Updated: Aug 20
By Ludmila N. Praslova, Professor and Director, Graduate Programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, Vanguard University of Southern California.
Autism inclusion in the workplace is a wicked problem.
On the one hand, autistic talent is in demand. Several top tech companies focus on hiring autistic professionals because of their exceptional ability to focus on task, quality of work, and dedication. When properly matched to jobs, these professionals are 92% more productive than other employees.
At the same time, the unemployment rate of autistic professionals with college degrees is 85%.
What are the reasons for such a dramatic disconnect between the strong business case for hiring individuals from this marginalized group and the unemployment rate? Can solving this wicked problem inform inclusion efforts for other groups? Indeed, it can.
Our research reveals that while autistic professionals experience a unique combination of numerous workplace barriers, these barriers are not unique. Instead, they could be more detrimental to autistic individuals than to some of the other groups, with each barrier adding to the shocking overall unemployment rate.
For example, unstructured interviewing practices involving conversations about culture-specific leisure activities are an access barrier for class migrants, who are likely to perform worse than individuals from more affluent backgrounds and are less likely to be hired, despite the fact that questions about polo have little bearing on the performance. However, while some class migrants might find a way to “beat” such questions, the same type of unstructured interview is likely an almost impenetrable barrier for autistic individuals, due to the combination of the stress and extreme discomfort of discussing personal life with strangers, and not seeing the relevance of such questions to job responsibilities.
One of the success barriers to autistic individuals is the absence of anti-bullying mechanisms in organizations. Not only autistic individuals are more likely to be bullied, they also often lack the additional emotional resources required to deal with bullying while focusing on job performance. However, the same obstacle is faced by those with depression, PTSD, or dealing with taxing physical ailments.
Autism-spectrum individuals are an extremely diverse group. Despite the “Rain Man” – and worse - stereotypes, it includes individuals who are non-verbal, yet extremely capable, and individuals who can be highly loquacious – and also extremely capable. It includes those who need external structure as well as those who are incredibly self-determined. It includes many individuals with a wide range of co-occurring conditions. It includes those diagnosed in childhood, and those diagnosed as adults – in particular, late-diagnosed women. The diversity of barriers faced by autistic professionals as a group means that the removal of barriers to their success will facilitate the success of individuals impeded by a variety of cultural or health disadvantages and improve workplaces for all. We know that using structured rather than unstructured interviews as well as work samples improves the validity of selection. We know that psychological safety is beneficial for all employees.
Creating inclusive organizations should consider all barriers to access and success. This is why our comprehensive inclusion audit is uniquely informed by an understanding of the full range of barriers faced by marginalized and underrepresented populations, and why our research on the barriers faced by autistic professionals has been instrumental in developing our approach to the comprehensive intervention and breaking the cycle of exclusion.