Employees with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Employees who have autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are entering the workforce in record numbers. Yet, employers and coworkers may not know how to relate to people with this diagnosis, especially considering that people with ASD vary greatly on the extent of their mental and social abilities. This uncertainty can negatively affect the careers of people with ASD, especially as people with ASD are stigmatized or stereotyped. New research (Johnson & Joshi, 2016) conducted a two part investigation of employees with ASD in order to discover some of the factors that may lead to these unfortunate and ineffective workplace outcomes.

WHICH FACTORS AFFECT PEOPLE WITH ASD?

The research began with a qualitative study, which typically involves interviews with study participants in order to uncover and describe general trends in the topic of interest. Later, these trends can be used to form hypotheses about the topic, which will then be tested in a more focused manner using statistics to draw conclusions. In the current study, the researchers interviewed 30 employed adults who were diagnosed with ASD. The researchers used a methodical approach to coding the data, or looking for trends in the responses. They found that the participants reported different outcomes depending on their age at the time of diagnosis, whether or not they chose to disclose their condition with their employers or coworkers, the extent of social contact at their job, and whether or not organizational support was offered to them.

TESTING THE HYPOTHESES

The researchers then conducted a second study to determine if the factors listed above statistically mattered in a larger sample of 500 participants. Among their findings, they discovered that employees diagnosed at an older age perceived more discrimination at work, especially when these employees chose to disclose their diagnosis with other people at work. People diagnosed at an earlier age, however, were more likely to experience anxiety when disclosing their diagnosis at work. However, they also perceived lower levels of discrimination and higher levels of organizational-based-self-esteem, which means the extent to which an employee feels worthy of being an organizational member.

When employees had jobs requiring high levels of social interaction, employees diagnosed at a later age in life perceived less discrimination and more organization-based-self-esteem. Finally, the researchers found that when organizations had more formal structure and policy in place to support employees with ASD, then later-life diagnoses were associated with lower levels of organization-based-self-esteem. Policies intending to help may actually be making things worse for those diagnosed later in life.

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

These results are important for helping us understand some of the factors that may be influencing people diagnosed with ASD. Based on the findings, the researchers recommend several things. First, people diagnosed with ASD may want to search for support outside of the organization to help them determine which coworkers they should tell about their diagnosis. Second, organizations should conduct enhanced training about people with ASD to better prepare people who may be on the receiving end of an ASD disclosure. This training could focus on targeting ASD-related stereotypes and by teaching about the vast differences that may exist between people diagnosed with ASD. Finally, organizations should be careful about overly aggressive support programs that the authors call “in-your-face.” The research shows this may be harmful for people who have been diagnosed at a later age. The authors instead recommend that organizations focus on improving inclusiveness and relationships on a more informal level.

Johnson, T. D., & Joshi, A. (2016). Dark clouds or silver linings? A stigma threat perspective on the implications of an autism diagnosis for workplace well-being. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(3), 430-449.