by Peter Sun San Wong
Researcher at Southern
October 26, 2018
It takes all sorts:
workplaces can harness as strengths the differences
usually disadvantage people with autism.
autistic people to 'fit in' is cruel and unproductive
Value us for our strengths...
Just 16% of adults with autism are in full-time paid employment, and
this situation is not improving.
The Economist has
described this as,
"a tragic toll, as
millions of people live idle and isolated outside the world of
When people with autism
do get a job, they face bullying, discrimination and isolation
in the workplace.
I know the harsh reality from personal experience. Who better to
research and write about productivity and employment outcomes than
someone who has experienced autism and 40 years of competitive
Autism is a lifelong phenomenon. It's in the genes. It will never go
At school I was called retard, crazy horse and other stupid names.
Even worse, I was expelled eight times. Teachers did not understand
that I could not identify non-verbal cues to behavior.
That I needed to move and
to run to cope. That I spoke loudly and was perfectly clear about my
perspective with teachers and peers but could not reciprocate
appropriately in school interactions.
I found school tasks based on rote learning very challenging.
I had difficulty
processing sound information. I could concentrate for long periods
on tasks of interest to me, but was unable to respond to teacher
cues about where to direct my attention. I was punished repeatedly
without really knowing why.
But my mother never gave up on me. Time after time she found another
school so I could continue my education. Thank you, Mum. You are the
These school expulsions traumatized me so much that I vowed never to
let a workplace terminate me. When a job was not working out, I quit
and found another - 28 times in 27 years.
Autism is a lifelong phenomenon.
It's in the genes.
It will never go away.
Then, at age 47, I found a job I held for 15 years, until I retired.
These experiences have informed my research into strategies to
improve employment rates and work enjoyment for other people with
Focus on Strengths,
Mainstream psychiatry frames autism as a spectrum of disorders.
Really? Do we have to act
like somebody else to be judged 'normal'?
Laurent Mottron, a psychiatry professor at the University of
argues against a 'deficit-based'
approach to children with autism. The premise is that 'treatment'
should change them, make them conform, suppress their repetitive
behaviors and moderate their 'obsessive' interests.
This approach, Mottron says, has done nothing to improve
employment outcomes for people with autism.
In my own case, attempts by teachers and work managers to make me
behave 'normally' often just triggered my autism. My reactions at
school led to expulsions. At work I would quit.
So I agree with Mottron and others autism researchers that want to
move beyond studying autism as a deficit and to emphasize the
abilities and strengths of people with
It's the Key
to High Productivity
Part of the economic rationale for funding Australia's National
Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is based on the scheme
leading to productivity gains by
increasing people's independence and participation in the workforce.
The whole scheme will be
compromised if we fail to promote better productivity and employment
outcomes for people with autism, who make up
29% of participants in the scheme
with approved plans.
frames autism as
a spectrum of disorders.
Research by the
Gallup Organization shows
people who use their strengths every day are,
15% less likely
to quit their jobs
six times more
likely to be engaged at work
three times more
likely to report an excellent quality of life
Performance reviews that
emphasize personal strengths improve organizational performance.
Singling out people with
autism by focusing on their deficits alone does not make sense.
My academic method is auto-ethnographic, involving deep reflection
on my personal experiences over a lifetime of living with autism and
connecting this experience to wider cultural, political and social
Three key insights for enhancing employment outcomes have emerged.
Build on employee
knowledge, skills and willingness to engage meaningfully and
productively at work.
For example, providing a predictable structure and routine
and the chance to contribute and plan for change enabled my
strengths as a sales consultant to benefit the organization.
the restrictions of procedure others took for
Treat every individual as an asset to grow and retain
This idea builds on the theory of
Peter Drucker, the father
of modern management.
An employer can
define a worker's job tasks but should allow the
knowledge-worker to work out how to do a task most
Workplaces can harness
the strengths and advantages
of autistic attributes.
In my case, I compensated for a lack of neuro-typical social
skills by convincing management to give me autonomy because
I created value for the business.
proved its worth in my final, and by far longest, period of
Be aware of, and avoid, autism triggers
These triggers, however trivial they may seem to others, can
set off acute stress reactions.
unexpected and unexplained changes to routines and
interactions involving implied but ironic criticism
off-the-cuff negative feedback
auditory distraction during periods of stress
In my final
workplace, for example, my managers and I used a mediator to
avoid confrontations over work issues that would have been
As a result, I
could circumvent the pressures that had previously led me to
The hallmark of an enlightened society should be its level of
Wanting to change a
person's autistic behaviors is like attempting to correct
left-handedness or sexual preference. It is cruel, unnatural and
doomed to fail. It does not foster inclusion but emphasizes
We can change the significant social and employment disadvantage
experienced by people with autism by seeing their assets rather than
By rethinking their
management attitudes and practices, workplaces can harness as
strengths and advantages the attributes that usually disadvantage
people with autism.