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Autism coaching at work: Don't let Donna bring you down

Updated: Apr 24

What does a Marvel miniseries have to do with autism coaching? No, we're not going to tell you that Autistics are superheroes. But we do know that workplace relationships might make you wish you had mind-reading powers. Stop wasting your mental energy trying to figure out a coworker's bad vibes! Autism coaching is here to help you figure out if it's normal feedback or something more villainous.

Fear Factor: Marvel Edition

Love it or hate it, most people have heard of the Marvel movie franchise. They've been pumping out new superhero films since “The Incred-”--I mean, “Iron Man”--back in 2008. These films have brought us several formidable villains such as Loki, Dormammu, and the most invincible of all, Thanos.

However, these characters do not always send shivers down my spine. There is one Marvel antagonist who I find way more terrifying than any other iconic villain.

Her name... is Donna.

Wait… who?

Donna Kraft appears in the 2022 Marvel miniseries “Moon Knight.” She is a manager at The London Museum, workplace of protagonist Steven Grant. Though she's only in the first episode, her nasty behavior scares me more than any horror movie.

Donna brings to mind a type of terrible manager who Autistic workers might deal with in real life. She makes light-hearted jabs at Steven when others are around, but becomes downright mean in closed conversations. While Steven’s disability is not known to Donna, I think she suspects that he is different. In her eyes, this makes him a target.

Autistics often feel like they're different from other people in general. When every conversation feels weird, it's harder to notice one that's actually mistreatment. Autism coaching can help you get better at telling the difference, and learning to spot a Donna* is a good place to start!

Three ways to spot a Donna

1. They only notice your mistakes

When you make a mistake, Donna is the first to point it out, usually through email. A Donna will likely not tell you if you do anything well, or even satisfactorily. Donnas are only interested in pointing out the mistakes you make in the workplace. It may feel like they're always trying to "catch you in the act," just so they can point out your errors. A Donna might claim to be trying to "motivate" you, but their constant badgering has the opposite effect.

Not Donna:

A good mentor will bring up areas that need improvement, but should also mention what you are doing well. They know that we all need to feel valued to do our best. They will seek to help you find solutions, not blame or humiliate you.

2. They're not interested in you

When you cross paths with a Donna, you might get the “How are you?” small talk exchange, at most. Sadly, Donnas are not invested in you as a person and may flat-out ignore you. Donna is not interested in seeing photos of your pets or learning about your interests and hobbies outside of work. This is, of course, their loss--they miss out on an opportunity to bond with you.

Not Donna:

Considerate coworkers will genuinely ask how you are doing, delight in photos of your pets, and show interest in the things you like. They know that caring about each other is the only way to be a real team! They may be too busy to talk with you sometimes, but they will say so politely.

3. They treat you differently than others

In "Moon Knight," Donna says things to Steven that she could not say in front of other coworkers. Why? Because keeping up appearances is a Donna's top priority. Your own personal Donna may display pro-social behaviors with others, but seem unusually cold toward you. Being alone with a Donna makes this even worse.

Not Donna:

The people you work with should seem to act the same, regardless of who is in the room. They definitely shouldn't say anything to you that is so harsh they don't want others to overhear!

How to deal with a Donna

The best strategy to deal with a Donna is to realize that it is not about you. I know it doesn't feel that way. You may ask yourself, "How is it not about me if I'm the person they're talking to?" But trust me on this: they're actually "talking" to people from their past. Often, difficulties in a Donna's life have left them feeling like they must defend themselves at all times. You haven't done anything to Donna, you're just happen to be their current target.

Despite this, a Donna's past is not an excuse to treat you poorly. We are all allowed to feel however we feel, but we are not entitled to harming others. It may help you to recognize that they have room to grow, but you cannot (and shouldn't try to) make them see the error of their ways. They must choose to examine their own actions and learn from their results. Every time a Donna comes to mind, remember that you do not need to waste your time ruminating about them.

In the end, Donnas only grow when they learn to feel secure. The push for more diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) measures in the workplace could be a good start to this. Someone who feels included might stop stop seeing everyone as their enemy. I hope that Donnas will begin to learn to work with us, compromise, and let go of their “Donna-ness." We may not expect others to change, but that doesn't mean we must hope they stay stagnant.

If you think you may have your own Donna at work, ask a trustworthy person outside of your workplace what they think. Working with an autism life coach provides a safe, confidential environment for discussions like these. An autism life coach can help you identify Donna-like behavior in others, then come up with a plan to thrive despite it. Get a new sidekick on your team!

*Author's Note: The author supports women in leadership roles in the workplace.

However, the author's intent this piece is to show how neurotypical co-workers or managers can use their social capital to purposefully hurt their neurodivergent employees/co-workers, who may have difficulty identifying inappropriate behavior.

A "Donna" can be an employee of any gender that engages in this type of behavior.

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