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Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Creating a Supportive Work Environment for Autistic Individuals

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April 02, 2024  |  By Kaslyn Tidmore; Maira Ezerins, Christopher Rosen, and Lauren Simon

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“As an autistic person, I felt a lot of pushback growing up, and I got a lot of negativity, so I didn’t have much self-esteem. Combine that with some co-morbid mental illness like depression and anxiety, I found it really hard to break into the workforce,” said Darien Judge of the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Like many people with autism, Judge struggled to find a job that fit his needs after graduating. However, after applying for a special program that allowed him and other people with autism to present their specific skill sets and creativity, Judge was able to secure his place in a career that has left him satisfied and fulfilled. 

Every year, around 70,000 young adults on the autism spectrum enter the workforce. However, finding a workplace that is accommodating and welcoming can be difficult, leading autistic individuals to experience a lower rate of employment compared to those with other disabilities. 

In the article, “Autism and Employment: A Review of the ‘New Frontier’ of Diversity Research,”  Maira Ezerins and Profs. Christopher Rosen  and Lauren Simon from the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, Timothy Vogus (Vanderbilt University), Allison Gabriel (Purdue University), and Charles Calderwood (Virginia Tech) look at how organizations and practitioners can improve employment outcomes for autistic individuals. 

As Ezerins states, “neurodiversity is gaining traction in organizations, yet they are often pushing forward without reference to evidence-based best practices.” In fact, providing companies with reference points as they initiate neurodiversity programs was a key driver of their study: “a main goal of our work was thus to integrate all the findings across these multiple disciplines so that we can make recommendations to companies trying to hire and support autistic employees.” 

Work Before the Work 

For many like Judge, one of the most difficult stages of the job search process begins before they even reach the office. Successfully navigating the pre-employment process can be difficult for those with autism. This research, however, discusses the ways that neurotypical adults can assist them with the transition.  

For autistic individuals to flourish in the workplace, the work begins far before their employment. If school counselors and educators implement behavioral, social, and vocational skills training to emphasize strategies and tools that assist in the transition from school to work, they can guide students toward careers that will fit their strengths. Autistic students who use these strategies will have an increased chance of success post-graduation. 

Breaking into the workforce post-graduation is one of the most challenging parts of the career process. The pressure of verbalizing your aptitude and presenting yourself in the best light makes the interview stage of finding a job difficult for everyone, not just those with autism. However, because interviews are largely dependent on social and cognitive skills that some autistic candidates might struggle with, it can be even more difficult to create meaningful connections with employers. 

The research states that because of this potential communication breakdown, it can be beneficial to disclose information about autism early in the job search process. However, Ezerins notes this is only true if the hiring organization has signaled openness and psychological safety by “offering accommodations at the start of selection processes,” which allows applicants to take that leap. Ezerins says that as an additional layer of protection, applicants could consider “disclosing to HR rather than a hiring manager.” If problems arise after the applicant is hired, they can seek support from HR without needing to also disclose to their coworkers. 

Though some autistic applicants might hesitate to disclose out of fear that their interviewer might exhibit biased behavior or even discriminate against them, providing this context has some advantages. Disclosure has been found to increase the likelihood of accommodations and support, as well as helping applicants assess their fit with the employer.  Though the fear of stereotyping and discrimination is great, employers who begin the hiring process with open and honest communication around accommodation can help autistic applicants reap these benefits of disclosure.  

On the Job 

After the hiring process is complete, the autistic individual, manager, and coworkers can begin to create a collaborative and welcoming office space. To do this, the organization and its workers must be willing to make adjustments to the social and physical environment.  

Neurotypical processes, or the typical day-to-day operations of a modern organization, can be difficult for those with autism due to four main challenges: cross-neurotype interpersonal disconnects, managing work tasks, work design and routines, and the physical and sensory environment. However, there are steps that both the employee and company can take to integrate different neurotypes into the workplace.  

Creating a successfully integrated environment begins with positive attitudes, understanding, and support from all employees. Unsupportive managers and co-workers can completely derail the employment experience for people on the autism spectrum; therefore, it is crucial that all employees work to foster an accepting and accommodating environment.  

Creating accommodations can help employers improve the performance, retention, and career advancement for those with autism. There are many different types of accommodations, such as reducing noise and distractions, co-worker assistance, video modeling, and more. Despite laws requiring accommodations, many autistic employees do not receive the help they deserve due to low rates of disclosure and lack of knowledge from the employer.  

Ezerins notes that something as simple as “communicating about communication preferences” can make a big difference. For example, inquiring whether an individual prefers email, face-to-face contact, phone calls, or video calls can go a long way, as can outlining the necessary level of detail required for each interaction.  

Autism training can also provide neurotypical employees with a better understanding of how to create an environment that is beneficial to their autistic coworkers. This training should provide different strategies and tools to help managers learn how to effectively communicate and collaborate with their autistic subordinates and how to manage cross-neurotype communications within the workplace. 

