Assignment written for the Postgraduate Certificate in Autism and Asperger Syndrome, Sheffield Hallam University.
WHY DOES WORK NOT WORK FOR US?
- How and why is employment hostile to autistic people?
- How useful are the main autism theories in explaining this?
In 2020, the UK government started counting autistic people in and out of employment (Office for National Statistics (ONS), 2021b). It found just 21.7% of working-age autistic adults in paid work, the lowest rate of all disability categories (ONS, 2021a), under half the rate of disabled people generally, and around a quarter of the 81.3% of non-disabled adults in work (ONS, 2021b). An earlier survey showed that 77% of unemployed autistic adults want to work (National Autistic Society (NAS), 2016); so, most British autistic adults want a job but do not have one. Autistic people with and without learning disabilities often struggle to find work (Autistica, 2019).
Two in five of the 47.8% of autistic workers who are employed part-time (ONS, 2021a) want to work more hours (NAS, 2016). Over half of autistic workers reckon that their skills are higher than their job requires (NAS, 2016). Overall, there is significant under- and unemployment of autistic people, causing poor long-term outcomes for autistic adults (Howlin and Magiati, 2017), an alarming shortfall in equality, inclusion and human rights.
In my twenty-five years as a railway worker and trade unionist, I have seen many factors hostile to autistic workers. Since discovering that I am autistic in 2012, I have written, and trained union representatives, about autism and work. This assignment applies this ‘frontline’ experience and considers relevant literature to examine how well particular autism theories explain autistic experience with employment. It will suggest how work might become more inclusive of autistic people.
TERMINOLOGY AND FOCUS
My choice of terminology is based on ‘autistic’ being an adjective rather than ‘autism’ being an accessory (Booth, 2021a). I therefore avoid euphemisms, writing about autistic and non-autistic people, not about people with autism, ASD or ASC. I also avoid referring to sub-categories or levels of ‘functioning’ among autistic people. Autism is a spectrum or a ‘constellation’ (Hearst, 2015), in which different autistic people have different strengths and challenges in different contexts: it is not a linear scale from mild to severe. Employment issues impact on autistic individuals in a variety of ways, and may be compounded for autistic people with learning disabilities (Autistica, 2018). These terminologies reflect the preferences of the UK autistic community (Kenny et al., 2016).
The assignment focuses on the UK but includes relevant material from elsewhere. It focuses on workers, defined in law as those who work under a contract to personally provide work or services for a reward. It assesses the experiences of autistic workers, based on statistics and testimonies, not on employers’ policies or self-descriptions.
Disability models offer different ways of examining autistic employment experience. ‘Models’ here means not theories but approaches. The key difference between the main models is where they locate the ‘problem’ of disability.
After superseding older views of disability as moral failure or crime, the medical model became dominant in the twentieth century (Oliver, 1990). It locates disability in the individual’s bodily condition, and the solution in medical care. Perhaps the clearest expression of this is the World Health Organisation (1980) defining disability as ‘any restriction or lack (resulting from impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being’. While it initially represented a degree of progress, the medical model itself would be superseded.
Starting with the ground-breaking Fundamental Principles of Disability (UPIAS, 1975), disabled activists developed the alternative ‘social model of disability’. This distinguishes between impairment and disability, defining impairment as shortfall in functioning and disability as barriers presented by society to people with impairments. Although the original document addressed only physical impairment, leading social model proponent Oliver (1990, p.xiv) made clear that the model also recognises disabling barriers such as ‘questionable notions of intelligence and social competence’ and ‘hostile public attitudes’ which may obstruct the inclusion of autistic people. Kenny et al. (2015) describe the social model as a more socially inclusive view of disability.
The biopsychosocial model looks at an individual’s psychological, social and biological situation (Milton, 2017). Doyle (2020, p.111) argues that this enables theorists to ‘fluidly move between medical and social models’. However, Cameron (2014) argues that the medical and social models are mutually exclusive and that the biopsychosocial model retains the former’s focus on the individual as the site of disability. Doyle (2020) admits that biopsychosocial research supports the social model proposition that the environment is disabling. In my view, the biopsychosocial model is based on a misreading of the social model as ignoring medical aspects of disability; I consider it a failed attempt to reconcile two counterposed models.
I believe that the social model is more accurate than the medical model in recognising autistic people’s experience of disabling workplace barriers, a view reinforced by findings that the same trait in an autistic individual may be advantageous in some situations and disadvantageous in other (Russell et al., 2019). It is therefore more practical in reducing those barriers rather than trying to fix a neurotype that cannot, and need not, be fixed. The social model transfers responsibility for discrimination and exclusion from the individual onto the society that disables them (Tregaskis, 2002). I consider it the most beneficial to autistic people, enabling the removal of social barriers and the destigmatisation of autism.
