Giving and Understanding Instructions at Neurodiversity Media [Case Study]

Neurodiversity Media Team  |  06/12/2020

The Neurodiversity Media team explain how to adapt different communication styles when giving and understanding instructions.
Sensory garden museum.
Introduction: The Neurodiversity Media team consists of Rachel Worsley (Founder and CEO), Carolyn Cage (Digital Content Producer) and Carly Godden (Journalist). Rachel is based in Sydney, Australia, while Carolyn and Carly are based in Melbourne, Australia. None of us have met in-person. All our work takes place remotely. Rachel is autistic and ADHD, Carolyn has ADHD and Carly is neurotypical. 
In this case study, we held a team Q&A session to reflect upon the way we give and receive instructions at Neurodiversity Media, as a guide for other businesses and managers who want to understand how to adapt communication styles for giving and receiving instructions for their employees.
Dark blue background with the words "How we give and understand instructions" in white text on purple background.

For both of you, you've expressed different ways that you prefer to receive instructions from me and how you've been able to interpret it. In general, my way of doing it has been to write quite long emails—usually the night before—detailing the work to be done in the morning, before we catch up, or for another morning meeting. So  starting with you, Carolyn, as someone with ADHD, how do you prefer to receive instructions?


So for me, I much prefer written instructions. But if it's verbal, then I want to have written instructions as well, in dot point form. I think it works really well with us, because if it is verbal, then I also get the written instructions. And there's the option of just sending you a message if I have any questions. If I didn't have the written instructions to refer back to, I'd just forget, and probably miss a whole bunch of things that I'm supposed to be doing. So yeah, it's awesome. 


Carly, what's your experience?


I like having written instructions as well. But I need to talk through the instructions a little bit more to have some verbal clarification. So often, we'll just have a conversation where we'll nut out what I'm doing that way. But usually you also send written instructions which is great for both of us to have that kind of safety net. So I think being open to both of the different working styles that Carolyn and I have, seems to be the best way to go about it.


That's why it's been interesting working with you two, because there is actually quite a distinct communication preference difference. I find with Carolyn, you're able to absorb the written instructions and any clarification is done with chat messages through Gmail. And that's been fine. With picking up a phone to talk, it's usually me who takes the initiative to call Carolyn.  

With Carly, I have noticed that I pick up the phone and just chat with you straight away, even if it's just for five to ten minutes. Because sometimes I just don't quite necessarily explain it correctly in writing. 

When you receive vague instructions from me, how do you react and advocate for better instructions?


One time, I received a big list of written instructions. And, the first thought was, okay there's a lot here. And I try and tease that out. But my instinct was just to really pick up the phone. But if that can't happen straight away, it might mean that I work on something else,  for the time being.

I think the main thing is to just not panic and feel too overwhelmed. Because there's going to be other ways of getting into that same material. It's just a case of figuring out what works best in terms of the communication style.


I think it's a good point because Carolyn, I picked up that you prefer to receive dot points, but now that you mentioned it, I seem to write long paragraphs in my emails! This is the first time I’m actually hearing feedback about this point. 


I've been listening to a lot of [the podcast] Conversations and someone was talking about bullet points. And then I realised that’s how I digest information or even how I write my own notes or instructions. So that's probably new feedback that I've learned that I need to give to you. 


There you go, I’ve already learned something new in this conversation! In terms of the instructions themselves, I usually try to be as precise or ordered as possible. 

But the challenge for me, as a neurodivergent manager, I have to balance so many different things in the business.  It’s about sitting down and finding that time to actually set up those instructions. In fact, it can take me half an hour to an hour to do that, which seems really ridiculous with all the other things I need to do. 

But I actually find it's really important to give that time. In the long run, I save more time if I'm more precise. I'm going to waste time trying to re-explain it. That's been the learning experience for me as the manager. How precise do I need to be with my instructions? How many tasks can the two of you do within a certain time block? 

So for example, I’ve been trying to give instructions for work to be done in the morning for about four or five hour blocks. I have to estimate how you guys can do in that specific amount of time. Estimating time and effort is a challenge for me living with autism and ADHD. I apply subjective judgment on how I would be able to do it in that timeframe, but I have to take into account whether you two can realistically do the task in the same timeframe as well. 

When it comes to getting instructions, how many tasks do you feel like you can realistically do, in that four-to-five hour time block that I give you guys to complete the work?


I'd say it depends on what it is. For example, the infographics that I was making today, that is quite time consuming. I've got to do all the little bits and pieces, like write the copy, create the images and then resize everything. So that takes a lot longer. So I think it really depends on what the actual task is. 


Carly, how do you feel about the tasks that I give you? You gave a good example of how one task that I gave you was just not comprehensible at all. 


I was toying with that decision on whether to tell you and in the end, I just had to make the call that I think I just can't tackle the task. I think it was also because it was the first time I'd encountered this particular task. I think if I had a task that I'm used to doing, then I would be more confident being able to do it. But if it's something new, I think that's when it's tricky.

I want to make sure that I'm also not wasting time as well, just being completely off track. Because then I've invested hours and hours without knowing if I'm on the right path. So I think you're better off just intervening and saying, look I'm not sure I can do this, or I at least need a lot of clarification before I go ahead and do it.


I appreciate it. Most managers will be frustrated with workers and just think hey, why didn't you just get it? It's your fault. We notice this is really common in the research for autistic people, they always get blamed essentially, when really it's a case of checking, “Well, are the instructions clear enough?” As autistic people, we may demand a certain degree of detail that most neurotypical managers may not see.

But with Carly, here's a situation of a neurodivergent manager struggling to give proper instructions to a neurotypical employee being completely confused! This is a problem that also crosses the other side too. 

And for me, I believe in accountability, taking responsibility. Straight away I think I didn't communicate properly. I didn't estimate the scope of the task properly. Now I'm trying to troubleshoot in terms of figuring out what's the best way to move things forward.

I don't want to focus on blaming the employee for not getting it. That's just how you get things done more quickly, more efficiently. Otherwise it creates a toxic work culture where it descends into, “Oh it's your fault, you're lazy”. Unfortunately, a lot of neurodivergent people struggle disproportionately from that kind of treatment.

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