A new study published in Autism Research has found that autistic employees are more likely than their nonautistic counterparts to voice concerns when they witness problems in the workplace. This discovery suggests that neurodiversity can bring a unique advantage to organizations seeking to improve their operations and foster inclusivity.
Understanding how employees respond to organizational dysfunction and inefficient processes is crucial for improving workplace environments. Previous research has often focused on neurotypical individuals, leaving a gap in our knowledge about the experiences of autistic employees. Autistic individuals may perceive and react to workplace issues differently, and this study aimed to uncover those differences
“A number of different factors influenced us to do this study,” explained study author Lorne Hartman, an instructor at the Schulich School of Business at York University. “Firstly, the research literature frames differences between autistic and nonautistic individuals as negatives. We (my son who is an autistic graduate student in neuroscience here at York was my main collaborator on this project) hypothesized that some of these differences might in fact be advantages.”
“For example, autistic people (compared to nonautistic people) are less influenced by others’ judgments, opinions, beliefs, and actions. We wondered whether this would make autists less susceptible to the bystander effect. Despite the fact that it is one of the most replicated findings in the psychological literature, we could not find any studies looking at the bystander effect in autism.”
“Secondly, I was doing research on ethical misbehavior in organizations and in that context, i.e., widespread corporate corruption, there is always a large number of employees who were aware of the misbehavior but did nothing to stop it, i.e., bystander apathy,” Hartman said. “And, thirdly, there has been increased interest amongst employers in tapping into the neurodiverse talent pool but so far there hasn’t been any empirical research to demonstrate potential performance advantages of autistic employees in the workplace.”
The study involved 33 employed adults with autism and 34 nonautistic employed adults. The autistic participants had received an official autism diagnosis from qualified healthcare professionals, ensuring the study’s accuracy. The researchers also assessed the participants using a 10-item version of the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) for adults, a widely recognized tool for autism assessment. This assessment allowed the researchers to confirm the participants’ autistic traits.
To explore the participants’ responses to workplace scenarios, the researchers designed a survey that presented seven short workplace vignettes. Each vignette described a situation involving organizational dysfunction or inefficiency, such as ethical dilemmas or operational problems. Importantly, the scenarios included a varying number of other individuals present, ranging from one to 10 bystanders.
The participants were asked to rate their likelihood of intervening in each scenario, indicating how likely they would be to address the issue. They were also asked to explain the rationale behind their decisions, categorizing their explanations as either “concrete” (focusing on rules or external consequences) or “abstract” (considering circumstances or potential impact on others). These explanations were carefully analyzed by independent raters.
The researchers found that autistic employees were significantly more likely than nonautistic employees to report that they would speak up and voice concerns when they observed problems in the organization. This suggests that autistic individuals are more proactive in addressing workplace issues, potentially contributing to improved organizational outcomes.
“The main takeaway is that autistic employees, compared to non-autistic employees, are more likely to say something or do something when they see something wrong happening in the organization, whether it is a minor mistake in a training manual or gross misconduct on the part of a manager,” Hartman told PsyPost. “By bring attention to these issues, autistic employees may contribute to improved organizational effectiveness and performance.”
Autistic employees were less likely to report that the presence of other witnesses influenced their decision to intervene compared to nonautistic employees. This indicates that autistic individuals tend to make decisions independently of the number of bystanders, showing a higher degree of self-reliance in their judgment.
Autistic employees demonstrated a greater tendency to acknowledge the influence of others on their decisions when they chose not to intervene. In contrast, nonautistic employees were less likely to acknowledge such influence. This finding suggests that autistic individuals are more aware of external factors impacting their decisions, even when they choose not to act.
The researchers also found that autistic employees did not consistently provide less abstract rationales for their decisions compared to nonautistic employees. However, in scenarios with 10 bystanders, autistic participants tended to offer more concrete explanations for their decisions, while nonautistic participants provided more abstract ones. In other scenarios, there was no significant difference in rationale between the two groups.
Camouflaging, a behavior often seen in autistic individuals where they mask their autistic traits to fit in socially, was more prevalent among autistic participants. Surprisingly, the study found that camouflaging increased the likelihood of intervention overall, but this effect was not significantly different between autistic and nonautistic employees. However, higher camouflaging levels were associated with a greater influence of others on the decisions of autistic employees, while no such effect was observed in nonautistic employees.
“We hypothesized that ‘camouflaging’ (when autistic people attempt to minimize the visibility of their autism during social interactions) might moderate reduced susceptibility to the bystander effect in autism,” Hartman explained. “Contrary to expectation, camouflaging actually increased intervention likelihood in both autistic and non-autistic participants. This unexpected finding may reflect the focus of this research in the workplace, where camouflaging may have more to do with demonstrating that you are a responsible employee rather than easing everyday social interactions and relationships.”
While this study provides valuable insights into the behavior of autistic employees in the workplace, it is essential to acknowledge its limitations. The relatively small sample size used in this study may not represent the broader population adequately. Furthermore, the study relied on self-reported beliefs and intentions to intervene, rather than actual behaviors. Future research could explore whether participants’ actions align with their intentions.
“A major caveat is that this study is ‘preliminary,'” Hartman said. “In some ways it was a pilot for the development of a survey to measure the dependent variables in this research (intervention likelihood, degree of influence, and rationale). In addition, there were differences between the two comparison groups (autistic and non-autistic) in terms of age and sex. Even though we attempting to minimize the influence of these confounding variables using statistical methods, future research needs to be done with better matching of comparison groups.”
The study, “Organizational benefits of neurodiversity: Preliminary findings on autism and the bystander effect“, was authored by Lorne M. Hartman, Mehrdad Farahani, Alexander Moore, Ateeya Manzoor, and Braxton L. Hartman.