To fit autistic experience better, I would adjust the social model in light of the neurodiversity approach (Singer, 2017). For at least some autistic people, their neurodivergence is not impairment, but is a difference significant enough that they nonetheless experience disabling barriers. Whether an individual’s autism is impairment or difference does not affect the understanding of their being disabled by social barriers or the case for inclusion and equality (Booth, 2019).
The principle of inclusion asserts all people’s right to participate in mainstream activities with whatever support they need to do this. It differs from concepts such as ‘integration’ in that it does not require autistic people to earn their place in the mainstream by proving their capacity to benefit from it (Autism Europe, 2003).
The social model of disability remains the preferred approach of the disabled people’s movement and has been adopted by trade unions and other progressive organisations. Many employers endorse it, but in my experience, many apply the medical model in practice, continuing to see the problem in the autistic worker rather than in the disabling workplace environment. This view is shared by Elley, Balmer, Wilson and Secret (2020).
How we theorise autism informs how we remove disabling barriers in employment. There is a growing body of theory applied to autism, but no single, definite theory of autism (Chown, 2017). This assignment considers four theories.
- Theory of Mind (ToM). Premack and Woodruff (1978) defined ‘theory of mind’ as the ability to attribute mental states to ourselves and others. Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith (1985) argued that autistic people lack ‘theory of mind’.
- Executive (Dys)function. ‘Executive function’ (EF) is an umbrella term for the faculties needed to plan, initiate and complete a task, including shifting, inhibiting and stopping action (Rajendran & Mitchell, 2007). This theory proposes that autistic people have impaired EF.
- Central coherence theory proposes that while non-autistic people process inputs into an overall meaning, autistic people process in a way that focuses on detail (Rajendran & Mitchell, 2007). Beginning as a theory of ‘weak central coherence’ (WCC) in autism, it evolved into a theory of autistic bias towards detail.
Alongside these ’Big Three’ theories, this assignment considers one further theory.
- Monotropism theory argues that autistic and non-autistic people differ in the strategies they use to distribute the limited amount of attention available to them. Autistic people are ‘monotropic’, having a few, highly-aroused interests, while non-autistic people are ‘polytropic’, having many, diffuse, less highly-aroused interests. Autistic people ‘tunnel’ their attention (Murray, Lesser & Lawson, 2005).
This assignment will test how well these theories explain autistic experience with employment. Shalley (2012) argues that good theory increases understanding of relationships, models and concepts in an innovative way. A good theory brings insight into the processes taking place when an autistic person seeks, applies for, gets and carries out a job, and why problems occur at each of these stages. Applying criteria enables judgement as to whether a theory achieves this. Rajendran and Mitchell (2007) propose three criteria:
- Specificity: Does it explain all aspects of autism?
- Universality: Does it apply to all autistic people?
- Uniqueness: Does it apply only to autism?
While these are useful criteria, in my view they do not cover all the factors necessary to judge a theory, so I will apply four further criteria:
- Authenticity: Does this theory accurately represent autistic experience?
- Multi-context applicability: Does it explain autistic experience in varying contexts?
- Defect or difference: Does this theory assume in advance that autistic people are a flawed version of non-autistic people, or does it consider difference?
- Usefulness: Does the theory help identify barriers to autistic workers and therefore ways of removing them?
Applying the social model and examining autistic workers’ experience identifies many barriers. Based on my experience, and to align with the various difficulties with work and the various manifestations of autism, this assignment groups them into six areas: getting a job; communication and interaction; sensory environment; how work is organised; bullying, harassment and discrimination; and change and insecurity.
GETTING A JOB
Many autistic job-seekers start at a disadvantage. Barriers in education may have left them with qualifications that understate their abilities (Brede, 2017); delay in diagnosis may delay support (BMA, 2019).
Job advertisements may deter autistic jobseekers. For example, London Underground advertised for applicants with an ‘outgoing personality’ to work on its stations (Booth, 2021b). Schriber, Robins and Solomon (2014) argue that low extraversion arises from impaired theory of mind, and that autistic people may be impaired in self-understanding due to inability to crystallise their self-reflections, which is consistent with WCC theory. Executive dysfunction may adversely influence social communication (Demetriou et al., 2019). Monotropic attention tunnelling may shut out social niceties (Murray et al., 2005). However, none of these explain why an ‘outgoing personality’ is an essential requirement for a job assisting with railway station procedures. Trade union representation persuaded the employer to withdraw this personality filter, thus removing a barrier to some autistic (and other) applicants.
