How coaches and mentors can help clients on the autistic spectrum be authentic

Imagine coming to work each day and putting on an act, in order to fit in. Smiling at jokes that seem unfunny, putting up with background noise that interferes with our concentration, yet pretending it’s OK, because no-one else seems to find it a problem, nodding as if you understand exactly what’s required, when you feel you have only half the information you really need. For many people, who are neurodivergent, that’s the reality of their daily experience. It’s called “masking” and it is one of the most significant causes of stress in the workplace.

The root cause of this problem is not that something is “wrong” with these people. It is that workplaces and work processes are designed to fit the world as experienced by people, who are “allistic” (whose mental traits tend to gravitate towards the middle of each dimension) and this tends to exclude or ignore the needs of people, whose experience of the world is farther outside the median. It’s exacerbated because allistic workplaces make it harder to utilise the strengths that come with an outlier perspective. These strengths might include, for example, an enhanced ability to work with numbers and logic, or awareness of emotional undercurrents in a team.

Recent studies on masking suggest that the answer lies in enabling open conversation between neurodivergent employees and allistic colleagues. What conditions will enable each to contribute at their best? How can they support and add value to each other?

It’s not easy to bring about such conversations, where people can explore and be curious about each other’s perspective. Allistic colleagues may struggle to recognise how confined they are by their assumptions – normal doesn’t necessarily equate to most effective, when it comes to working together.

That’s where coaching and mentoring come in. If the coach or mentor is willing to co-create a safe environment, where both they and the client can drop the mask and be fully themselves, it is a place to practice being authentic. The neurodivergent person can gain an understanding of the system they are working in and how it could be adapted to accommodate their needs. They can also rehearse the conversations they might have with colleagues individually and collectively. 

The starting point for the neurotypical coach and mentor is to be curious. What are your blind spots – your assumptions about “normal” ways of thinking and behaving at work? Emphasising that you want to learn from the neurodivergent client helps to build rapport and trust. Useful questions to ask include:

  • When do you feel you can be yourself and when do you have to put on the mask?
  • What simple changes in the work environment and/ or the expectations of colleagues would help you take the mask off?
  • What do you want to be valued for by your colleagues? What would have to change for that to happen?
  • Where and how could your unusual talents add substantial value to the team? How could your colleagues better recognise and employ these?
  • What would be the benefits of taking the mask off – for you and for the team?

For many neurodivergent people, this may be the first time they have been able to feel fully at ease and to be their natural self with someone from the allistic majority. It can be a very emotional experience, but also one that has immense learning potential for both the coach/mentor and the client.

It’s also likely to take the allistic coach – and even coaches, who are themselves neurodivergent – into unfamiliar territory. They, too, need to reflect deeply before and after such conversations, both on their own and with the help of expert supervision. Our engagement with global networks of supervisors suggests that relatively few have significant experience in neurodivergence and what little understanding they have is gathered primarily from allistic sources. 

Over the past year, we have been connecting with dozens of neurodivergent coaches – with traits ranging from autistic spectrum, through ADHD to highly sensitive persons. We are now talking with publishers about telling their stories in a book on coaching and neurodivergence. We are also starting a series of supervision groups focusing on neurodivergence, initially for neurodivergent coaches, and subsequently for neurotypical coaches working with neurodivergent clients*.

There’s a vast amount of learning needed, if coaching is going to make a real difference to neurodivergent clients. Coaches will become better coaches, if we seek out and incorporate that learning into our practice.

© David Clutterbuck and Francoise Orlov 2024

*For more information on these groups please go here.

©️David Clutterbuck 2024


Our free content is available to everyone. It includes a limited range of Blogs, Videos and Briefing Papers on key topics and the latest trends. If you want to expand your knowledge even further, or support your development or business with up-to-date information and research, sign up for a FREE TRIAL to gain access to the full content of over 500 blogs, briefing papers and videos within our resource library.

Membership with CCMI offer you will access to all the content within this resource of over 200 blogs, video briefings and more.