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Why you should tackle the bullying of Autistic employees in the workplace, and how to do it.

Autistic people have some of the lowest employment rates globally of any minority group. As some examples: 85% are unemployed in the US, 78% in the UK and 60% in Australia.

Contrary to what you might initially believe, these figures often has little to do with an Autistic persons ability to perform a job. Often it is the difficulty experiences in relationships with allistic (non-autistic) people that cause Autistic people to leave the workforce. The stigma associated with autism and the judgement around autistic traits follow Autistic people wherever they go, including the workplace.

Not only are Autistic people more susceptible to bullying because they are in a minority (around 1% of the population), studies have shown that allistic people have automatic bias to Autistic people that makes them not want to socialise with Autistic people. Autistic people are battling against a bias that people do not even know they have.

In addition to this, Autistic people often don’t realise that they are being bullied (or gaslit, or discriminated against), precisely because of being Autistic: bottom up thinking means that Autistic people process stimuli in front of them as it is, without linking it to preconceived understandings of the world. This means they often don’t perceive something as bullying until well after the fact, when they have fully processed the situation.

Yet over half of Autistic employees have experienced workplace bullying.

Bullying frequently centres around Autistic communication, which is notoriously direct and honest in contrast to the more indirect communication of allistic people. Autistic people are consistently ranked harshly on reviews of collaboration and team work because of this, despite Autistic communication being a valid (and highly effective, when it occurs with a fellow Autistic person) form of communication.

Often this bullying relates as much to an Autistic person’s strengths as their differences. Autistic people have been shown to be up to 150% more productive than allistic people, and this is often felt by allistic colleagues to make them look bad by comparison, resulting in bullying.

Autistic people have experienced these reactions to their natural Autistic traits throughout their lives, and often have deep trauma related to it. Autistic people can therefore suffer more from the bullying they experience than a neurotypical peer might.

Further adding to the trauma, Autistic people are unlikely to be believed or receive empathy if they share their experience of workplace bullying. This is because most of the time persons to whom such bullying is reported are allistic and unaware of these common experiences of Autistic people. Autistic people’s natural behaviour - averting their gaze and fidgeting, for example - can be perceived as them lying.

Why this should matter to you

From a human perspective, the bullying of a group of employees should matter to you. Especially with the increase in focus on workplace wellbeing by many employers, it’s vital to recognise that workplace wellbeing will never truly improve until the treatment of Neurodivergent people does.

Your employees are an investment, and with the productivity stats of Autistic people noted above, a valuable one. Yet those appalling unemployment statistics for Autistic people remain. If you need a business case beyond the human case, it’s right there.

How you can take action

There are many layers to this issue, and we strongly suggest engaging with an actually Autistic consultant to address this issue. In the meantime, here’s three tips to get started:

1. Invest in Neurodiversity Training. Start with management and expand to all employees. You want this to be focused on getting people to understand how autism actually presents in reality - which means the best people to be doing the training are those with lived experience.

2. Seek out Feedback. You might not think you have any Autistic staff, or at least none willing to disclose to you. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there and struggling with bullying. Listen to their experiences and take action.

3. Believe Autistic people. You might not relate to our experiences or have heard anyone else speaking up about things that concern us. That doesn’t mean our experiences are not real. The reality for many Autistic people is that we are rarely believed, so approaching with an open mind makes all the difference.

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