Job application forms may be unclear, and interviews may have a hostile sensory environment, abstract questions and, as Autistica (2019, p.30) argues, ‘operate as a test of social ability’ (perhaps more accurately, a test of social conformity). Interviews may reject an autistic applicant who makes unusual eye contact, which is among the diagnostic criteria for autism (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Monotropism theory explains lack of eye contact as a desire to deal with only one input at a time, to avoid having to listen and look simultaneously (Murray, 2019b). More tenuously, a ‘theory of mind’ stance may suggest that if an autistic interviewee cannot read the interviewer’s mind in their eyes, then s/he may not look at them (Senju & Johnson, 2009), although this does not explain why s/he would look away. It seems that interviewers may interpret unusual eye contact as disinterest or deceit (Vrij, Granhag & Porter, 2010). I would argue that this is a failure of theory of mind on the part of the interviewer: they have not understood an autistic person’s mental state, compounding this by making an unjustified assumption. This supports the argument that ‘theory of mind’ deficits are reciprocal between autistic and non-autistic people, called ‘cross-neurological ToM’ by Beardon (2016) and the ‘double empathy problem’ by Milton (2012). Accepting this would enable better understanding and help to avoid misjudgement of autistic applicants.
COMMUNICATION AND INTERACTION
Autistic workers often experience difficulties with workplace jargon and banter, instructions given in non-literal language or an unsuitable format, and with the sheer amount of social interaction (Booth, 2016).
Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) argue that lack of theory of mind is a crucial factor in social impairment in autistic people. However, Boucher (2012), while generally supporting impaired-ToM theory, argues that its power to explain all autistic socio-emotional-communicative anomalies is limited. Fletcher-Watson and Happé (2019) note some evidence that executive functioning difficulties cause social and communication difficulties. Central coherence theory explains autistic social difficulties as resulting from fragmented understanding of language (Rajendran & Mitchell, 2007). Monotropism theory asserts that social interaction requires diffuse attention and is ‘inhibited by the canalization of available attention into a few highly-aroused interests’ (Murray et al., 2005, p.140).
However, communication and interaction by definition involve at least two people; breakdown occurs between them rather than in only one. Elley et al. (2020) argue that barriers and discrimination experienced by autistic people are caused by non-autistic people’s difficulty understanding them. Other factors also impact on this, including race. Autistic worker Burkett (2020) explains that ‘colleagues often see me as an “angry black woman”, even though my thoughts and behaviours are the opposite of this stereotype.’
Despite this, impaired-ToM and executive dysfunction theories both assume that non-autistic people are unimpaired in communication and social interaction. However, Hedley et al. (2021) note the benefits to autistic workers of their non-autistic colleagues being trained in how to better communicate with them. Understanding this aspect of autistic workers’ experience needs more than a theory of autism: it needs theories of non-autism, communication and normativity.
MAKING SENSE OF SENSORY ISSUES
Some 90% of autistic people have atypical sensory experiences (Robertson & Baron-Cohen, 2017). Workplaces can be a cacophony of unwelcome sensory input, including clattering keyboards, ringing phones and more (NAS, 2016). Employers or workmates may disapprove of an autistic person’s strategy for regulating this, such as ‘stimming’ or holding a familiar object, behaviour that is often stigmatised (Murray, 2020).
While theorists acknowledge the co-occurrence of social and sensory issues in autistic people, Chown (2017, p.235) argues that ‘none of the three dominant theories of autism seeks to explain the sensory aspects of autism’. Fletcher-Watson and Happé (2019) argue that bias towards detail may explain sensory sensitivities as focus on a detail of a sensory input making it unbearable. Attempts to implicate executive dysfunction include research evidence for sensory processing being ‘slower and/or noisier’ in autistic people (Robertson & Baron-Cohen, 2017, p.680). However, these writers conclude that it is unlikely that theories such as executive dysfunction and weak central coherence will be able to explain sensory features in autism.
Monotropism theory explains autistic sensory experience as hypersensitivity inside and hyposensitivity outside the attention tunnel (Murray et al., 2005). This explains why some sensory inputs are very distressing while others seem not to be noticed, and why sensitivities vary between different individuals and in the same individual at different times. Reflecting many autistic people’s testimonies, Murray et al. (2005, p.142) argue that ‘disruption of the attention tunnel is a painful experience’.
