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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.