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Autism in the workplace

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According to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control report, more than half a million individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are currently entering adulthood. And while support and resources for children through adolescence have expanded in recent years, what happens when individuals with ASD make the transition to the workplace? Mary Dana Laird, associate professor of management and Jeff Paul, former assistant professor of management and energy in the Collins College of Business, set out to explore this very topic in a research paper coauthored for a special issue of the Journal of Business and Management dedicated to autism in the workplace.

Laird teaches employment law as part of her human resources management class, and exploring the topic of autism in the workplace offered a unique lens through which to study those areas. “The statistics regarding autism diagnoses are staggering and as these children grow up and enter the workforce, it changes what we as managers and human resources professionals do,” said Laird. As the father of a child diagnosed with ASD, Paul’s interest in autism research hit close to home. “You don’t hear much about this type of research in the context of business, and it piqued my interest,” he said.

Laird and Paul sent a proposal to develop a case study based on a TU student’s experience with ASD. The journal liked the case study approach, which would lend a personal, firsthand account of a young adult navigating his way through the complexities of college life and beyond.

They requested permission from Shiloh Tune (BSBA ’15) to share his story as part of the research effort. Tune agreed, hoping others could learn from his situation and is named as the third coauthor of the paper.

“I was pretty interested after Professor Paul explained there wasn’t much research done for people in my age group — college-age students going into a career,” he said. “Most research has gone into much younger people, but this is a lifelong condition, and there should be research covering the whole life.” Expanding awareness of the topic also highlights people who have experienced ASD their entire lives, but have never had a name for it. “This has been slow in coming, but there is now a big push for more research around this issue,” Paul said. “We need to have just as much consideration for older people on the spectrum because problems don’t stop when you turn 19.”

However, conducting research on autism in the workplace comes with challenges. “People are reluctant to disclose a diagnosis,” said Laird, “and organizations won’t disclose it unless they have permission, so there is very little empirical data. This case- driven study is just one example, but it gives a perspective on what someone with ASD experiences.”

Autism is a broad term for a group of complex disorders of brain development, and the subtypes of autism were later grouped together under the umbrella of ASD. Manifestations of ASD can include difficulties in social interaction, nonverbal and verbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Individuals on the spectrum are distinct, and no one diagnosed with autism has characteristics or abilities that match another’s, which also presents a challenge for compiling data.

Tune was diagnosed with autism at age 5, and though he knew he was different from his peers, he did not discover his diagnosis until nearly 15 years later, during his sophomore year at The University of Tulsa. Armed with this new information, Tune could access resources that allowed him to better understand his experiences, particularly when it came to navigating social situations. He found work both on and off campus and also held summer internships, which provided concrete experience that allowed for learning how to handle complexities within the workplace. Campus involvement gave him opportunities to practice interacting with others.

However, the job search process can prove daunting for individuals with ASD. After identifying a job that takes individual strengths and weaknesses into consideration, the next hurdle to overcome is the interview. Standard interview protocols such as asking about hypothetical situations or how someone handled a situation in the past can present challenges for individuals with ASD, so extensive preparation is key.

Prior to an interview, Tune spends time reviewing the job description and his résumé to match his skills to specific requirements of the position, and then prepares several questions to ask the interviewer. In the case study, he describes the discomfort that sets in during an interview, which he views as a high stakes situation. He uses reframing techniques to see things from the interviewer’s perspective, which helps mitigate his fear of failure.

In the event that an employer extends an offer, individuals with ASD must evaluate whether to disclose the diagnosis. “There is a stigma related to disclosing your diagnosis,” Laird said. She also notes that individuals with ASD fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so an employer would need to make any necessary accommodations in accordance with federal regulations.

However, Laird says many organizations have begun to recognize the value that individuals on the spectrum can bring to a workplace. “Individuals with ASD look at the world differently, and there is great benefit to that. They just need the right fit.”

When researching potential employers, Tune seeks out autism- friendly businesses. He cites Marvel Comics and Walgreens as examples of companies that see advantages in the detail-oriented nature of individuals who might be more comfortable with repetitive or monotonous tasks.

Though Tune knows his experiences are unique, he hopes that sharing his story can raise awareness for employers, coworkers and others with autism. “For the research article, I tried to give some advice for others like me,” he said. “Patience has been really important for me in my life. Sometimes, because of the way my mind works, I am way ahead of everyone else. I have to be patient with them and explain things calmly and respectfully so we can be on the same page. Ten minutes later, I could be way behind because of my different perspective and that person, in turn, has to show me that same patience so I can see what they’re talking about. If you’re patient with others, they will be patient with you.”

He also says that it’s important to stay open to career possibilities. “Even if you get a degree in something specific, that may not be what you end up doing in your career, and that’s fine. Whatever you end up doing should be something you really enjoy. If an opportunity seems good, pursue it.”

As a result of his participation in the case study, Tune has grown more comfortable discussing his diagnosis. “I’m proud of the contribution that I made to this research article, and that it will be published in such a prestigious journal,” he said.

“Autism at Work: Calvin’s Journey of Living and Working with Autism” was published in the Journal of Business and Management, Vol. 22, No. 1, 2016.


Autism Overview

One in 68 American children is on the autism Spectrum. (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Autism is more common among boys than girls. It is estimated that 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls will be diagnosed with autism in the United States this year. (CDC)

ASD currently affects 3 million children and adults in the U.S. (CDC)

The prevalence of autism has continued to increase by 10-17 percent each year, making it one of the fastest growing developmental disorders. (Autism Speaks)

Approximately 40 percent of individuals with ASD have average to above average intellectual abilities, including exceptional academic, visual and music skills. (Autism Speaks)