Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people connect and relate to others and also how they experience the world around them.
Most non-autistic people are not aware of the complex ways in which autistic people* experience the world and are not adequately prepared for interacting or working with autistic people. Autism is a ‘hidden’ disability, with no external physical signs, and it encompasses a huge range of people, behaviours, abilities and challenges which, for many non-autistic people, takes time to appreciate and understand.
The gap in public understanding of autism has very real consequences for employment prospects. Only 16 per cent of autistic adults are in full-time work despite 77 per cent of those unemployed wanting to work. This employment figure has not changed since 2007 and remains significantly lower than the average employment figures for people belonging to other disability categories (47%.) In short, something is going seriously wrong in the workplace for autistic people to be so disproportionally unemployed.
Social world and impression management challenges
That autistic people are disadvantaged is not surprising, given how we have built a world heavily dependent on tight social coordination with others. Access to any employment opportunity requires candidates to navigate the social encounter of the interview, while even getting to the stage of an interview in the first place requires the ability to build social capital and network with others. For people who have life-long difficulties in social interaction, the social process of finding employment remains a considerable obstacle. A lack of eye contact, or a silence that lasts too long can have very negative consequences for rapport. Yet autistic people may give off these signals unintentionally, which is why employers need to look past small-scale social cues to take a broader perspective on what is meaningful interaction.
Relationship challenges and the ‘double empathy problem’
Building professional relationships is another critical issue. I have worked throughout my doctorate with a charity that supports young autistic adults, and have seen how quickly professional and personal relationships can break down.
A recent study conducted by myself and Dr Alex Gillespie, LSE, has shed new light on why this may be the case. We examined family relationships between autistic adults and their family members and found that many misunderstandings did not always originate from the autistic adult. Family members were often incorrectly taking the perspective of autistic relations, seeing them as more ‘egocentrically anchored’ in their own perspective than they actually were. This misunderstanding raises an important question regarding the assumptions used by non-autistic people to evaluate autistic people. It is evidence of the ‘double empathy problem’, a persisting gap in mutual understanding because both sides of a given autistic/non-autistic relationship have different normative expectations and assumptions about what the ‘other’ thinks.
Case study of a professional autistic relationship
I recently visited a workplace where a trainee had been diagnosed with autism and was finding that his relationship with his employers was very difficult to manage. In particular, he had very low self-esteem, was uncomfortable with the constant change to his schedule, and did not like having to attend meetings particularly because it left him feeling criticised which would inevitably affect his other activities for the day.
From the employer’s perspective, they were very keen to show that they had been adapting to his particular way of working within what they perceived to be reasonable adjustments. However, there were still some points that I had to clarify to the employers which highlight the ‘double empathy problem’ in action.
For example, it emerged that in meetings, the autistic employee would often misunderstand what had been said. In response, the employer stressed that they had no problem with the meeting being stopped if the autistic employee wanted to ask a question or clarify a point of discussion. Yet this is a problematic assumption, because the autistic employee may not realise a misunderstanding has taken place until much later, when it had manifested into a problem, and even if he did recognise in the moment that there was a misunderstanding, it should not be assumed that he would be able to “speak up” instantly.
Speaking up is a very difficult social skill, where one must assess the dialogue, look for moments of verbal interjection, and give a non-verbal signal to ‘take control of the floor’ just prior to speaking. It requires an acute reading of the social situation, and no small amount of confidence to perform.
Another challenge was the employer was very focussed on developing strategies for the employee to embrace and work with ‘constructive criticism’ in order to improve the way in which the team worked as a whole. I suggested that it might also be a good idea to run over the positive things which the autistic employee had done. From the employer’s perspective, this had not seemed particularly necessary because many of the positive aspects were deemed obvious. However, when I spoke to the autistic employee it was very clear that he had no idea what it was that he did well, and because of his low self-esteem, would often downplay compliments.
This highlights another disjuncture in the relationship that needed to be addressed. The employer needed to give much more positive feedback, even on tasks that seemed obvious and inconsequential, because it could not be assumed that the autistic employee shared the same level of certainty about what was good or bad practice.
