Autism training fails to cure neurotypical boss bias

Rachel Worsley  |  08/04/2023

Despite completing autism training and spending years working with autistic people, neurotypical bosses are still more likely to blame the autistic person for their social challenges instead of their workplace environment.

That is one conclusion from an Australian-led study that looked at 29 autistic employees and 15 supervisors across seven continents.  

The supervisors were mostly female, with 60% having completed autism training and had between 1-10 years of experience working with autistic people.

Social challenges were defined as internal social challenges, social event challenges and external social challenges. Internal social challenges focused on areas such as learning how to interpret work protocols, verbal and non-verbal behaviour, remembering work tasks and managing tasks, time and work/life balance.

Social event challenges involve behaviours around events such as celebrations at parties, what food to bring, how to eat appropriate amounts of food at work, social topics to discuss at work, and respecting co-worker employer boundaries.

External social challenges included organisational and work standards and lack of supportive supervisor or HR engagement. It also involved performance expectations of the individual, as well as the nature of supervision given to the individual.

The researchers looked at how autistic people and supervisors interpreted these social challenges.

They found that supervisors tended to view the occurrence of social challenges as largely the result of autistic individuals “not being aware of their own behaviours’. They also blamed an inability to take directions and autistic employees feeling discomfort in social settings as reasons for their social challenges at work.

Supervisors believed that autistic people were responsible for implementing their own solutions to their social challenges, such as learning to adjust to the work culture and to be aware of one’s behaviour and apologising for that behaviour. This was prioritised as the most common solution to autistic people’s social challenges in the workplace. After that, supervisors said that a co-worker finding a solution and a job coach could be helpful.

In addition, supervisors said they focused on educating the autistic person, such as learning how to take into consideration others’ perspectives and reading social cues.

“Sadly, in multiple cases, negative engagement and blaming the individual on the autism spectrum for “their” social challenges emerged via particular interpretations and attribution of the social challenge to the individual,” the researchers wrote in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

“What it does suggest is that tendency for attribution to internal factors may blinker participants from considering more broader cultural and structural factors that may contribute to the reported social challenges.”

The researchers noted that better knowledge and understanding of autism has usually led to changes in management practices, such as communication strategies with verbal and written instructions, which has improved

“However, more work needs to be done [to improve knowledge], particularly given the majority of supervisors in the present study had autism training and several years of experience working with employees on the spectrum,” the researchers wrote.

Read the study here

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