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Flipping the script: Bringing an organizational perspective to the study of autism at work


Vogus, Thimothy J.; Taylor, Julie Lounds


National Autistic Society


Autism, 2018, Volume 22 (Number 5), Seite 514-516, London: Sage Publications, ISSN: 1362-3613 (Print); 1461-7005 (Online)




Individuals on the autism spectrum face considerable challenges to gaining and sustaining employment. The magnitude of this problem has been consistently documented in the form of high levels of under- and unemployment (Griffith et al., 2012; Hurlbutt and Chalmers, 2004; Taylor and Seltzer, 2011) and, more recently, the prevalence of autistic traits in the homeless population (Churchard et al., 2018). Under- and unemployment contribute to the poor long-term outcomes of adults with autism (Howlin, 2000), even when they possess strong qualifications and skills (Austin and Pisano, 2017).

A recent systematic review suggests that evidence regarding the efficacy of employment programs and interventions for adults is weak (Hedley et al., 2017), and people with autism often perceive employment support programs as not useful (Nicholas et al., 2017).

Several studies have examined the factors that promote workforce participation for individuals on the autism spectrum, finding personal (e.g. IQ, autism severity, adaptive behavior), family (e.g. income, community size), and systemic (e.g. receipt of vocational rehabilitation services) factors that increase the likelihood of employment (e.g. Chan et al., 2017; Lawer et al., 2009; Shattuck et al., 2012; Taylor and Mailick, 2014; Taylor and Seltzer, 2011). However, almost none of these studies included a critical context that affects employment outcomes: the workplace environment. Recent evidence suggests that individuals on the autism spectrum emphasize the importance of numerous employer factors that lead to successful employment, such as co-worker advice, supportive leadership, and environmental modifications (Hedley et al., 2017).

In parallel, a number of large employers (e.g. SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Microsoft) have begun systematic efforts to attract and retain neurodiverse individuals, especially those on the autism spectrum (Austin and Pisano, 2017). Concurrent with individual employer efforts, Microsoft now sponsors an Autism at Work Summit for employers and researchers. It is noteworthy that these highly visible employers are making the case for hiring individuals with autism by emphasizing the benefits of increasing neurodiversity in the workplace. In viewing autism as a form of diversity, the employers take a strengths-based view of autism and note the value of different ways of thinking, how innovation often comes from the 'edges,” and the unique talents associated with autism (e.g. attention to detail, focus) relevant to critical jobs (e.g. software testing). These organizations have put in place corresponding practices to leverage the strengths associated with autism. For example, SAP actively hires for difference, tailors jobs to individual skills, trains employees, and culturally values 'eccentricity” (Austin and Sonne, 2014). At Hewlett Packard Enterprise, neurodiverse software testing teams are 30% more productive than exclusively neurotypical teams (Austin and Pisano, 2017). Although provocative, research on employers has almost exclusively taken the form of case studies (cf. Johnson and Joshi, 2016).

Given the limited evidence supporting independent efforts by these public/non-profit programs and employers, it is important to carefully and comprehensively study the characteristics of organizations that make them successful workplaces for those on the autism spectrum. Accurately representing the complexities of both autism and the 21st century workplace requires increasing the variety of individuals studying and intervening to address the challenges. For example, collaborations between autism and organizational researchers might be particularly useful. It is through collaboration among these researchers with differing theoretical underpinnings that the persistent problems of the under- and unemployment of people on the autism spectrum will be represented in a more complex and nuanced manner, and corresponding comprehensive and integrated interventions will be developed.

Organizational science offers important insights into factors to harness diversity in ways that benefit employees and employers. We briefly describe three promising concepts from organizational science for creating and sustaining meaningful employment for individuals with autism—diversity climate, psychological safety, and leader inclusiveness. We then close with potential research questions that can contribute to autism and organizational research.