This research also mentions the benefits for those with autism who receive coaching and mentoring from their neurotypical coworkers and superiors. These mentors should be trained to understand the communication challenges between neurotypical adults and those with autism, helping them understand and support their mentees. Though many autistic employees are afraid that working alongside a coach will generate a stigma against them and undermine their independence, this is not always the truth. If done correctly, mentorship can foster an inclusive work environment that will allow cross-neurotype relationships to flourish. Mentors who are trained to understand the strengths and needs of those with autism can help their mentee perform tasks at work as well as help navigate social norms and organizational politics. 

A crucial part of mentoring and coaching is communication and feedback, which can often be challenging for those with autism and their neurotypical colleagues as well. The researchers refer to this challenge as a “double empathy problem.” This idea refers to the difficulties in establishing shared understanding between neurotypes due to different approaches to processing, interpreting, and engaging in communication. In other words, autistic and neurotypical people think and behave so differently that misunderstanding the other person is common. The double empathy problem suggests learning to communicate across neurotypes is not just the responsibility of those with autism. Neurotypical workers and organizations should also work to bridge the gap that the double empathy problem creates.  

Mental Health and Environment 

In general, autistic adults tend to experience lower well-being than their neurotypical peers, which can be affected by a lack of managerial intervention regarding the mental health of these employees. For example, the clacking noises of keyboards or the slight flickering of fluorescent lights can be detrimental to the mental health of those with autism. After being overstimulated by these environmental triggers all day, an autistic worker might have to spend hours at home recovering, leaving them little personal time, and more prone to burnout. 

Managers can resolve some of these issues by providing accommodations such as noise-canceling headphones or lighting that isn’t too bright or fluorescent. Additionally, meeting with an occupational therapist to address these environmental hindrances is also valuable. 

Despite these physical concerns, employment activities in a safe and accepting environment have proven to be very beneficial for the mental health and self-reliance of individuals on the autism spectrum, particularly as autistic people can be dependent on the familiar routine created by a work schedule. The researchers noted that because of this, many autistic employees chose to continue working from their office space during COVID-19 to maintain their routine that they had created, and now depended on, to help maintain their mental health.  

An Accepting and Welcoming Workforce 

When in a job that fits their specific skills and needs, autistic employees can be valuable to an organization. Employers note that compared to neurotypical peers, their autistic employees have an increased level of concentration, attention to detail, ability to memorize and reference information, and various technical abilities based on their concentration and interests. If companies will make an effort to increase their support for autistic employees, these skills can be a valuable resource.  

Understanding how neurotypical managers and superiors can help is crucial in creating an environment that will give autistic individuals the comfort that will allow them to thrive in the workplace. Organizations can do this by emphasizing the need for streamlined interview processes, mentorship programs, improved cross-neurotype communication, and calmer physical environments. Creating this type of office begins with not just individuals, but also with organizations and practitioners who are looking to create a more accepting and welcoming workforce.  

This research, if implemented correctly, can help build fruitful connections, enrich management techniques, and – most importantly – help create a world in which those with autism have an equal level of support in their work lives.   

Lauren SimonLauren Simon is an associate professor in the Department of Management at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. She earned a Ph.D. in management, focused on organizational behavior/human resources at the University of Florida. Simon has a passion for career development and helping students successfully transition into the professional workforce, as well as for partnering with organizations to help them better manage and engage their workforce. Her research focuses on individual and social factors that influence career success, including personality and ability, organizational socialization, interpersonal work relationships (particularly among managers and employees), and leadership. Professor Simon’s work has received the Academy of Management HR Division’s Scholarly Achievement Award and the Southern Management Association’s Overall Best Conference Paper Award. She was also the recipient of the Academy of Management HR Division's Innovative Teaching Award and the Golden Tusk Award from the University of Arkansas Division of Student Affairs.

Matt WallerChristopher C. Rosen is a professor and the John H. Tyson Chair in Business Management in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. He received a B.A. in Psychology and Economics from Washington and Lee University, his M.A. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Human Resource Management from Appalachian State University, and his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Akron. His research covers a broad range of topics, including employee well-being, self-regulation, and organizational politics. He currently serves as an associate editor for Journal of Management and is chair of the Human Resources Division of the Academy of Management

Maira EzerinsMaira E. Ezerins is a PhD candidate, Walton Doctoral Fellow, and Doctoral Academy Fellow in the Department of Management at the University of Arkansas. She received her M.A. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Human Resource Management and an M.B.A. from Appalachian State University. Broadly, her research focuses on fostering inclusive, equitable, and safe work environments. More specifically, she has investigated the experiences of women and nonbinary employees, neurodivergent employees, and blue-collar or front-line workers. Within this research area, she is particularly interested in how minority employees navigate interpersonal relationships, as well as the ways technology can be leveraged to mitigate inequality.

Kaslyn TidmoreKaslyn Tidmore is a first-year graduate student at the University of Arkansas, earning her masters in Public Relations and Advertising. Before joining the master’s program at the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, Kaslyn graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in Print Journalism with a minor in Editing and Publishing. While earning her B.A., she interned with many publications, including Parker County Today Magazine, WedLinkMedia, Modern Luxury, and the school’s newspaper, the OU Daily. She currently works as a graduate assistant at the Walton College of Business.