GETTING THE JOB DONE
Why might autistic workers struggle to carry out work tasks? Murray et al. (2005) explain that to perform a task, a person must understand and value its goal and see how to perform both the task and each of its steps, and that monotropic people may well have problems with each of these.
Autistic workers report that ‘systems are built to suit one way of working’ and that employers ‘don’t want people who can’t work the way they do’ (Cooper & Kennady, 2021, p.79). Elley et al. (2020) note a worrying trend toward increasingly bureaucratic workplace rules.
Theorists as well as employers may conceptualise autistic workers’ skills as weaknesses. Autistic people have performed better at tests of locating small detail in a larger picture and in assembling designs quickly. There are many jobs in which this would be a great asset. However, Frith (1989, 2003, cited in Rajendran & Mitchell, 2007) casts it as a deficit, as lacking a cognitive drive to attend to global forms, a weak central coherence.
Many employers fetishise ‘teamwork’ (Edinburgh Business School, 2021; Deloitte, 2016), compelling workers who could work solo to work in teams, with a level of social interaction that autistic workers might find unbearable (Beardon, 2017). This might be partly explained by the social deficit attributed by Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) to an impaired theory of mind. Executive dysfunction theory may explain some autistic difficulties in carrying out a work task (Kappes, nd.). Neither theory, though, explains why the employer imposes ‘teamwork’ if other approaches may be viable.
Superficial awareness of these issues can lead to disadvantageous stereotyping. Autistic people told a survey that employers assume they ‘want work that is solitary, technical or requires attention to detail’, which is true of many autistic people but not all (NAS, 2016, p.9). 11% of autistic respondents to the same survey wanted to work in the arts, more than the 10% who fitted the stereotype of wanting to work in IT.
Autism theories may partly explain the issues that form the kernel of truth around which stereotypes grow. But perhaps theories are themselves contributing to the stereotypes. If autistic people are popularly viewed as unable to understand others (impaired ToM), or unable to carry out tasks (executive dysfunction), then it is perhaps not surprising that 34% of employers say that an autistic person would not fit into their team (NAS, 2016).
BULLYING, HARASSMENT, DISCRIMINATION
Deficit-based autism theories may also fuel popular views of autistic people as faulty or weird, contributing to the appalling situation in which 48% of autistic respondents told a survey that they had been bullied or harassed at work (NAS, 2016). In another survey (Cooper & Kennady, 2021), bullying was frequently cited as a reason for leaving employment.
Autism theories may explain why autistic people differ from non-autistic people, but they cannot explain why members of majority populations bully or harass people who are different. For that, we need a theory of prejudice.
51% of autistic respondents told the same NAS survey that they had experienced discrimination or unfair treatment at work. Autism theories may offer some explanation of the workplace clashes and misunderstandings that give rise to this (Heasman, 2017), but they do not, and cannot, explain why workplaces address these by treating autistic workers unfairly. For that, we need a theory of discrimination, including of power imbalances at work.
CHANGE AND INSECURITY
Beardon (2017, pp.48-52) argues that autistic people are not necessarily resistant to all change, but an autistic individual may understandably resist change to things ‘of significant importance to that individual’. In my experience, a common source of distress for autistic railway workers is late-notice change to their work location or time. If a worker expects to be on duty at Station A from 7am, they will plan their day accordingly and in great detail. If a text message the previous evening tells them to work at Station B at 8am instead, those carefully-made plans are ruined and anxiety takes over, leading to a sleepless night, late arrival at work, discomfort, and maybe conflict with workmates or managers. Minimising short-notice duty changes would reduce a barrier to autistic workers.
How might autism theories explain the devastating impact of change and insecurity? Happé (2014) suggests that impaired ToM reduces autistic people’s understanding of their own state of mind, causing executive dysfunction, which causes difficulty with change. Fletcher-Watson and Happé (2019) argue that bias towards detail is a prerequisite for autistic insistence on sameness and therefore a cause of distress at change, which aligns with WCC theory.
Executive dysfunction theory may blame a defective ability to change a person’s own routines. Demetriou et al. (2019, table 1, p.3) outline that in the Supervisory Attentional System model of executive functioning, ‘Non-routine actions require the individual to disengage from habituated behavior patterns and make a novel response’, so that ‘impaired mechanisms would lead to broad behavioral dysregulation’.
Monotropism offers the most straightforward explanation:
To a person in an attention tunnel every unanticipated change is abrupt and is truly, if briefly, catastrophic: a complete disconnection from a previous safe state, a plunge into a meaningless blizzard of sensations, a frightening experience (Murray et al., 2005, p.147).
