Autism and Multi-tasking
I hear it all the time: People with autism can’t/or struggle to multi-task. Who really knows whether that’s true or not. Autism and multi-tasking. Is it possible? Time will tell, I guess.
I can “multi-task” in the sense that I can be juggling a lot of balls at once and be fine. Looking super busy? Not a problem. Keeping up with any workload? Bring it on! I can look super busy.
Thanks to my autism, I can even look super calm while others around me look like the sky is falling. When I was hired for my last job, my boss told me that I could never look ruffled. (I shouldn’t enjoy that so much, but, I do! I know, I know, it’s wrong. Please don’t tell anyone!)
Even still, I don’t know whether in those situations my mind is doing more than one thing at a time or engaging in “multi-tasking” whatever that really even is.
I can tell you that after a day of “multi-tasking” I feel spent and so, I work hard to avoid “mulit-tasking.” Better, I would say that because of the alternative strategies I use (see below) no one is the wiser. Yes!
Is Multi-tasking Even a Thing???
So Why Do We Care about Multi-tasking?
The answer is pretty simple. We care about multi-tasking because employers continue to search hard for multi-taskers. In addition, we’ve learned that if we are not multi-taskers there’s something wrong with us. We aren’t wired properly.
Issues around multi-tasking arise in many contexts, but for now, let’s consider it in a work context.
Because My Boss Cares
Employers who buy into the stereotypes about autism are the most dangerous to us.
Side note – They are dangerous even when they do it out of a sense of being helpful. That saying, “If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism,” is nice, but rarely applied. We say it and then we apply all the generalizations we can find. Why? Because it is easy.
Okay, back to the main point!
Don believe me?
Here is an example:
My daughters have worked at several fast food restaurants. At each one, the autistic employees were deemed unable to multi-task. With that designation came an assignment to dining room duty with no room for promotion.
No, just no.
In my own experience, I had a recruiter ask me if I was looking for a tech job (there was nothing techie on my resume). She then asked whether I wanted something mundane and repetitive.
A friend of mine suggested I become a coder as I clearly have an analytic mind.
And what a waste! Not being an employee in a dining room, technical field or working in repetitive jobs. (I totally was horrified by the use of the word “mundane”!)
The waste is that people so diminish us because of a diagnosis and its stereotypes.
(I talk more about the issue of discrimination in my post, “Working with Autism (Part I): Facing Down Discrimination.”)
Seriously, we have to care.
AND, as individuals we have to prepare to respond to this ridiculousness.
I have never understood the fascination of employers with multi-tasking. Why do employers want workers who so struggle to keep that that they have to multi-task?
Many employers haven’t considered alternatives that may be superior in every way! Huh!!
The Best Response
So what do you do when others, especially employers want you to multi-task?
The best response is to arm yourself with alternatives.
So what are these alternatives and can they work for you?
Sounds simple, right? Being more efficient in task completion can reduce the perceived level multi-tasking required.
Deriving a sense of importance from a job well done without having to look over-busy.
We’ve all seen those people who HAVE to look crazy busy to feel important. Drama seekers. One and all. They seem scared that if they work in a calm and collected work environment they may not be valued.
The ability to manage your job without all the drama is called competence. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Not having to call attention to yourself by whipping up a bunch of drama should be applauded. Employers should be rewarding those who create a calm and collected environment.
It is true not all multi-taskers fall into this bucket. For those who do, and you know who you are, know that it is your skill not your drama that will propel you to success! For those who are wicked-good at getting a lot done in the right now, AWESOMESAUCE!
(My kids use that word, and it’s so fun! I have been looking for somewhere on the blog to use it! So here it is!)
Good for you!
Sometimes the solution to the perceived need for multi-tasking is a workflow adjustment. Here are just a few ways you can change your workflow:
Change the order in which you do tasks.
Change the location of your tools for working.
Fix processes, systems, and tools that no longer work or are outdated.
Delegate tasks which somehow fell on your desk and overstayed their welcome.
Eliminate those tasks that no longer have value.
Automating systems and process that no longer need to be done by a human being each and every time!
There are several ways in which being prepared can reduce the need for multi-tasking:
- Work Ahead.
- Anticipate the Needs of Others
- Prevent emergencies. Simple things like making sure you never run out of printer paper, have updated your computer, backed up important files can prevent emergencies and keep you on schedule and on task.
Yes, yes, yes! This alternative is my favorite!
Instead of doing a bunch of tasks with one outcome each, I prefer to get more bang for my buck. If I am going to do a task, I want to get as much mileage out of it as I can. Enough with the cliches?
A phone call becomes a way to:
- Get the information I need.
- Build a relationship.
- Practice negotiation skills, etc.
Were I a multi-tasker, many of the benefits I can gain get lost in the shuffle. Making a phone call while completing paperwork, tying your shoes and chewing gum doesn’t have the same punch.
The recipient of the call may feel slighted (yes, I am sure they notice when they don’t have my full attention!). I may not get as much information as I could have. Personal improvements that would benefit me across the spectrum (pun intended!! I am so on a roll today!) of skills I could be developing fall by the wayside.
Not sold yet? Check this out:
(Okay, I am not a graphic designer!)
But when you see them together, there is no comparison is there?
An employer faced with an employee who makes this distinction is unlikely to know what to do with it. Happy day! It is always fun to out-fox the fox!
Other Sample Responses
So what do you do if you don’t feel like a multi-tasker and you are asked at an interview about your ability to multi-task?
Share that you have found in the past that multi-tasking results in a loss of productivity. Tell the potential employer you’ve found alternatives without the downsides of multi-tasking!
What about when confronted by a prideful multi-tasker who poopoos your alternatives??
Go forward with confidence. Pray for them that they are able to give up the need to look busy to feel valued.
Not good at the alternatives yet?
No worries! Ask your self this question: Which of the alternatives could I use right now that would improve my performance?
Guess what? As you use that alternative in while you go about your day you are already multi-outcome single-tasking ! Haha! You’re doing it!
(Check out my post, “Life with Autism: Celebrate What You Are Actually Doing! to see what I mean! It is a shame when we are already doing something and don’t even realize it!)
Can you live without multi-tasking?
My answer: HECK, YEAH!
And without feeling like less of a person. There are alternatives to the things we perceive to be weaknesses in people with autism. And we can proceed without even touching the discussion about whether or not they really are.
You’ve got this!
Because you are enough. Just you.
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