It is a story I’ve heard from many late-diagnosed autistic professionals. After our disclosure, people we’ve worked with for years change. They start treating us differently. Somehow, they no longer see our accomplishments and talents. We are micromanaged to death when we were once fully trusted. Our prized projects are taken away. Our promotions are pulled. And all of this is, supposedly, for our own benefit and protection. But we know we are being patronized and infantilized.
Discrimination is multifaceted and can impact our lives in ways we least expect. One of the paradoxical forms of discrimination is benevolent ableism. While hostile ableism is manifested in blatant attempts to exclude individuals from certain roles, motivated by dislike, benevolent ableism may appear to be well-intentioned. Nevertheless, benevolent ableism, characterized by patronizing attitudes and actions, can be a destructive force for the careers of neurodivergent individuals. The impact of this sneaky, pervasive form of discrimination can block potential contributions, destroy professional confidence, and undermine the individual’s dignity.
Benevolent ableism is likely to impact all autistic employees. However, for some late-diagnosed professionals, it can present as a particularly shocking “before” and “after” contrast. That shocking experience is also likely to come at a time when they are working on defining their new identity. Despite their accomplishments and competencies, these individuals can find themselves treated as if they were kindergartners. Their professional autonomy and expertise become threatened by bias and by others’ push for paternalistic control over them. This violation of their dignity can become a highly demoralizing experience. Their work contributions are also likely to be threatened.
Understanding Benevolent Ableism
Benevolent ableism emerges from an ableist power dynamic. Those in positions of authority as well as peers or direct reports who implicitly consider themselves superior to autistic people, reach to usurp making decisions on behalf of autistic individuals. This stems from the perception that autistic people are inherently unable to make decisions for themselves, implying a lack of mental competence. This flawed belief system is typically based on stereotypes and the lack of understanding of neurodiversity as “different, not less.”
Benevolent ableism operates similarly to better-researched benevolent sexism. In both cases, a dominant group uses seemingly positive or protective behavior to maintain an unequal status quo. This is done under the guise of kindness or benevolence, which often masks the underlying power dynamics and perpetuates discrimination and marginalization.
In a benevolent sexism situation, a female employee might be excluded from a negotiation based on the manager’s stereotypical beliefs about women being “overly emotional.” Similarly, a high-performing autistic professional may receive a job promotion, but upon disclosure of their diagnosis, their manager might start to micromanage the employee’s work, exclude them from high-stakes decisions, and skip-level manage their direct reports, out of a misguided belief that the individual might not be up to the task – even if they have a strong record of success. This behavior, driven by the manager’s biased understanding of autism, results in the professional feeling demeaned, disregarded, and dis-empowered.
Benevolent ableism can also create a negative self-fulfilling prophecy – a Golem effect, the opposite of a Pygmalion effect. In the Pygmalion effect, performance is enhanced by others’ positive expectations of the individual. In the Golem effect, negative expectations about someone become a reality due to subtle signals of mistrust and low expectations.
Micromanagement can communicate a lack of trust in the employee’s ability to manage their work effectively, which can in turn lead to lower self-confidence, reduced motivation, and lessened job satisfaction. Moreover, it can also become a signal to others, who may treat the employee in the same way. Micromanagement may also discourage employees from developing the skills and autonomy they need to progress in their careers.
Moreover, the supposed “limitations” of an autistic employee could become real barriers when managers limit access to professional development opportunities and inhibit that individual’s professional growth. By “protectively” excluding autistic employees from training or challenging assignments, managers essentially deny them the opportunity to advance their skills and careers, creating the Golem effect.
Although the effects of benevolent ableism are detrimental, subjects of such ‘benevolence’ are subtly and not-so-subtly pressured into accepting these paternalistic actions as kindness. Such gaslighting can further lead to self-doubt and internalized feelings of inadequacy. At the same time, the persons engaging in benevolent ableism behaviors might feel they are being supportive, unaware of the harm resulting from their actions.
Addressing the Issue
While diversity initiatives in organizations may signal a commitment to creating inclusive workplaces, disability and neurodiversity are rarely considered in these initiatives, and the underlying problem of benevolent ableism often goes unnoticed.
To truly support autistic and other neurodivergent individuals, organizations must appreciate neurodiversity as a type of diversity. Coworkers and managers also need to understand neurodiversity beyond media cliché and outdated stereotypes.
- First, it’s crucial to understand that autistic adults are adults and do not need decisions made on their behalf. They need a supportive environment where their voices are welcomed, their contributions are acknowledged, and they are respected for who they are.
- Second, inclusion programs and more broadly work arrangements must be designed with the input and insights of autistic individuals. Only by including their perspectives can we create work environments that genuinely support their needs and aspirations, rather than ones based on assumptions and ableist stereotypes.
- Third, it’s essential to educate managers and colleagues about neurodiversity, highlighting the varied abilities and potential of autistic individuals. This will help break down the damaging stereotypes and misconceptions that fuel benevolent ableism.
- Finally, leaders must understand the mechanisms through which ableism may enter decision-making, and implement systemic safeguards.
To counteract the effects of implicit ableism in the workplace, organizations must embed fairness and inclusion into all talent management processes. For example, autistic employees are more likely to receive fair treatment if organizations ensure the following for all employees:
1. Accurate Measurement of Performance: Valid, outcomes-focused performance measurement may mitigate some of the bias associated with subjective supervisory judgement and lessen the discounting of results and competencies of marginalized employees.
2. Career Planning: Provide career planning and mentoring services for all employees, taking into consideration any unique challenges or aspirations of neurodivergent and disabled employees. Discuss short and long-term career goals with the employee, outline, and support a clear pathway to reaching these goals.
3. Professional Development: Create a personalized development plan for each employee, which includes skills they want to develop, training they want to undertake, and roles they aspire to in the future. This plan should be supported by resource allocation, reviewed, and updated regularly.
4. Opportunities for Advancement: Make sure all employees have equitable access to opportunities for advancement. This may require making advancement requirements and procedures transparent and ensuring that neurodivergent employees are evaluated fairly.
Creating a truly inclusive workplace requires recognizing and addressing all forms of discrimination, including those that masquerade as goodwill. Benevolent ableism is one such form of discrimination. By respecting the autonomy of all individuals and specifically supporting the agency and participation of autistic employees in decision-making we can create more equitable organizations that maximize the potential of all.