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Specialisterne USA

Specialisterne USA Inc., a charitable not-for-profit 503(c) American organization, focused on building a bridge between neurodivergent job seekers and employers. We support employers to tap into the talents of a neurodiverse workforce and build inclusive organizations through education, training, and advisory.

Specialisterne Foundation

Specialisterne Foundation is a nonprofit organization that works to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges.

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If you hadn’t read the title of this article, and I asked you to picture a bully, what would be the first image to pop into your head? A stocky 12-year-old towering over a skinny kid with glasses shaking him down on the playground for lunch money? A popular 15-year-old cheerleader calling the awkward girl with braces names in the hallway?

Sure. Those are two examples of real types of bullies, but they’re not the ones your neurodivergent employees have to contend with in the workplace. Adult bullies aren’t like the cliched teenage bullies you see on TV, and the damage they cause goes far beyond anything that can be solved in an hour-long time slot.

Thin-Slice Judgments Can Make Your Autistic Employees Targets for Bullying

While anyone, regardless of neurotype, can become the target of workplace bullying, autistic individuals are often singled out especially due to their social and behavioral differences.

Studies have shown that as soon as a non-autistic person comes into the briefest contact with an autistic person, they sense that something is amiss, different in a way they cannot quite wrap their minds around, and this makes them feel uncomfortable.

These immediate and often-unconscious reactions are known as ‘thin-slice judgments’.  This results in far less favorable impressions of the autistic person across a range of trait judgments (compared to neurotypical controls) and in reduced intentions to pursue social interaction with the autistic person.

In other words, your autistic employees are often unconsciously shuffled into an ‘other’ category by their neurotypical counterparts before they even have a chance to make introductions!

The good news is, studies have also indicated that even though first impressions of autistic people can go poorly, disclosing diagnosis/identity and providing education about natural autistic traits, mannerisms, behavior, and intentions can go a long way in improving social relations between autistic and non-autistic people.

Common Autistic Traits That Fuel Bullying Also Benefit Your Bottom Line

The irony for me has always been that the traits that are usually targeted for bullying are the same traits that make an autistic person such an asset to your company.

For example:

      • Strong Sense of Justice
        Autistic folks value fairness, equality, and just treatment of others across the board, regardless of an individual’s ascribed social status. This can make us look like we are currying favor with our supervisors or give the impression we think we’re better than others, which can provoke bullying. The truth is, that’s just how our brains are wired.
      • Avoiding Rumors and Gossip
        When I worked in office environments, I was embarrassingly clueless about the latest office gossip, rumors, romances, and scandals. I went to work to work, not to socialize, but this made me a target for bullying because instead of my behavior coming across as dedication, it made me seem like I was “above it all”. Nah. My brain just didn’t tune into the gossip frequency, and I genuinely didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes, so I didn’t talk about it.
      • Productivity and Hyperfocus
        When my autistic/ADHD brain decides it’s time to commit to a task, it slips into hyperfocus, and I become extremely productive. Unfortunately, when I’m interrupted during hyperfocus, it can take me a long time to get back on track, so when co-workers stopped by my desk to make small talk, I wouldn’t know what to make of it (since I didn’t understand the importance of small talk to non-autistic people back then), and I’m sure I came across as standoffish, which (apparently) caused people to talk behind my back–but hey, at least they left me alone. lol!

Are Workplace Bullies Flying Under the Radar?

The playground bullies and the mean girls are easy enough to identify and deal with when they’re younger, but when these bullies grow up, they become more covert and manipulative, creating a hostile work environment right under your nose.

Signs of covert bullying include, but are not limited to:

  • Spreading false rumors
  • Withholding information
  • Excluding their target
  • Ignoring their target
  • Isolating their target
  • Mean-spirited teasing disguised as “jokes”
  • Veiled threats and intimidation
  • Minimizing or denying the target’s feelings or experiences
  • Continually changing expectations
  • Frequent and unnecessary criticism

Since these types of behaviors can be difficult to spot when they’re happening, it may be more beneficial to look to your employee(s) to see if they are showing signs of being the target of covert bullying. For example, agitation (beyond sensory sensitivities), anxiety, frequently calling out of work, and/or avoiding a certain person or group of people. Your employee may also appear moody, sullen, confused, and withdrawn.

The Takeaway

Autistic people are often the target of bullies simply for existing in the world, and certain autistic traits that are beneficial for a corporation as a whole can unintentionally invite bullying.

Over time, the target of workplace bullying will become consumed by it and no longer be able to be a productive member of the team. This can lead to the person electing to leave the job, being fired from the job, needing to take mental health leave, or even developing severe enough medical complications that they die as a result.

Yes, it’s that serious.

When it comes to workplace bullying, be aware of it in all its forms (even the hidden ones), take it seriously, and defend your vulnerable employees against it. It’s not just about protecting your interests, it’s about elevating your leadership and creating a working environment where everyone feels safe, included, and valued–no matter how their brain is designed.


Sources:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28145411/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29039208/

https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20191219-workplace-bullying-is-more-harmful-than-we-realised