behavior being called out. What does she need to do, give him a literal pacifier and tell him it’s nap time?

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Please read the original letter; there are plenty of examples in there. Danielle’s behavior was offensive and was bothering David as well.

      1. Polly Styrene*

        This does nothing to convince me it is an interpersonal failure not to have addressed the issue effectively without calling in the C suite to intercede. Just as David is to be accommodated, perhaps Danielle needed a bit more of a discussion about what was appropriate. Kindness matters and burning bridges is never a good thing.

        1. ThatGirl*

          Some bridges aren’t worth keeping. I don’t think anyone was unkind to Danielle – in fact, telling her what she was doing was offensive *is* kind, because infantilizing people is inherently unkind.

        2. I'm just here for the cats*

          I think you are off base and need re-read the first letter carefully. She is treating him differently than the others, to the point that the others were making fun of her for it. The LW states she put a stop to the ridiculing of Danielle by the others.

          Now when LW asks Danielle to stop and she doesnt, which is why the LW had to go to the bosses. SHe didnt run right to the bosses and tattle. She had a problem, expressed her concern with the person, who refused to listen. She took the next logical step (without disclosing the employees identity).

          Take the autism part out of the situation. If HR was treating an employee differently than they treated others, was asked to stop and refused, what else could the LW do except go to the boss.

        3. Disabled trans lesbian*

          Ableism is not a ‘interpersonal failure’; it is harmful and discriminatory. Danielle was asked in a very clear way to stop being ableist and she refused to do so. At that point, there’s no ‘discussion’ any more; Danielle needed to stop, and the fact it took involving the C-suite to get her to stop reflects very badly on Danielle.

        4. anonmouse*

          But they DID talk with Danielle about and she didn’t listen. that’s why they went to the Csuite. Maybe there isn’t anyone above Danielle in HR so the only person to talk to would be someone in Csuite.

        5. Isben Takes Tea*

          But it’s not the OP’s job to instruct HR on what’s “appropriate” . . . and the OP already did:

          . . . things didn’t go so well with Danielle once I asked her to stop treating him like a child. She was absolutely sure that she was addressing David the “appropriate way” (her words) . . . Since the conversation was going nowhere, I escalated to my own boss

          I don’t know what further discussion you could have after “please stop treating an adult like a child” gets the response “. . . no.”

          OP escalated it to their boss (the right thing to do), who happened to be C suite.

        6. PollyQ*

          Would you be saying this if HR employee Daniel had been sexually harrassing a women employee? Jane’s behavior was well out of line and probably violated the ADA, putting the company at legal risk, which is the very opposite of what her job is. She never should have behaved the way she did in the first place, and was given several chances to fix her behavior. Some “approaches and styles” should not be given any respect at all.

        7. Observer*

          This does nothing to convince me it is an interpersonal failure not to have addressed the issue effectively without calling in the C suite to intercede.

          Did you actually READ both letters? The OP did not go straight to the C-Suit.

          The OP gives some clear examples of the issue. The OP also makes it abundantly clear that David actually WAS being made unhappy.

          The OP also explicitly describes how they tried to address the problem. Danielle refused to listen. At that point, what is the OP supposed to do? You say that kindness matters. Why is kindness to Danielle more important than basic courtesy and respect to David?

        8. Divergent*

          Kindness matters to stigmatized minorities too, and every day the whole workplace allows someone to treat you terribly is a very, very unkind day from both the perpetrator and the bystander.

        9. Deets*

          I don’t want to assume so could you clarify whether or not you see a problem with what Danielle did?

        10. tinybutfierce*

          It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that infantilizing an adult in a professional setting is unacceptable; an HR professional in particular should be more than aware of that. Danielle’s ableism and refusal to correct it once pointed out was INCREDIBLY unkind to David, at the very least.

        11. Phoebe*

          This wasn’t an «interpersonal failure».
          Danielle talked to David, a grown man, in a baby voice, made funny faces at him and congratulated him for doing mundane, everyday tasks.
          This is not the actions of someone who means well. This is the actions of someone who conciders people on the spectrum lesser.
          To Danielle, David is not a capable employee with valuable input. He is a child she doesn’t have to show even the minimum of respect and dignity towards. Her own actions reveal so.

          The fact that you are more concerned about Danielle’s feelings and self esteem is really telling. What about David’s feelings and self esteem? The HR representative, a person with power over him, treats him like a toddler. What do you think it does to his self esteem and feelings about the job and the office? Do you really think he would be comfortable voicing that it bothers him?

