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Implementing Common Sense Practices to Improve the Psychological and Emotional Safety of Autistic Adults in the Workplace

I hired five adults on the autism spectrum. Am I a hero? No. Do I have all of the answers? No. However, after years of actively listening to autistic adults describe their emotional struggles whilst they desperately tried to maintain employment in the traditional workplace, I am committed to taking their lessons on board and creating a productive, vibrant, psychologically and emotionally safe work environment at Spectrum Fusion.

Spectrum Fusion Media team from left to right: Darren Logue (Production Assistant and Videographer), Rhys Griffin, (Visual Storyteller), and Philip Thomas (Lead Editor and Videographer)

Spectrum Fusion Media team from left to right: Darren Logue (Production Assistant and Videographer), Rhys Griffin, (Visual Storyteller), and Philip Thomas (Lead Editor and Videographer)

Employment outcomes for neurodivergent individuals are bleak, especially for adults on the autism spectrum. Published studies in the United States, UK, Australia, and Canada all report high unemployment rates for adults on the autism spectrum. In 2012, Shattuck and colleagues published their findings that approximately 85% of autistic adults were unemployed. Although 35% of adults on the autism spectrum attend college, only 15% were employed, a much larger disparity than that found in the population at large. Moreover, such individuals were more likely to be underemployed, thus not contributing to their full level of capability (Shattuck et al., 2012). Roux et al. (2013) reported that merely 53.4% of autistic adults ever held a paid job since graduating from high school.

Securing and sustaining employment continues to be the number one challenge facing autistic adults in 2021. It doesn’t have to be this way. With a few common sense practices, companies can create psychologically and emotionally safe workplace environments that will attract and retain adults on the autism spectrum so they can thrive, grow, and bring their talents to society.

Psychological Safety 101

We have all heard about companies who touted their “open-door” policies, encouraging their employees to candidly share their ideas or feelings only to have those same employers use the information against their employees at a later date. In organizational psychology, the most widely accepted definition of psychological safety was put forward by Edmondson (1999) as a shared belief by the employees as to whether it is safe to engage in interpersonal disclosure in the workplace. Psychological safety is the belief that one won’t be humiliated or retaliated against for sharing ideas, questions, concerns, or even mistakes. Google’s Project Aristotle research revealed that psychological safety was the most critical factor in highly productive teams. Recently, Yuwan and Keller (2021) published their findings that project teams in R&D perform better and stay longer. This makes perfect sense. Our team at Spectrum Fusion report that they feel safe to share without fear of retribution.

Resilience and Stamina

Adults on the autism spectrum report suffering from trauma and PTSD after working in environments that are not well-suited for their neurology and cognitive styles. As a result of the resulting PTSD, these individuals experienced heightened emotional response to stress that may lead to adrenal fatigue, emotional exhaustion, chronic fatigue, and burnout.

It is important to cultivate and environment where adults have the freedom to be vulnerable and allow their true selves to shine. Creating a work-life balance and a reasonable schedule is crucial for emotional healing.

I have developed a tiered approach that is designed specifically for each employee’s neurology. It is unrealistic to expect that all individuals are ready to work a full-time schedule. Some of our employees are beginning the healing process, building up their stamina and resilience, and may only be able to work a few hours a day. Moreover, early mornings are often not a possibility and therefore, they start work after noon. If tasks can be completed remotely, that is an option; however, many of our media projects require collaboration and working together as a team to set up video productions.

The media team is comprised of individuals on the autism spectrum and they have all experienced traumatic situations in traditional workplace settings and are very supportive of one another. The team has the autonomy to determine when they want to set up a video production. If they want to work late in the afternoon or late into the evening, that is a possibility. Their hours are increased as their stamina begins to increase. When traditional employers suggest that our approach may not behoove our employees if they have to conform to another traditional setting in the future, my response is, “Why can’t this be the model that is used for traditional settings as well?”

Invalidation and Gaslighting

Individuals on the autism spectrum may be reticent to share their feelings with their employers for fear of rejection or retaliation, and they may have difficulty trusting coworkers with their emotions. Many autistic adults have been victims of dysfunctional relationships that included emotional manipulation such as invalidation and gaslighting. Research findings show that children whose emotions were invalidated demonstrate difficulties in emotional regulations later in life (Zimmer-Gembeck et a., 2017). Therefore, it is important to validate concerns and build trust in the employer-employee relationship.

It is imperative to mitigate any unnecessary stress including hidden rules, unclear expectations, and indirect communication. Ways that we build trust include being transparent, direct, validating employee’s concerns and feelings, and ensuring that employees know where they stand. Invalidation is actually a form of emotional manipulation and includes judging, minimizing, or rejecting someone’s feelings (Linehan, 1993).

A few examples include:

  • “It could be a lot worse.”
  • “You really shouldn’t feel that way.”
  • “I am sure that they didn’t mean to say that (or do that) to you.”

When someone’s feelings are invalidated it can lead to despair, anxiety, emotional overload and confusion. Often this is paired with gaslighting that is defined as creating another person’s reality. We must create authentic environments where employees do not have to second guess themselves or their realities.

Time for Rest and Recuperation

Individuals on the autism spectrum demonstrate empathy. One of the greatest misconceptions is that autistic adults do not have the capability to empathize, or that they do not experience attachment to people or animals. Often, autistic individuals are highly empathetic and have strong bonds with their family members as well as their family pets.

Even if employees are part-time, we believe that they deserve paid time off for bereavement. One of our employees recently lost his family pet and was grieving. Although pet bereavement is not a typical benefit to most employees, we believe that it should be. Spectrum Fusion paid an hourly employee for three days of leave so he could grieve the loss of his pet. He returned ready to face new challenges.

Our employees have a desire to work but in a way that suits their strengths and cognitive styles. I was told one time that “Spectrum Fusion is better than real life.” Let’s create workplace environments that are safe and allow individuals to make their dream of sustaining employment a reality.

Heidi Stieglitz Ham, PhD, is CEO and Founder of Spectrum Fusion and Adjunct Professor at Rice University. For more information, visit www.SpectrumFusion.org.

References

Edmondson, A. C. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44, 350–383.

Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorders. Guilford. Mountford, V

Liu, Y., & Keller, R. T. (2021). How Psychological Safety Impacts R&D Project Teams’ Performance: In a psychologically safe workplace, R&D project teams perform better, more readily share knowledge and engage in organizational citizenship behavior, and are less likely to leave. Research Technology Management64(2), 39–45. https://doi.org/10.1080/08956308.2021.1863111

Roux, A.M., Shattuck, P.T., Cooper, B.P., Anderson, K.A., and Narendorf, S.C. (2013). Postsecondary Employment Experiences Among Young Adults with an Autism Spectrum Disorder Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry ,52 (9): 931-939.

Shattuck, P.T., Narendorf, S.C., Cooper, B., Sterzing, P.R., Wagner, M. and Lounds Taylor, J. (2012). Postsecondary Education and Employment Among Youth with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Pediatrics, 129:1042–1049. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2011-2864

Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J., Webb, H. J., Pepping, C. A., Swan, K., Merlo, O., Skinner, E. A., Avdagic, E., & Dunbar, M. (2017). Review: Is parent-child attachment a correlate of children’s emotion regulation and coping. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 41(1), 74–93. https://doi.org/10.1177/0165025415618276

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