My coaching work champions the talents of clients with neurodivergent profiles, some of whom have an ASC. The NAS defines autism as a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them (2018).
So you can imagine how any talking development tool like coaching might be difficult for someone with autism. This can be partly because social/communication difficulties in a client with Asperger’s or high functioning autism (HFA) do not always make themselves that obvious. Basically, it’s up to you and your coaching to locate the challenges before you start (plenty more could pop up on the way) so you can find the best fit.
Before my first meeting, I have found it helpful to categorise the coaching work into different types of data for interpretation by the client. This helps me strip it of assumptions and nuance, where possible, and stops the autistic client being subjected to data overload in their interactions with me, through channels that, to them, represent the biggest challenges.
All this will help establish a lingua franca with your client about the relationship that goes beyond just talking and listening – crucial at the outset to make the work all round much more productive.
Here’s my list of 6 Do’s with Data to enhance your neurodiversity coaching:
- Relationship data: Keep the introduction stuff simple, measured and cool, as meeting someone for the first time, if you have an ASC, can be like ‘running a marathon’, leaving them in a state of overall exhaustion. ASC clients can get really anxious and may want extra adjustment to help them prepare e.g. a photograph of their coach in advance. One major causative factor in this client fatigue is believed to be the effort involved in processing non-verbal and verbal communication, even when they know the person well.
- Sensory data: Cut down the sensory data you’re giving off. Neurological difference means your client may experience the world in a whole different way; find out a bit about what the world feels like to them so you can be prepared. Your client is likely to have areas of hypersensitivity so think about your impact on their senses. Keep things like perfume etc to a minimum; wear muted colours, unfussy hair and minimal jewellery. As for all the coaching concerns about the venue, context etc, that distant mowing sound 200m away on a Thursday at 11am could be deafening to your client; the room ambience may feel fine to you but be like forcing them to star under the lights of a West End show.
- Boundaries data: Try to be even more structured when coaching ASC clients. Explain more frequently routines, signpost boundaries, both temporal/physical, and check for understanding discussion content beyond the literal. In agreement with the client, I might cut the session time into segments and tell the client that there will be: 15 minutes catchup, 45 mins coaching, 30 mins roundup.
- Language data: Restrict this as much as possible to clean, unambiguous language used throughout, and cut back on non-verbal cues (effectively another obscure ‘foreign language’, therefore rendered useless). Likewise, anything too nuanced or with subtext and the session risks being mired in client confusion and anxiety.
- Coaching data: Strip back your GROW coaching model as much as you can for the client to set one goal and feel in control. Any more solutions-focused models like OSKAR are just too hypothetical and draw on Theory of Mind, which Asperger clients may only be able to apply through theoretical application, not due to sound comprehension.
- Mentoring data: Take notes as you go (I annotate areas to tackle with M, as in ‘Mentor here’) and, once the coaching section is over, return to the places where the client needed guidance and explanation and ask if they would like some time and help to understand this deeper (in the ‘roundup’ section I mentioned earlier). Sometimes the mentoring conversation can launch from as blunt a starting point as ‘why do neurotypical people find this easy when I don’t?’, or ‘how can I come into a project discussion meeting with my expertise and tell them they need me to do the thing properly?’
It might seem quite daunting to use coaching as a developmental tool with a client that has social/communication difficulties at first. Actually, though, you just need to collaborate more overtly in defining the parameters and conditions for trust-filled dialogue. It’s still coaching contracting as you know it, but turbo-fuelled; merely from Neurodiversity to the Beyond…