Are Autistic People More Likely to Speak Up at Work?

Are Autistic People More Likely to Speak Up at Work?

Do you find yourself being the person who raises concerns at work? If so, and you’re autistic, you’re not alone.

A consistent theme that has cropped up in my work with autistic clients is that they tend to have a strong sense of social justice; this means they try to help colleagues when needed and ensure their workplaces are implementing best practices. Despite their general discomfort with communication and their dislike of drawing attention to themselves, my autistic clients often tell me that their need to do what they consider to be the right thing overrides their fear of doing so.

“I’ll stay quiet during a meeting, even when I’ve got something to contribute,” my client Shona told me. “But if I feel that someone is being picked on in any way, I’ll very vociferously offer my opinion.”

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Another client, Anita, described a strong need to make sure people were “doing what was right” from a very young age. “I work as a nurse now,” she explained. “There are procedures in place to protect people’s safety but colleagues still cut corners. This is a black-and-white issue to me, and I’ll report anyone who’s not following the rules as it endangers patients.”

“I’ve become the go-to person at work for when something needs to be sorted out,” Stella shared. “As a manager, colleagues know that I’m never going to sit by and let bad practice go unnoticed. Much as it causes me stress to speak my mind, it would be far more stressful to not intervene if I witness waste, bad behaviour, or inefficiency.”

Why People Do and Don’t Speak Up

We might think that intervening if we’re aware of wrongdoing is a natural response—but in practice, people often succumb to the “bystander effect,”1 which can lead them to avoid becoming involved. Reasons for staying silent include the belief that someone else will intervene, being influenced by how concerned other people are about the situation, a lack of confidence in their abilities to intervene, or concern over how they will be judged for taking action.2

Recent research3 supports what my clients have told me and suggests that autistic people may be more likely to voice concerns when made aware of inefficient processes and dysfunctional practices in the workplace than non-autistic people. In an online survey, 33 autistic employees and 34 nonautistic employees were presented with examples of potential workplace situations, which contained an example of workplace dysfunction, including an ethical issue or example of operational inefficiency. Both groups were asked to evaluate the hypothetical examples at work and state what, if any, action they would take if they were aware of ethical issues or inefficiencies.

Why were autistic participants more likely to express a desire to take action? It might be because autistic people tend to be less worried about what others think when making moral judgments.4 It could also be the case that autistic people internalise a different set of cultural beliefs and psychological rules in their earlier developmental stages, which makes them less likely to be influenced by others.5

Previous research has found that autistic people are more likely to make moral decisions based on the consequences of their behaviour as opposed to their emotional response to the situation.6 In hypothetical research scenarios, this typically involves making difficult moral decisions that may negatively affect a small number of people in service of a greater good. In real life, as the example of my client, Anita, shows, this might involve reporting a colleague’s or organisation’s poor practices to protect others from harm.

What This Means for Autistic People in the Workforce

Taken together, these findings suggest that when autistic people see injustices, inappropriateness, or inefficiency, there’s less “noise”—meaning ingrained social values or concern over how they will come across to others—to distract them from taking action. As the authors of the most recent study suggest, employing people who are ready to raise concerns about both minor and major workplace issues or malpractice can have a positive impact on the workplace. This is especially important to note because autistic people are more likely than non-autistic people to be unemployed or under-employed.7

Some large companies, including Ford, Google, and Microsoft, have long realised the positive impact that autistic employees can have. This new research highlights the value that autistic employees bring at an organisational level for companies that care about protecting their employees and customers and acting in an efficient, professional, and ethical manner.

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