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Saturday, February 10, 2024

Autistic Perspectives on Employment

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the employment of adults with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Southey, S., Morris, R., Nicholas, D. et al. Autistic Perspectives on Employment: A Scoping Review. J Occup Rehabil (2024).
Across the studies reviewed, participants demonstrated a depth of self-awareness and ability to clearly articulate personal skills and strengths as well as their own unique sensory, communication, and accommodation needs in the workplace. This nuanced articulation of experiences across studies bolstered the applicability of the thematic findings to generate practical changes in workplace policies and procedures. While employers are ultimately responsible for setting role expectations and approving accommodation requests, this highlights the benefits to employers of collaborating with employees in decision-making whenever possible. The more self-awareness an employee has about their own strengths and needs, and the more opportunity they have to explore and discuss this with their employer, could lead to greater opportunity for role alignment and meaningful accommodations. For example, job matching employees’ personal strengths to role and responsibilities is known to be a key factor influencing successful outcomes including job retention and sustainability [11].

Similarly, participants across the studies reviewed emphasized the need for an individualized approach to workplace communication and accommodations and drew attention to barriers generated by employers taking a more generalized approach to processes or implementation of accommodations. At the same time, participants shared mixed feelings about the benefits and risks of disclosure of diagnosis in the workplace, which is often required to access formal accommodations. These findings reinforce a recent push in the literature to hold employers and organizations more responsible for fostering an inclusive workplace environment and culture where invisible disability is normalized to the point that the benefits of disclosure outweigh the potential risks [64, 65]. As highlighted in this study, sensory aspects of the workplace were closely associated with professional and personal well-being and mental health outcomes. Consideration of sensory differences across all employees may be a beneficial aspect of inclusive workplace environments particularly for autistic clients who are more likely than the general population to have heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli and who also may hesitate to disclose this for fear of ostracization [66,67,68].

Participants across studies drew attention to the impact of relationships with colleagues and supervisors on experiences in the workplace. Prior research has identified communication barriers and needs as a key consideration in workplaces with autistic employees [5, 69], but this review highlights broader relational aspects as well—beyond when and how to communicate. For example, participants spoke about the importance of workplaces where all employees align with a culture of awareness and acceptance of neurodivergence, and working alongside colleagues who demonstrate caring, supportive, and respectful attitudes about autism and differences in interpretation of social cues and interactions. Participants identified peer supports both in and outside of the workplace as contributing to positive outcomes for success. These findings align with organizational research identifying the benefits of workplace culture and peer support on factors of workplace success, including long-term sustainment of knowledge and skills training, and employee well-being [70,71,72].