          But sc**w David. He’s on the spectrum, and they don’t have feelings and don’t know when people demean and belittle them anyway. The only feelings that matters are the ones belonging to the NT./s

          «Kindness matters», you say. But only kindness directed towards the NTs.
          If Danielle had acted like a decent human being and actually listened to LW’s feedback, she would not be in the pickle she’s found herself in. She deserves all the issues with the higher ups she is now facing for her disgusting ableism.
          This could be a great moment for her to learn and gain some new perspective, but I doubt it will.

    3. Worldwalker*

      Disrespect of a colleague?

      She insisted on TALKING BABY TALK to a colleague, making funny faces at him through the door, praising him extravagantly for perfectly ordinary actions, talking down to him and explaining to him how to do things he had neither asked about nor would be expected not to know (like, say, if their windows had some really funky crank thing), and most important, REFUSED TO STOP DOING THIS when asked.

      It’s the “refused to stop doing this” part that led to the OP going over Danielle’s head. And it was absolutely necessary. It shouldn’t have been, because Danielle shouldn’t have refused to treat a co-worker as, well, a co-worker, but it was. Danielle made the choice.

      Ans awww…. Danielle’s poor feewings might be hurt … and her self-esteem … WHAT ABOUT DAVID, who’s in his first office job, and who has had to fight a lot harder than most of us could dream of just to be here in the first place, who has a superior talking baby talk to him and making funny faces through the doors? What about *his* self-esteem? Have you considered that? Danielle should be allowed to belittle and infantilize David because it would hurt her self-esteem to be told to stop? Is that really what you’re saying? And being told to stop belittling a co-worker is worse than being belittled every single day? Really?

      No, the OP does not need to respect Danielle’s “approach and style” — the OP needs to say “Stop treating David like that” and make it stick. If making it stick requires going to the higher-ups, than that is appropriate.

      1. Empress Matilda*

        Right? If my “approach and style” was to give everyone a friendly pat on the ass on the way into the office, would you respect that? What if it was just a fun little quirk of my caring personality?

        I mean, you could decide to respect it as a fun little quirk of my caring personality if you wanted to. But even so, you would still tell me to knock it off. Because whatever the cause or intent, the behaviour is unacceptable, and it needs to stop.

    4. Empress Matilda*

      Ugh, I am so tired of giving people the benefit of the doubt for their ableist (sexist, etc) behaviour. I saw the same thing on Twitter yesterday – somebody described being the target of racism, and sure enough the next response was “but but but Mental Health!” Who cares. The person said what they said, and what they said was racist. Some mental health conditions might make a person *express* racist thoughts more than they normally would, but they sure as hell don’t make them *have* racist thoughts more than they normally would.

      Same with HR Danielle here. If she’s treating David like a child, it’s because she thinks of him as a child. Full stop. She wouldn’t be praising him for learning how to use the microwave, if she didn’t think he was unable to use the microwave in the first place. It doesn’t matter if she *meant* it that way or not, and it doesn’t matter if she knows better or not. (And by the way, if she’s the HR person to contact for DEI in the office, then I have *serious* concerns about her capabilities in that area!)

      OP asked her to stop, and she didn’t. So the next logical course of action is to escalate – it’s not Danielle’s fault that OP’s boss happens to be in the C-suite.

      1. Allypopx*

        Agreed, or that intent is greater than impact. Who cares if Danielle was uneducated or thought she was doing the right thing? Her actions were harmful, she doubled down when approached about them, and worst of all she’s in a position where the burden is on her to know better. That position also comes with high potential to repeat said harm in the future. Zero sympathy for Danielle.

    5. pancakes*

      In addition to what everyone else has said about the importance of reading the first letter, I want to point out that people who think of themselves as “carers” aren’t invariably accurate in bestowing that label on themselves, and aren’t inherently more “useful” to an organization because they’ve categorized themselves as such. It’s a pretty meaningless self-categorization that doesn’t speak to whether the person is well-informed, skilled, discerning, etc. in the ways they go about caring for others.

      1. tinybutfierce*

        This. Someone’s desire to “help” someone else doesn’t get to override whether or not the second person actually wants that help or not.

