Drew Sansing | 08/05/2023
One of the common issues that autistic people struggle with is whether and how to disclose their diagnosis in the workplace. Would disclosure improve understanding and accommodations or would it simply expose autistic workers to discrimination? A study done out of London sought to address this important question. The investigators surveyed 238 adults based in the United Kingdom with a clinical diagnosis of autism who had current or previous work experience. The survey participants were asked a combination of closed and open ended questions about their experience with disclosing their diagnosis in the workplace.
Rates of Disclosure: More than half of all survey participants had disclosed their diagnosis to some but not all people at their work. Of that group, about half of them waited until after starting their job. One-third of the autistic workers surveyed disclosed their diagnosis to everyone.
Reasons for Disclosure: Survey respondents cited a range of reasons for disclosure. The most frequent reason was a desire for more acceptance and understanding. Being able to seek legal protection was another reason given for wanting to disclose. Other reasons included needing accommodations and to protect mental health and well being. One commonality among many of the survey comments was that disclosure was frequently a response to a negative experience in the workplace and the disclosure was needed to explain the respondent’s behavior or prevent things like bullying from happening in the future. In some cases, however, such as when the survey participant worked in a field such as inclusive education, disclosure was seen as a positive development because having the perspective of a person with autism was an advantage in their particular job. The most common reason for not disclosing an autism diagnosis was fear of discrimination, which the investigators reported was consistent with studies from the United States on this subject.
Disclosure Outcomes: Participants in the survey revealed that the consequences for their diagnosis disclosure was either positive, negative or mixed. There were more survey respondents who cited a positive outcome (33.6%) than those who cited a negative outcome (22.7%) or neutral/mixed outcome (27.3%). Those who enjoyed positive outcomes indicated that their co-workers were understanding and supportive and they were given better accommodations. Survey participants who suffered negative consequences cited lack of support, accommodations, understanding and acceptance. Workplace discrimination and bullying were also reported to have occurred as a result of disclosure. Those who cited a neutral outcome indicated that they either saw a mix of positive and negative consequences or they did not see much change at work as a result of their disclosure.
Discussion and Recommendations: The authors of the study noted that it was interesting that the desire for more understanding and acceptance from others was the principal driver for disclosure given that a commonly held stereotype for those on the spectrum is that they prefer to isolate themselves and care little about how they are viewed by others. Although more survey participants felt positively about the outcome of their disclosure than felt negatively, it was still only about a third of survey participants that enjoyed such positive consequences. The investigators suggested that the onus should be on the employer to build a more inclusive workplace culture through things such as autism training. The authors noted the strong correlation between knowledge and understanding of autism to a favorable impression of a person with autism. The study also recommended that workplace accommodations be made by involving the autistic worker to develop them. In terms of providing workers a pathway for disclosing their diagnosis, investigators suggested that clear protocols for disclosure be developed and communicated to workers so they know how they can disclose and to provide them assurance that the employer values neurodiversity. Furthermore, employers could consider revamping their application materials to increase the ease of disclosure since a substantial portion of survey participants disclosed through their job applications. The authors of this study were careful to point out that the choice of disclosure should be that of the autistic worker, but that employers should have the obligation to make their workplaces more inclusive to make it more welcoming for those who choose to disclose.
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