Imagine that you just had a surgical procedure, and your boss threatened to punch you where it hurts if you did not take on a project nobody wants.
Imagine that you had a peanut allergy, and your coworkers threatened to slip some peanut butter in your lunch if you did not pick up extra work.
That’s inhumane, right? We don’t hire people like that. We don’t threaten people at work with physical pain, extra work or no. Those stories must be made up.
Relax. They are.
But this one is real.
Coworkers knew that an accomplished, “non-autistic looking” professional is extremely sensitive to noise, to the point of shutting down and crying when exposed to loud music – and even to vibration from the music.
So, when an office neighbor wanted to “delegate” some work to that autistic professional, they threatened to “play bad loud music.”
And that “delegating” office neighbor was … a Chief Diversity Officer.
I could not make that up if I tried.
That CDO had all the “right words” and even a genuine passion for inclusion and ethical treatment of people. Except that inclusion excluded autistic people.
Sadly, that CDO is not alone. Responses elicited by the mention of autism inclusion in the workplace range from “we don’t have any autistics here, they would not fit/would not be able to work here” to “some autistic people are SO successful – how different can they be?” And, of course, “we have more important problems right now.”
These reactions are indicative of the several biases that stem from misrepresentations and stereotyping of autistic people. Even now, when the societal sensitivity to bias is heightened, some of the autism representations are so dehumanizing, they can be used to justify pain as a workplace “motivator.”
Misrepresentation and othering
For decades, the dehumanization of autistic people has permeated modern culture – and even “medical” advice. Wide-spread representations of “autistics” include human calculators devoid of emotion and “out of control” children who need to be physically restrained (public service announcement – physical restraint shown in the movie “Music” can be deadly). Some of the intervention approaches construe autistic people as “malfunctioning operating systems” that need to be re-programmed to be something other than who they are through intensive daily conditioning of reward and punishment (Devita-Raeburn, 2016; Kupferstein 2019; McGill & Robinson, 2020).
Exaggerated and often caricatured portrayals contributed to the significant othering of autistic people. Othered stereotypes of autism “look” lead to the denial of abilities - those who even partially fit the image are assumed to be unable to “fit” and contribute in the workplace. The same stereotypes also lead to the denial of difficulties experienced by people on the spectrum who don’t resemble the othered portrayal – and the idea that those who appear successful do not struggle, “are not really autistic,” and their sensory sensitivities or social overwhelm are “likes and dislikes” rather than physiological responses of pain. However, the extent of different manifestations, struggles, and abilities of the autism spectrum is highly varied and does not fit the overall “all high or all low” pattern. Some highly verbal people can have extreme sensory sensitivities; others may use a device to communicate and be gifted artists or programmers.
“Othering” also leads to moral exclusion – a phenomenon in which individuals who consider themselves moral, just, and good exclude some of the groups and people from considerations of human rights, dignity, and autonomy. People who would typically decry the threat of inflicting pain as a form of control as wrong and immoral simply do not see those moral limitations as applicable to an autistic child - or to an adult with sensory sensitivities in the workplace.
Including the “unincludable”
Autism inclusion is complicated. Despite the pioneering efforts of companies such as SAP, JP Morgan, Microsoft and Ultranauts, there is still an 85% unemployment rate among autistic professionals with college degrees and in-demand skills. In a recent UK study, 50 percent of hiring managers expressed the reluctance to hire autistic and other neurominority candidates. But that complexity in itself presents an opportunity for a deeper understanding of our cultures, workplaces, ourselves, and both group-level and individual-level mechanisms of exclusion. Creating a workplace welcoming of psychological differences will require a much more nuanced and empirically informed education than the typical diversity training. It will also require an improved understanding of social and psychological mechanisms of bias and exclusion to which even diversity officers and other organizational professionals are susceptible. In the long run, learning to include some of the most “unincludable” will help create more welcoming systems for all.
*Adult autism communities and advocates typically prefer identity-first language reflecting autism-acceptance – “autistic” and reject the person-first “individual with autism.” “On the spectrum” is a compromise term used in this article along with “autistic.”
Devita-Raeburn, E. (2016). The controversy over autism’s most common therapy. Spectrumnews.
Kupferstein, H. (2019), "Why caregivers discontinue applied behavior analysis (ABA) and choose communication-based autism interventions", Advances in Autism, Vol. 6 No. 1, pp. 72-80. https://doi.org/10.1108/AIA-02-2019-0004
McGill, O. and Robinson, A. (2020), “Recalling hidden harms”: autistic experiences of childhood applied behavioural analysis (ABA)", Advances in Autism, Vol. ahead-of-print https://doi.org/10.1108/AIA-04-2020-0025