These two examples show how the employer believed good communication was already in place, when in fact their model of communication was framed around ‘neurotypical’ standards of interacting. Undoubtedly the employer was keen to do the best for managing the professional relationship and had already made many adjustments, but these examples show how deep-rooted our social reading of others is ingrained, and how much opportunity remains to improve public and employer understanding of autism through listening to what autistic people have to say.
Figure 1. Psychological structure of relationships (Heasman and Gillespie, 2017)
Notes: * Meta-view = how one person thinks they are seen by the other person. Misunderstandings can easily persist if one’s meta-view aligns closely with one’s view on the other. Source: Heasman and Gillespie, 2017.
* The author has chosen to use the term ‘autistic people’ given the majority preference of participants he has worked with and feedback from national surveys
In the video below, Brett Heasman discusses his recently published paper Perspective-taking is two-sided: Misunderstandings between people with Asperger’s syndrome and their family members, co-authored with Alex Gillespie, Autism Journal, July 2017.
- At the request of some readers and the author, the featured image in this blog post was changed on 20 February 2017.
- Autism is the topic of the author’s ongoing research for his PhD dissertation with LSE’s Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science.
- The post gives the views of its author, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image credit: Photo by Trent Erwin on Unsplash
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Brett Heasman is a PhD student in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics (LSE), specialising in public understanding of autism. His research is published in journals including Autism and Current Opinions in Critical Care. He has worked for several years as both a carer and researcher with autistic people, and has won grant awards for collaboration and impact from the ESRC and LSE respectively. In 2017 he created the ‘Open Minds’ exhibition to promote autistic voices and improve public understanding of autism, which has been featured in an article by The Lancet Neurology, the world’s leading neurological journal. Twitter: @Brett_Heasman
I worked with an autistic man in a retail environment. Call him J. He was also germaphobic, and would clutch his clipboard to his chest with both hands to avoid shaking hands with people. J did not like to be touched, but other employees were never briefed on this, we found out when a few of us were having a conversation in front of a manager. “I just wanted to give J a hug, and he ran away from me!” one girl said. The manager said; “Oh! You can’t touch J – he’s germaphobic.” Employees ought to be briefed on things like that; if the person concerned is okay with it.
. In his narrow field of expertise, J was great. He knew where every item was located, and all about it. But management would often put him into other ‘low customer’ areas to complete scheduling. More than once I had to come to his aid when a customer became upset at his seeming careless indifferent attitude. If he didn’t know where an item was, he would gesture and say “over there”. When he became uncomfortable, whether from not knowing the product, the location or the customer getting angry with him, he would grin. A lot. Trying to diffuse them, I guess.
One customer said they were about to punch J if I hadn’t intervened. They ended up saying that it was great the store hired people like J, but that they needed to put more into training.
And that was the problem. J didn’t know how to ask for help when he didn’t know something. He didn’t know this was a problem until it was, so it never came up at his hiring meeting. He couldn’t think on his feet, so when he was asked something he didn’t know about, he was thrown off kilter and couldn’t respond properly. Management should have never put him into areas he wasn’t extremely familiar with. But it wasn’t brought up at his meeting, so it wasn’t a thing for them.
Thank you for sharing this experience Sharon. I think that sharing valuable workplace stories such as yours is one of the most effective and direct ways to improve employer understanding and workplace culture. We just need a platform for getting these stories out there and promoting the perspectives of autistic people so that no manager would ever hire without first having autism awareness training for themselves and their team. Thank goodness there are employees such as yourself who are sensitive and aware of what is going on.
I totally salute your efforts helping and advocating for your colleague Sharon. I would like to pick up on one point though. I have a friend who people might normally term a germaphobe, however I think these terms need some (gentle) challenging.
If you are a ‘germaphobe’ but actually pick up infections much more easily than your average person, would you be rushing to shake hands, to touch handles, to use public lavatories and so on? If once you have a cold or some other infection and it takes you much longer to shrug it off, wouldn’t it be more likely that your ‘germaphobia’ becomes more entrenched and that you would seem more guarded and aloof to others? Is it likely that an autistic person would walk around with a sign or a bit of paper saying ‘germaphobe due to constantly fighting infections that leave me run down and miserable’ or would they simply avoid shaking hands and touching other people?