      2. Autistic AF*

        I find the “carer” archetype to be worse in some ways. People – like Ms. Styrene above – place intention on such a pedestal sometimes and I find that makes it harder to correct harmful actions. I can’t remember the source of this quote, but it always stuck with me:

        “The definition of evil is really believing in what you’re doing”

        Danielle is not evil, and neither is the system that fed her mindset, but the issue is not being open to changing one’s mind. It should not have to be my responsibility to keep educating people (having been in David’s place without a supportive manager) on basic things like not treating a qualified professional like a child, and the idea that David’s manager (or even David) didn’t try hard enough feels very gaslighty.

  21. esmerelda*

    Way to go, OP!! It sounds like you handled this so well and at least Danielle stopped with the baby talk. I’m sure David is grateful.
    Danielle, on the other hand… I really had only entertained one possible outcome from reading your first letter, that Danielle would feel a little embarrassed and change her behavior, really like any decent person would. Does she have a manager you can report this situation to? I honestly don’t think someone who reacts that way to accurate feedback should be the head of HR.

    1. Allypopx*

      Or any feedback really. “That’s not my understanding but I’ll look into it more” would have sufficed.

  22. Observer*

    OP, one thing I think you should consider is looping in your boss, the legal rep and Daniella’s boss. Don’t make a big deal, and at the moment you don’t need anyone to do anything, but you want to flag this for them. There are two reasons.

    One is that from what you say, Polystyrene is probably correct in their assessment that the burned bridge means “Don’t expect any help next time you trigger a meltdown with David or anyone else. ” That’s not how professionals behave, regardless of what they seem to think, but Danielle does seem to be lacking in that department.

    The other thing is that this is concerning. Is ASD her only blind spot, with only one person on the spectrum employed there? Or is this a wider problem? Is this a reflection of how she deals with correction and her own mistakes out of view of her manager? This is not your to manage, but it’s potentially a big enough deal that letting the people who SHOULD be managing know about the potential for a problem to develop is probably prudent.

    1. Single Noun*

      Yes, this, depending on what her job is I’m a little concerned that ‘being cold and distant’ might involve not providing necessary services to your department- I don’t know if it rises to the legal definition of retaliation, but she’s certainly reacting negatively to being told to stop her harassment, which I’d call retaliation colloquially.

    2. Self Employed*

      I am appalled at how unprofessional Danielle has been. First the baby talk, then the refusal to stop using it, and now retaliating against the whole group like she’s a schoolgirl mad at her victims for at being caught bullying?

      I agree this is probably not her only problem area. Is she using broken English to immigrant employees who have accents? Is she being inappropriate to employees with other mental or physical disabilities? Does she believe in racist stereotypes that slip into conversation?

      And can the company trust her to handle incidents of workplace harassment or discrimination when her own judgment is so terrible?

  23. Mimmy*

    Wonderful update though I’m disappointed that Danielle didn’t understand how inappropriate her behavior was. As has been said before, there is a difference between communicating in a way the person understands and infantilizing the person. Even if the person has an intellectual disability (what was once called “mental retardation”), you still speak to them like an adult!

  24. Seige*

    I’m really glad she’s stopped speaking to David that way, but I think you need to go back to your boss & legal rep. It’s absolutely not okay for her to treat your team differently because of this. Does “cold and distant” translate into not providing necessary functions for your team? If one of your employees needs HR for another reason, are they going to have access to her/other HR person?

  25. zolk*

    I’m so happy to see this update! Absolutely delighted for David and to hear that the LW took serious and thoughtful, respectful action. <3

  26. Rachael*

    Thank you for being such a great advocate for people with autism. I have multiple relatives afflicted (cousin, nephew, half brother, etc) and a 7year old son with ADHD and behavioral challenges. We need to make sure that we create a world where they can work and earn a living just like anyone else (within their limitations). Again, thank you.

    1. Autistic AF*

      Please don’t use the word “afflicted” with regards to autism. The disease model of autism compounds the issues that we face and makes it harder to create that world you refer to. “I have multiple autistic relatives” (as opposed to “with autism”) is a better alternative.

  27. Not your average Jo(lene)*

    As a professional that works with businesses to hire and accommodate people with disabilities, I love this update! There are so many things to consider around disabilities. Also, it’s the only group that any of us can fall into at any time in our lives. Glad it worked out!

  28. Machiamellie*

    Yaaay for David!

    (I’m autistic and I know how hard it can be in an office.)

    Danielle still sucks.

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