Autism employment program lacks inclusivity, study finds

Rachel Worsley  |  10/04/2023

Autism employment programs may not be the most inclusive framework for autistic employees to integrate into the workplace, according to an Australian study of one such autism employment program.

The researchers interviewed 32 non-autistic employees of an unnamed large Australian government department that administers health and social welfare programs. At this organisation, 10-14 autistic trainees were employed at a graduate entry level to work as software testers.

Non-autistic employees had mixed contact with autistic trainees. Some had regular direct interaction with autistic trainees, while others had more limited contact. Non-autistic employees were employed in a wide variety of roles, such as engineers, developers, analysts and testers.

At the beginning of the program, the organisation held open staff briefings regarding the program as well as voluntary autism training.  

Despite the availability of the training, non-autistic employees reported persistence of autism stereotypes, which may have been reinforced by initial training and information sessions.

“I think sometimes it gave some preconceptions that people took on and maybe reacted to the [trainees] when they did start,” reported one non-autistic employee.

Autism awareness training may also have a limited impact, because of its voluntary nature. It was only offered at the start of the program, which meant that new employees to the organisation or team did not develop the same level of awareness as others who took the training. It was not available to individuals outside of the program, even if an autistic trainee had joined the new team outside of the original program.

“Thus, there is a clear need for autism training to be available on an ongoing basis. Training could be online and supplemented by face-to-face sessions led by autistic people,” the researchers wrote in the journal Autism.

Additionally, there were concerns around “special treatment” given to autistic employees, with some people reporting “resentment” for workplace accommodations given to autistic employees. Some said that ongoing special treatment seemed unnecessary and unfair, because it did not give autistic trainees the opportunity to be more independent at work.

“I believe we kept the [program] team together too much. We should have dispersed them amongst all test teams, not keep everyone within one team working on one application,” one non-autistic employee said.

“I felt it would have been better to let them branch out and let them interact with people, get them to know people more,” said another non-autistic employee.

“Those that have the better interpersonal skills probably should have been [assigned] into teams individually, so they can get their independence in the working environment,” said one manager. 

The researchers also noted that the participants’ interaction with the trainees was often indirect, often via the trainees’ managers or the autism spectrum consultant at the organisation.

“Over-reliance on these supports could reflect and reinforce stereotypes about the social skills of autistic people, thereby slowing the development of inclusive relationships.”
The researchers noted that the highly supportive environment promoted by the program may be leading to ongoing separation of autistic trainees and a lack of integration within the broader workforce.

“We do not suggest that the program designers intended to minimise inclusion of autistic trainees, but a program structure in which they often worked on clearly defined and separate projects with dedicated support teams and managers almost certainly impacted the level of inclusion.”

Read the study here.

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