Since becoming aware of my friend’s ‘germaphobia’, I began to follow some of their practices, and unsurprisingly I’ve not had the common cold for years. Perhaps that’s coincidence but I used to pick up a lot of colds and bugs and now I don’t pick up any (touches head for luck…).
I hope this doesn’t come across as critical. I just want to avoid smuggling in one misunderstood term – autism – for another – germaphobe – which is so easy to do because I used to do it myself until I understood my friend’s perspective better.
Found this blog and Ben’s area of research today. Gold star, v.g., and a big tick from me. Great stuff. Will keep an eye out for further papers, blogposts etc. Thank you.
I had an interview once where the interviewer said within “within 5 minutes I knew you wouldn’t fit in here. I can tell from your body language.”
I didn’t get the opportunity to demonstrate my knowledge or skills, I just got drilled on how many friends I had, how social I’d be, and how I couldn’t possible work in that environment because I didn’t have the right personality and it’d be cruel to continue the interview.
That destroyed me, for the interview and beyond. I had the relevant skills (I’d a great score on a practical test on a previous interview, but the location meant it wasn’t to be) but couldn’t get my foot in the door to show them off.
Not wanting to ever go through that ordeal again, I took a career change; a pay cut and waste of 5 years experience, but clearly I would never actually be welcome in this industry.
…I’ve since been diagnosed as autistic.
I suppose technically, he was correct- I wouldn’t have fit in with an environment that can’t tolerate someone autistic. But that’s about as reasonable as saying; “well, we’re a bit of a lad’s office. You’re a lady, and clearly won’t fit in here.”
(I’m still bitter now, several years later!)
Hi Doodle, your perspective highlights so many important issues, thank you for sharing. I’m very sorry you’ve had these experiences, particularly the way in which you were treated by the employer and their totally unnecessary comments. You highlight an important point – interview situations are stressful, but for autistic people this stress is magnified hugely. Bad experiences can have long-lasting psychological effects. The need for employers to think carefully and sensitively about how they handle candidates is vital because it is so easy to cause actual psychological harm to people.
As you point out, it was probably a blessing in disguise not to work for such a company. I do believe that interview situations go both ways, and they certainly were not up to the standard of employer you were looking for.
Thanks for writing this & being a great ally. Some quick thoughts:
* Employment law in the UK seems to systematically discriminate against autistic ppl by allowing phrases like ‘good communication skills’ & ‘team player’ to be in general job requirements by not explicitly describing the context e.g. do you want written communication skills, or the gift of the (corporate/NT/chatty) gab?
* (Related point) The first round of selection screening of applications may well be done by someone very NT (e.g. the person in HR/reception who answers the phone), rather than someone with a practical understanding of the role, thus further selecting out autistic candidates/candidates with autistic traits.
* Is your work informed by Dunning-Kruger? Or have you rejected that? i.e. autistic people may well be very competent & have accurate meta-perspectives, without being overtly confident?
As an older adult autistic, I have given up on any chance of ever working for others, ever again. No matter how hard I work or how good I am at what I do (and I’m very good at many things,) no one accepts how I communicate, no matter how well-meaning I try. To have even had to say what I just said, makes me feel miserable, because now I assume I’ll be accused of whinging. But I’m just stating that facts as simply as I can. Whatever is happening in society, it involves far too many assumptions which are false and it involves holding back far too much information. Assume nothing. Hold back nothing (but be nice about it) even if you think it is “understood”. It’s the result of allowing “unwritten” social rules which might suit superficial people with great memories, but as a deep person with significant memory problems, except as apply to my areas of knowledge, unwritten social rules at home or at work are worse than double jeopardy, and causes great humiliation which reduces immunity amongst other things. ACEsTooHigh website does a very good job of getting the point across about the health problems from being abused, and those on the autism spectrum suffer a great amount of emotional abuse, and we already have enough trouble reigning in our emotions, because most of us seem to care far more deeply about this world than the seeming majority of its residents. And you know that that is? That is terrifying to us. Care more. Share more. Stop being mean. Do the world some good. And one more thing … It may take us a long time to acclimate to new situations, but if we are allowed to safely acclimate without being criticized, we DO have the capacity to adapt to the social environment. We don’t, however, get much of a chance. Maybe you can acclimate instantly or in an hour or day or two, but we need weeks, months, depending. Be patient. Be kind. The world needs us.