Workplace bullying of autistic people: a Vicious cycle.
Bullying is one of the most persistent and costly workplace problems. It harms employee physical and mental health and results in the loss of productivity, as well as talent loss via turnover. And yet, bullying is hardly ever addressed.
While workplace bullying is highly problematic for all employees, it has particularly severe consequences for autistic individuals. Bullying of autistic people in the workplace is a problem that cost many their jobs and is likely contributing to the extremely high rates of unemployment (85% in the US, 78% in the UK, and 60% in Australia). In this paper, I propose that bullying of autistic people is also a problem made particularly persistent due to its cyclical nature: autistic people are more likely to be bullied, and are also more strongly affected by bullying, both psychologically and physiologically. Sadly, autistic employees are also less likely to be believed while seeking a recourse, and less likely to receive empathy. This leads to further cycles of bullying.
Autistic people are more likely to be bullied
Starting in the childhood, autistic people are more likely to be bullied both at home and at school. This continues in the workplace. Compared to other employees, autistic individuals are more likely to be targeted by bullies. In the UK, half of the autistic employees report bullying, harassment, or other discrimination or unfair treatment at work.
Exceptionally high productivity of many autistic people, along with their strong focus on work, are often touted when presenting the business case for autism employment. After all, no other group of employees has been shown to be up to 140% more productive than their typical counterparts. However, there is a danger to this focus and productivity. “Get smarty pants” phenomenon, also known as bullying and victimization of top performers, is well documented in the workplace as well as at school. A key explanation is coworker envy and concern with unfavorable comparison. High performance and the resulting coworker envy are likely to contribute to bullying of autistic performers. Moreover, autistic focus on work rather than socializing, while contributing to productivity, can also be perceived by coworkers as negative. Other “strikes” against autistic performers include blunt communication perceived as lack of agreeableness, and simply being different.
On the other end of performance distribution, low performers are also likely to experience bullying. If an autistic individual is poorly matched to the job or the job calls for skills associated with “lows” of one’s “spiky” profiles, the lower performance is also likely to cause bullying.
Bullying of high performers is likely to be covert. Typical tactics include withholding of information and resources, gossip, making false complaints to supervisors, sabotage, and backstabbing. Bullying of low performers is more likely to be overt and to involve yelling, threats, and other forms of direct hostility.
It is well-documented that bullying is detrimental to individuals’ productivity. It can harm performance by affecting cognitive processes – and likely more so for autistic employees due to the tendency toward rumination and other physical and mental health differences described in the next session. Hence, unfortunately, bullying coworkers may achieve their goal of hampering the high performer’s success. However, bullying does not help improve low performance.
Autistic people are more strongly affected by bullying
While all workers suffer the negative effects of bullying, these effects are often particularly detrimental to autistic individuals. Autistic people are more likely to have chronic autonomic nervous system (ANS) hyperarousal – a chronic biological threat response. This makes autistic individuals more vulnerable to harmful physiological stress response to bullying and incivility, possibly resulting in physical illness or even cardiac events.
In addition, the history of bullying trauma typical of autistic individuals results in another vulnerability factor – gelotophobia, the conditioned fear of being laughed at and ridiculed. The term is derived from the Greek word ‘‘gelos’’ for laughter and ‘‘phobia’’ for fear. It is a type of anxiety related to an intense feeing of shame arising as a long-lasting result of prior bullying, ridicule, and mockery. Because ridicule and mockery are some of the most typical ways in which the world treats autistic people, high levels of gelotophobia are reported to occur at much higher rates in autistic (87.4) vs. non-autistic populations (22.6%). It is likely that the repeated experience of bullying creates the phobia of being mocked, which likely exacerbates social awkwardness in autistic people, leading to a cycle of torment and further increases in fear and anxiety.
Autistic people are less likely to be believed
Most workplaces in the US lack regulations against bullying, and despite generally stronger legislation, Canada and many European countries still lack anti-bullying recourse. In many cases, there is simply no recourse. And if there is any possibility of recourse, the burden of proof rests on the target on bullying – and autistic people are less likely to be believed.
Experimental research indicates that autistic individuals are seen as more deceptive and
of lesser character” than neurotypical individuals when telling the truth. These judgments relied on perceivers’ impressions such as “he seemed nervous,” or “body language seemed off” and the overall liking.
