“Autistic people can't acknowledge when they are wrong”
I have heard this sentence many times in my life, always in the workplace. This puzzles me as I pride myself on seeking out things I am wrong about and learning things I don't know. I have read similar experiences by other autistic people, which has helped me restore my self-confidence and given me a framework to analyze these situations. I want to share my experiences and insight to help allistic people become more aware of autistic communication patterns.
When these conflicts arise, here are some things that might be happening.
1. The allistic (non-autistic) person is not hearing what I'm saying.
I know my thinking can be alien at times, which requires me to establish a context for them to use to understand what I'm saying. This can take a few minutes. However, people can become impatient and cut me off or interject with a snap interpretation of what I have said so far. Any attempt to continue my train of thought will often be interpreted as me pushing back against them in a combative or argumentative manner. As a result, I cannot get my point across; therefore, they assume that I am "just not getting it."
2. I need to ask questions before forming an opinion.
A similar scenario happens when people ask for my opinion. If I don't have enough information, I won't be able to formulate an answer. This means I often have to ask several clarifying questions first.
Because I tend to think holistically, my questions may seem unrelated to the original question. I reason in terms of systems, networks, interfaces, communication patterns, and feedback loops; these systems span software, infrastructure, teams, products, and business goals. Often, people will be surprised, not understanding why I am asking a certain question. Queue frustration and the dismissive "you're not getting it."
Here's a concrete example:
A manager came to me asking if we should rewrite the checkout of our E-Commerce platform using React because they had read a blog post about another company doing it. I entertained the question in good faith. However, in order to make an informed decision, I needed to understand a few things:
- Is our checkout page not performing well?
- Will a new checkout solve our problem?
- Why do they think a technology change is a solution?
- Do they understand the implications of such a switch?
In this particular situation, the discussion never got past the first question. I needed to understand why our checkout had to be improved; I explained that technology choices made no difference to the user. However, the manager interpreted my words as outright rejecting their idea.
3. I care more about doing good work than office politics.
A typical piece of advice I receive is that there comes the point where you need to "give in," especially to people in authority. This preserves peace in the workplace and helps with promotions. However, "giving in" is not the same as acknowledging when you are wrong: it is simply playing mind games—games I am not interested in playing.
There is more to life: I am an engineer; I like solving problems. I embrace fairness and open intellectual exchange. This matters to me a whole lot more than getting promoted. Plus, "giving in" does not preserve peace—it simply appeases bullies and makes the workplace toxic.
4. The person underestimates how much I know about the topic.
I don't have a college degree, but I have been a professional developer for 23 years. During that time, I spent ten hours per day doing "computer stuff." Because I value learning, I read about 50 technical books every year, studying ten of them in-depth, doing exercises, annotating the text, and watching related lectures. I attend conferences and am active in dozens of expert communities. This is something that I rarely share, with this being the first time I have done so publicly. People often think that I am bragging, but it is just what I enjoy doing.
In turn, I often encounter people with college degrees and two or three, or even ten years of experience confidently stating something I know is incorrect. When I try to engage them in good faith about it, they often assume their degree gives them an all-encompassing authority to be right.
I know better than to argue intangibles such as coding style or software architecture, but some things in Computer Science are just facts: we can verify them. I don't care much for saying false things to appease someone's ego. In cases like this, I'm not the one who can't acknowledge being wrong.
Whenever I would experience any of these conflicts, at the first hint of tension, my strategy was to leave the room quietly. In the long run, it was socially traumatic, and I got severely burnt out. In the future, I will look for a professional environment that understands and accommodates divergent ways of thinking.
I hope that sharing these insights will lead to broader acceptance of how some of us think. Allistic communication patterns can stifle and harm us—this is detrimental to autistic people and a significant loss to any workplace.