Father-son research team makes novel finding in autism research

diverse group of workers collaborating in meeting room

Schulich School of Business and Faculty of Health researchers say that while as many as 90 per cent of people with autism are unemployed or underemployed, their study points to the benefits of having neurodivergent people in the workplace

A groundbreaking study led by York University sheds light on the finding that individuals with autism are less prone to the “bystander effect” in the face of challenging situations, and makes a case for employing neurodivergent people.

A psychological theory in which individuals are less likely to offer help or take action in an emergency situation when other people are present, the bystander effect has also been shown to apply to workplace settings. However, researchers have found that people with autism bring benefits to organizations because they are less likely to succumb to the bystander effect.

Lorne Hartman
Lorne Hartman
Braxton Hartman
Braxton Hartman

Lorne Hartman, an instructor with the Schulich School of Business, says the study shows that “to the extent that they would act if they saw something wrong, employees with autism were much more likely to intervene, regardless of the number of people present.”

Further to that, in situations where neurodivergent people would not intervene, they were more likely to identify the influence of others as the reason, whereas neurotypical employees were more reluctant to acknowledge this, says Lorne, lead author of the study.

Lorne and his son Braxton Hartman, a graduate student in the Faculty of Health at York who was a collaborator on the study, were inspired to look into this issue not only from their academic experience, but also because of personal experience – Braxton has autism and has been a public advocate on the issue since he was 12 years old.

“One of the motivations here is that a lot of the current literature on autism comes from a deficit mindset. It’s basically saying these differences in autism are sort of exclusively negatives. We want to reframe that and ask, ‘What are ways that some of these differences could actually be an advantage rather than just a negative?’ ” says Braxton, whose research also focuses on autism. “One of the core areas that people tend to consider a deficit in autism is in terms of social interaction. We wanted to look at whether this is actually a positive to the extent that people with autism are less influenced by others when it comes to dysfunctional or unethical situations.”

Lorne has a background in clinical psychology and his main area of research looks at unethical behaviour in organizations.

“But most importantly, in all of these cases, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of people who may not have actually been involved in the wrongdoing, but they should have been aware that it was going on,” he says, summarizing his earlier research. “So having people around who are willing to blow the whistle, so to speak, is very important for organizations.”

The study, which was published this week in the October issue of Autism Research, was created with collaborators from the University of Toronto. The research participants – employed individuals, 33 with autism and 34 neurotypical – were asked to weigh in on hypothetical scenarios involving everything from inefficiencies and inequalities to quality concerns.

While the results are preliminary and more research is needed, the researchers say their work has important practical implications, especially considering that the rates of unemployment and underemployment for people with autism may be as high as 90 per cent, and even if they have higher education, that statistic only drops to 70 per cent.

“We’re looking at this from two angles. One is looking at helping organizations be more ethical and efficient, but also helping people like myself – people on the spectrum – find gainful employment by helping to change the societal understanding of autism,” concludes Braxton.

Learn more at News @ York.