The pervasive and unfounded stereotypes held by the general public as well as some supposed “experts” label gaze aversion and fidgeting (nervousness and the “off” body language) as indicating deception. In reality, reliable behavioral cues to deception do not exist. Unfortunately, stereotypical “liar” behaviors are also typical autistic behaviors, and without training and education, most individuals make incorrect attributions. Moreover, their disbelief and denial of the autistic person’s experienced reality will likely contribute to the gaslighting trauma often experienced by autistic individuals, which is turn is likely to make them even more nervous – and thus, to typical observers, deceptive-looking.
Autistic people are less like to receive empathy
Due to the lack of effective, systematically applied anti-bullying mechanisms, targets of bullying are often at the mercy of individual decision-makers within organizations. Such decision-makers may hear their concerns – or side with bullies. In some cases, leaders rely on their own empathy in “taking sides” – and empathy is likely to result in taking the side of those more similar to decision-makers themselves rather than to those actually telling the truth.
Most decision-makers are allistic and are thus more likely to side with other allistics rather than with autistics. Research demonstrates that non-autistic individuals tend to lack empathy toward autistic people and display significant automatic bias of disliking after a very brief first impression, which persists into further interaction, and is accompanied by exclusionary behaviors. Thus, an allistic bully will likely have an advantage over an autistic target in the judgment of allistic decision-makers.
The lack of empathy from decision-makers and the lack of recourse are likely to inflict a further betrayal injury on autistic employees. The resulting trauma reactions (dejection, depression, anxiety, self-isolation) will likely, in turn, perpetuate victimization.
In sum, the cycle of bullying in the workplace is embedded in both organizational systems and in human biases. Therefore, it is unlikely to be broken without significant structural intervention. I will discuss several possible mechanisms that may help reduce bullying in the workplace in general and bullying of autistic employees specifically in the next installment.
Bullying is a big problem in the workplace.
I am Cecilia. This article is very practical and real. I am very pleased to read it.
I am a public health practitioner I live with a friend who is autistic. I fully agree with the article and I hope you can make suggestions to leaders in all countries.
Practical working and accomodation home with employments e.g. a few buildings with professionals, walk in diagnosis, ^no unnecessary questions” policies, a legal advisor, job cobsultant, real working employment opportunities, priority for familiy members, yrained as cater and paud, so a proportion of the family members wotk for this group, and the rest feel happy and secure to work in other sectors. employment, residence for family, shops, companies, learning and training opportunities, staff to teach and FINISH the job of they failed due to intrinsic problems etc.
Help them, i.e. about 1 to 2 percent in populations in each countries, even may be a bit loss, just make it as charity or socisl welfare.
Make the countties more empathetic, recognise the capabilities. Help thrm, thr family members and the countries themselves.
I wish you every success. Please try allethod to contact me for research or any project to hrlp this group. Please assume technical errors anc until you can reach me.
I am from the Uk and being bullied at work cus I have undiagnosed ASD Autism Spectrum Disorder. Carnt do anything about it.. Tryed to report it but no one listens.
It’s very sad but I’ve dealt with this my entire life. Once you get past the trauma of being bullied as a child you enter a new era of being bullied by adults in the workplace. I now have three children and see them getting bullied. My daughter has taught me to stand up for myself because she has a natural ability to do this. All 3 of my children are on the spectrum and they have taught me so much about myself.
I am seeking some advice for my grandson who is autistic. He is high functioning and has been in a job for 3 weeks. Yesterday he was told “nobody likes workin with you” by a supervisor. He is upset and is worried about what to do. This is so far one incident. He is now worried about it happening again. What can he do?
Are you still seeking help with this situation?
I’m autistic and have experienced bullying in my childhood and adulthood, including by other autistic people. I cannot say how harmful this action is. It effectively destroyed my employment and my inclusion in community. That so many of us are online with forums where it’s easy to bully and remain anonymous doesn’t help. So very hurt that these things happen.
