Reflections on coaching and autism

By Julia Stallard

I recently passed my ILM Level 5 Coaching & Mentoring Certificate and the second module undertaking management coaching or mentoring in the workplace required me to provide evidence of a minimum of 12 hours coaching. I embarked on this with relish.

My coachees included an employee with ASD (autism spectrum disorders).  Having done some reading about the challenges of working with coachees on the autism spectrum, I embarked on this coaching relationship feeling excited at the prospect of a really rewarding coaching experience and very keen to develop my practice to ensure I could support someone with ASD through coaching. And rewarding it turned out to be – but not for the reasons I had anticipated.  Here’s some of the things I learnt about coaching, autism spectrum disorders and coaching people with ASD along the way.

The autism spectrum is massive.

ASD can manifest in a myriad of ways from difficulty with social interaction, impaired communication and restrictive or repetitive patterns of behaviour.

People with ASD are no different to you or me

The difference is in how people with ASD process information. So plain English, spoken clearly and at a slower pace than normal helps! You might want to look over your stock coaching questions and find or develop new ones that utilise visual images. Your autistic coachee may sit in silence because they cannot process what is being asked of them and therefore cannot ask for the question to be rephrased.

People with autism can react well or badly to what seems to be the same thing.

What worked well in the last session may cause a barrier when used in the next session. This can be the same for all of us but the autistic coachee may not verbalise that they are struggling to process their thoughts and this affects their ability to speak. Let’s take the example of sitting near a window or having music playing just outside the room, which has proven beneficial in previous sessions to help your coachee relax and open up. There may be a session in which this is not just distracting but really places huge barriers in your coachee’s ability to express themselves or even think. You or I might simply ask to switch seats, close the door or window, turn the music off or go somewhere else to talk – this type of request does not come easily to those with autism.

Less talk, more action.

When working with people on the spectrum, you need to think out of the box so that what would normally be a “coaching conversation” becomes a “coaching interaction”. This is where other forms of learning style are important and you can use visualisation techniques to help your coachee express their thoughts.

Repetition and routine work well.

People with ASD respond well to routine and repetition so it is essential that coaching interactions take place in the same place, at the same time, no matter the frequency. Repeating back what you hear is key skill for any coach and paramount to really hearing what the autistic coachee has to say. Note taking becomes essential – this is something the autistic coachee may not be able to do for themselves and will rely on you to provide a record of your interaction.

Patience, patience, patience

Your coachee may struggle to identify actions or to act on them once set. Therefore your patience is required in order to allow them time to do both of these things. Use scaling questions to help your coachee feel motivated and committed and make sure your coachee has real ownership of the actions.

It is also worth remembering that the routines and repetitions that are so important for many people with autism can cause delay. So just because you think a simple action, for example: a quick phone call to confirm some facts, will only take a few minutes, for your coachee this may take significantly longer, as they need to prepare to take action.  This is an important to step even for simple tasks. So give yourself and your coachee time,  and remember your patience is critical to a successful coaching relationship.

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