Unconscious Biases

Career progression for people on the autism spectrum

In a neurotypical world, career progression is about gaining skills, experience and responsibility, earning more money, and climbing the proverbial corporate ladder.

It is not as straightforward for people on the autism spectrum. In my years of working closely with companies that neurodiversify, I have identified two main biases that negatively affect the job progression of autistic employees.


The first school of thought is to promote them: put the person who is so good at X in charge of the team responsible for X, because everyone wants to move into management – right?  Conversely, the other bias is the complete opposite, as some employers mistakenly assume that you should never change or grow the role and responsibilities for a person with autism. Furthermore, you should not change anything in the workplace.


Let’s look at these biases in greater detail:


Bias # 1 – Promote to management


On one hand, it sounds logical to promote the most skilled individual to lead the team. But when you think about it, the skills required for “doing a job” and “leading a team” are very different. One requires being adept at technical or operational tasks [hard skills] and the other requires being able to manage and motivate people [soft skills]. The transition doesn’t always work out well, and not just for people on the spectrum, for neurotypicals as well.


When offered a promotion into management, an autistic person may turn the job down simply because the very thought terrifies them. As employers, it’s important to not hold this refusal against them. Instead, consider promoting the adults with autism into expert and guru roles in areas in which they specialize.  Your entire organization will benefit from the depth and breadth of knowledge – and the productivity – of these top performers.


High performers are 400% more productive than average performers.

Not poor performers but average performers.

– Harvard Business Review, November 2015


Bias # 2 – Never change their responsibilities


When you think about how much change we face nowadays, and the rapid pace of that change, the idea of a person’s role and responsibilities within a company never altering in any way just isn’t practical, regardless of whether they have autism or not.


It is equally important to note that many autistic employees on the spectrum are indeed able to handle more and different responsibilities as long as they are well prepared for the transition. As employers, the onus is on us to provide the appropriate level of support and encouragement, and to play to their strengths and expertise.


Preparation and planning are key to successful change.


Bias # 3 – Never change the workplace


Obviously, there are some changes that cannot be planned and are out of our control, like a natural disaster. The only way to prepare for such an event is to educate employees on emergency procedures and conduct practice drills.


In all other instances, when introducing change to an autistic employee, make sure they have a clear idea of what the change is, when it will occur, and how it will affect work assignments. Also identify exactly what training and support will be provided. This can be made part of a complete change management plan, helping employees with autism as well as neurotypicals.


The complexity of the change dictates how much preparation and support is needed for the person on the autism spectrum. For example, moving to a different floor in the building is one thing, learning new skills is quite another.


If the change affects the work the autistic will be performing, as in new skills, processes, or tools, be clear about performance expectations during the transition period. Let them know you are not expecting instant mastery. This is important because individuals on the spectrum are tough on themselves and will worry if their productivity slips while they are learning something new. They may think they’re not catching on fast enough even if they are. Alleviate the anxiety someone with autism could experience by acknowledging the learning curve and the decrease in productivity that is expected during the transition of the change.


For more insight on neurodiversity and how to successfully introduce change and nurture top performers, contact Carol Simpson at carol@focusps.ca.