I’m autistic and have been bullied both as an adult and a child, and by other autistic people. I cannot say how destructive it is. It ruined my employment because I finally resigned; my community because I was manipulated and mocked, and it hurt my health. I hope one day these things will change
This hurts so much. I am autistic and have a master’s degree but am essentially unemployable because I can’t convincingly hide my autism in job interviews. The few jobs I have had, the bullying and abuse always started a few weeks in regardless of how much I burned myself out to hide my autism, how much I went out of my way to be nice, or just tried to keep my head down and avoid socializing. None of it ever made a difference. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been fired for “not being a good fit for this organization”, i.e. not fitting in socially.
I’m close to being homeless and scared and wish I would die in my sleep every night. I’ve been looking for a job that will allow me to work remotely from home for 2 yers now, and my savings are out. I’m on my third vocational rehabilitation counselor and sick of being passed off to new ones when I fail to even get so much as an interview after months of applying. None of them care. And the saddest thing is, there are hundreds of thousands of highly educated autistic adults just like me in this exact same situation. We are literally DYING because nobody will give us a chance.
My ex was a customer at my work who had been bullying me for 8 months, including aggression Infront of witnesses. I eventually spoke to my manager but asked her not to act because I was concerned for my ex’s mental health. My ex then raised complaints against me which my manager stated I should trust her. I was a wreck by this point already having taken time off work for my own mental health and trusted my manager going through the process. I wished to speak her her about my safety concerns but she asked me to speak to her after.
I was taken off half my hours for 4 months without pay, unlawfully I discovered later, and my manager then refused to discuss my safety with me for over a month. I made a personal complaint to her as her advice to me to trust her etc had been private. She then withdrew communication from me entirely and I was taken off the rest of my hours.
I was also excluded from other workplace activities and training which reduced my chance of effective performance when I did return and isolated me from my community. Because my manager was no longer in contact with me and I was in contact with board members I didn’t trust, I couldn’t clarify if I was even allowed to speak to anyone about my case to seek support.
I had a series of intense meltdowns within one day and attempted to contact my manager throughout this. I included discussing autism and asking for more support, and citing the additional risk of PTSD in this situation due to my autism. She ignored me but emailed me and asked me not to text her. I emailed back and agreed, and offered courses of action that would have been more trauma informed. She responded telling me I wasn’t in a position to offer suggestions and threatened me with a harassment complaint and dismissal.
My counsellor wrote a letter of support giving advice and offering to help guide the workplace free of charge, because she is AuDHD and sees it as her activism. She included stating she believed a decline in my mental health was predictable if they didn’t change their management.
They ignored her, flat out.
Eventually I was to have my end of disciplinary meeting which was now being discussed as a ‘review’. Nothing had been dealt with and no provisions made regarding the obvious conflict with my manager, who was to run the meeting, or given my mental health. I had to repeatedly ask for my counsellor to be contacted before the meeting and be present at the meeting, and my counsellor also had to repeatedly contact, before I was told she would only be consulted with the hour before my meeting.
I could not face the meeting and went on workers compensation for mental health injury, this requires the employer keep your position open for up to 12 months and take active steps to help you get better. I went to great lengths to ensure a restorative process could be facilitated through the workers compensation and would be paid for by their insurer not my employer.
Nonetheless my employer/the insurer fought my claim and did not engage in any return to work support. I was also unlawfully not paid the full amount I was to receive in compensation.
Now I have returned to my secondary employer, still injured and suffering what was diagnosed as adjustment disorder, basically PTSD without the life threatening trigger. It has damaged all the relationships in my life, my way of relating to others – I used to be very trusting and compassionate and this is where my joy came from, my ability to interact with my only family member who is in her 79s now, it has lost me half my community, but because I live in a small place I can’t escape bumping into people, I may loose my other job because as a new worker I’m on probation and can barely do the work, I was purchasing a property during the interest rate hike and may not get the loan now, and my ex was never investigated for bullying even tho there were witnesses and I had already reported it to two different people. Most other employees dropped out on me and maintained the status quo even tho they believed what was happening was wrong, they couldn’t be bother sticking their necks out and I couldn’t give the right cues to be trusted. One even believed everything I said the day I explained it and thought it was a number of clear violations, and the next day texted and said he didn’t think it matched his experience of the organisation so he wouldn’t help.
Thank you for writing this.