Diversity climate is employees' shared perceptions of the degree to which an organization utilizes fair employee policies and socially integrates employees from underrepresented groups into the work setting (Mor Barak et al., 1998). It comprises the perceptions (positive or negative) of values and norms regarding diversity at work. A well-developed diversity climate creates feelings of belongingness and respect for uniqueness. Specifically, an organization fosters 'integration-and-learning” where differences are acknowledged and viewed as sources of learning and process improvement (Ely and Thomas, 2001). Perceptions of diversity climate are tied to perceptions of the policies and practices implemented. A positive diversity climate attends to the individualized needs and talents of employees through flexible policies and practices (Schur et al., 2014). For example, rather than forcing candidates on the autism spectrum to engage in face-to-face interviews, which may mask rather than reveal abilities and skills, the selection and interview process may use unconventional assessments (e.g. work portfolios, task simulations) to make hiring decisions (Austin and Pisano, 2017). A positive diversity climate is evident when autism and neurodiversity are part of the organization's definition of diversity, general diversity training, and there are autism resource groups (Johnson and Joshi, 2016). Research suggests that diversity climate benefits employees through greater commitment to their organization (McKay et al., 2007) and benefits employers through higher organizational performance (e.g. sales) and lower employee turnover intentions (McKay et al., 2007, 2009).

For a diversity climate to be effective and an organization to benefit from diversity (including neurodiversity) requires psychological safety. Psychological safety is the shared belief that it is safe to take an interpersonal risk without fear of punishment or reprisal (Edmondson, 1999). Individuals with autism often experience the opposite in employment—lack of acceptance and understanding. When paired with difficulties in social communication (and the associated stress with social interaction), the benefits of the unique insights of people with autism are unlikely to be realized. The absence of psychological safety, in fact, has been associated with employee silence (e.g. Edmondson, 1996). In contrast, more psychological safety is associated with more employee engagement (Nembhard and Edmondson, 2006), high-quality relationships (e.g. greater information sharing; Edmondson, 1999), and voice (e.g. offering suggestions for process improvement; Frazier et al., 2017).

Both diversity climate and psychological safety are closely tied to leader behaviors, specifically leader inclusiveness (Frazier et al., 2017). Inclusive leadership is a set of positive behaviors that foster employees perceiving they belong (e.g. providing support, fair and shared decision-making) as well as affirming their uniqueness within the organization (e.g. encouraging diverse contributions) as they contribute to organizational processes and outcomes (Randel et al., 2018). Specifically, inclusiveness means using words and deeds that appreciate others' contributions (Nembhard and Edmondson, 2006) and pardoning employees who disclose unintentional mistakes (Edmondson, 1996). Inclusive leaders also tout the importance of diversity (i.e. neurodiversity) as an important part of organizational strategy and success (Randel et al., 2018), publicly recognizing the successes of diverse employees as well as the supervisors and peers who have demonstrably embraced diversity (Bruyère, 2018).

Researchers seeking to understand the conditions that enable sustained employment for those on the autism spectrum can start by using validated measures associated with diversity climate (Mor Barak et al., 1998), psychological safety (Edmondson, 1999), and inclusive leadership (Nembhard and Edmondson, 2006) to examine how employees with autism perceive each, the extent to which their perceptions are shared with their peers and supervisors, and the relationships between organizational factors and attitudes and performance outcomes. Each of these concepts also may help explain the conditions under which employee support programs (e.g. job coaches, skills training) are effective or not for employees with autism. For example, are the programs effective when there is a positive diversity climate in the organization and ineffective when the diversity climate is less prominent?

There also is considerable value for organizational researchers in examining autism at work. It provides a test of the boundary conditions of existing concepts and theories. Specifically, does prior research on demographic forms of diversity (e.g. gender, race) or broader forms of disability apply to a neurodiverse population? If not, does it mean there was an implicit assumption of neurotypicality? Or are there specific refinements that need to be made to each concept in light of findings with autistic populations?

In this editorial, we have emphasized the importance of inclusive leadership for employees with autism; it would also be useful to compare the effects of inclusive leadership relative to other leading forms of leadership that have been widely studied in organizational research (e.g. servant, transactional, transformational leadership).

'Flipping the script” and focusing on what the workplace brings to people on the autism spectrum-in addition to what people with autism bring to the workplace-gives us the potential to make more rapid headway in understanding how to better support employment among these individuals.

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Informationsstand: 25.01.2019

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