Mark Burnard, M.S., Florida International University; Diana Ugalde, B.A., Florida International University; Valentina Bruk-Lee, Florida International University
The purpose of this study is two-fold. First, to explore if autistic employees felt that their workspace affects their well-being, job attitudes and performance; and second, to identify ways in which the office context can be improved for this population. As such, this study has a strong focus on describing aspects of the lived experience of this population in the office environment.
While autism and its etiology are still not entirely understood, neurobiological evidence indicates that it is characterized by aberrant structural variation of synapses, affecting neural communication and cortical circuits (Zikopoulos & Barbas, 2013). This variation in synaptic structure is implicated in atypical sensory and cognitive processing and social-emotional functioning. As such, it is important for researchers to understand how aspects of the office environment interface with neurodivergent traits, which could influence the autistic employee’s experience at work. Such is of vital importance given research estimates that people with autism experience inflated rates of unemployment or underemployment, approximately at 50-75% in the U.S. (Hendricks, 2010). Some studies mention the potential for the social environment pre- and post-selection to become a significant barrier to attaining and keeping employment for people with autism (Lorenz, Frischling, Cuadros, & Heinitz, 2016). Additionally, while research on the subject is scarce, popular press has shared stories the potential for the material and sensory environment to negatively impact the experiences of autistic employees in the office (Baska, 2019; Dominus, 2019; McKay, 2017). To illustrate, an energy supplying company faced indirect disability discrimination charges as a consequence of not accommodating an employee with autism placed in a noisy open-plan setting (Baska, 2019). Person-environment fit theory can provide a potential explanation for why the relationship between autism and employment is a complicated one. Person-environment fit is defined as the “degree of compatibility or match between individuals and some aspects of their work environment” (Kristof-Brown & Guay, 2010, p. 3). A lack of fit between an autistic person’s needs as a result of their neurodivergent traits and their workplace environment can likely elicit maladaptive physiological or psychological responses that have an impact on attitudes and well-being; such is particularly true in situations which an individual highly values their preferences (Dewe, O’Driscoll, & Cooper, 2012; Yang, Che, & Spector, 2008). Given the research background and theory, this study intends to collect and analyze the first-hand and detailed experiences of those autistic employees in office settings.
This qualitative study used a survey design to collect data from 100 autistic participants across a range of industries and countries (e.g., USA, Canada, UK, Australia.) The survey questions were free-response, which allowed participants to respond in an open-ended manner to questions concerning the office environment. Specifically, participants were asked if they believed their workspace influences their well-being, job attitudes and performance. Participants were also asked about their perspective on what could improve their experience as an autistic person in an office setting.