Wednesday, 13 January 2016

What's it like to be an autistic person at work?

Better detection rates for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) mean the chances of having a colleague with the diagnosis, or being diagnosed yourself, have never been so high. But what’s it like to be "working while ASD"? A new paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests the age when a person is diagnosed is key. Those diagnosed later in life are less likely to fully identify with the label of autism and with the ASD community more broadly, shaping their attitudes and feelings about how they are treated in the workplace.

Tiffany Johnson and Aparna Joshi of Pennsylvania State University interviewed 30 adults diagnosed with ASD about their experiences at work, and then they surveyed a much larger group of people with ASD about the issues that came up. The survey canvassed 210 working people on the spectrum, mostly in their twenties and thirties and two thirds men, contacted through an autism network – they worked in a variety of industries including education, service and finance. Controlling for the influence of other factors such as current age, gender and severity of diagnosis, the data repeatedly showed that age at diagnosis mattered.

Take social interaction – the survey data showed that participants working jobs with higher social demands varied in how they felt about this: later-diagnosed people felt less discriminated against and more capable in these jobs than their early diagnosed counterparts. This late-diagnosed group were more content in roles that resembled what neurotypical peers or role models would take on – the population they worked around and may have considered themselves a group member of for at least some of their working careers. This didn’t mean that social interaction was without issues, but this was in the details of the work – one interviewee noted “I mean I want to be social but I don’t want to get overwhelmed with crowds” – rather than whether to consider it at all. In contrast, the earlier a person’s diagnosis, the more likely that they entered the workplace with a firm idea of having ASD, and resembling other people with ASD, including in terms of their suitability for certain activities.

In a similar fashion, the survey showed that early diagnosed participants were more comfortable in jobs with more organisational support for ASD, but those with a late diagnosis actually preferred less support – that kind of attention and differentiation simply wasn’t attractive to them. Age of diagnosis also influenced disclosing experiences. The survey suggested that the early diagnosed tended to feel somewhat more anxious after disclosing their condition to colleagues, but less discriminated against and more self esteem, whereas their late-diagnosed counterparts felt more discriminated against and reported lower self-esteem post disclosure. Again, this is likely to reflect the more superficial identification towards the ASD label held by later-diagnosed individuals: as one interviewee noted as a reason for their non-disclosure, “I’d much rather [have introvert] as sort of a label” than to introduce the notion of a developmental diagnosis.

Research into stigma and identity management at work has given little attention to developmental disabilities, but as this research shows, navigating work with a diagnosis such as ASD is complex, and the considerations for providing a good work environment for these people far from uniform. Bear in mind that participants’ severity of diagnosis was also associated with their sense of discrimination and self-esteem (those with more severe ASD reported a tougher time, as you’d expect), and that there may be other aspects of the work experience, besides those uncovered here, that also vary according to the age that a worker was diagnosed with ASD.


Johnson, T., & Joshi, A. (2015). Dark Clouds or Silver Linings? A Stigma Threat Perspective on the Implications of an Autism Diagnosis for Workplace Well-Being. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/apl0000058

--further reading--
What is the correct way to talk about autism? There isn't one
Special issue of The Psychologist on autism.

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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