MEASURING THEORIES AGAINST CRITERIA
Theory of Mind (ToM)
Boucher (2012) admits that although impaired ToM contributes to socio-communicative impairments, it does not explain other features of autism. Impaired-ToM offers no explanation of sensory sensitivities nor of autistic strengths (Milton, 2017) which are important factors in employment. Mottron, Dawson, Soulières, Hubert and Burack (2006) argue that ‘social first’ models, of which this is the most prominent, struggle to explain autistic cognitive differences. So, it is not specific.
Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) justified their impaired-ToM theory with the 80% failure rates of autistic children in a false-belief test that their non-autistic peers passed. However, this neither explains why 20% of autistic children passed the test nor examines the ToM of autistic people of other ages (Boucher, 2012). Rajendran and Mitchell (2007) and Gernsbacher and Yergeau (2019) argue convincingly that impaired ToM is not universal in autism.
As Milton (2012) and Beardon (2017) argue, non-autistic people struggle to understand autistic people, including in workplace situations. There is evidence of impaired ToM in several other clinical groups (Gernsbacher & Yergeau, 2019; Sprong, Schothorst, Vos, Hox & Van Engeland, 2007; Boucher, 2012; Fletcher-Watson & Happé, 2019). So, it is not unique.
Many first-person accounts by autistic people describe a ToM which is not impaired even if it is atypical, for example easy understanding of other autistic people (eg. Sinclair, 2005). So this theory does not meet the criterion of authenticity.
Impaired-ToM theory would predict autistic people struggling to understand states of mind in all contexts. However, Murray et al. (2005) note that autistic people carry out ToM tasks without problems when they fully understand them, and Gernsbacher and Yergeau (2019) cite numerous studies that show autistic people understanding others’ states of mind.
Rajendran and Mitchell (2007) argue that Baron-Cohen’s advanced tests of ToM assume that autistic people have impaired ToM and that he dismissed tests which did not give the anticipated result. In my view, Baron-Cohen’s earlier tests (eg. the ‘eyes test’) also assumed that if autistic people ‘read minds’ differently from non-autistic people, then the latter is standard and the former faulty. The theory gives no consideration to differences in ToM rather than deficits.
Impaired-ToM theory has little use in identifying and removing barriers to autistic workers, and may even obstruct progress by locating the problem in autistic ToM rather than in flaws in how employers communicate with autistic workers. Gernsbacher and Yergeau’s meta-analysis (2019, p.102) concludes that the theory is ‘empirically questionable and societally harmful’.
This theory does not explain strengths or perceptual difference in autistic people (Murray, 2019a), which are significant factors in employment. It is therefore not specific.
Fletcher-Watson and Happé (2019) note considerable evidence that many autistic people have executive functioning difficulties. However, Milton (2017) points out that some autistic people do well at executive function tests at which other clinical groups struggle. Executive dysfunction is common and pervasive in autism, but not universal (Chown, 2017).
The origin of this theory in observed similarities with brain injury (Demetriou et al, 2019) suggests that it was always likely to fail the ‘uniqueness’ criterion. This is affirmed by Rajendran and Mitchell’s (2007) observation that people with ADHD, schizophrenia, OCD and Tourette’s perform similarly to autistic people in some executive function tests, although they argue that it is possible that ‘a distinct EF profile distinguishes autism from other developmental conditions’ (2007, p.234).
Many autistic first-person accounts describe executive function difficulties or differences (Fletcher-Watson and Happé, 2019). Autistic testimony supports the existence of widespread atypicality in executive function, but a theory that frames this as ‘dysfunction’ is not authentic.
Recent work has distinguished between core, ‘cool’ executive functions, which operate independently of context, and ‘hot’ executive functions, which are moderated by the demands of the situation (Demetriou et al., 2019), which will include workplace situations. This offers the potential for this theory to apply in different contexts.
This theory frames differences in autistic executive functioning as deficit, positing an individual’s executive function as either intact or flawed. It therefore assumes deficit and disregards difference.
Executive dysfunction theory may help to identify why autistic workers may struggle with certain tasks (Kappes, nd.). However, its usefulness is limited by its insistence on seeing autistic differences as deficits.
Weak central coherence
This theory explains some social as well as non-social aspects of autism, such as the attention to detail that many autistic workers display. However, it does not explain all aspects, and in its evolved version, no longer claims to (Chown, 2017). So, it is not specific.
Rajendran and Mitchell (2007) report that evidence suggests that WCC traits may be caused by other factors, such as language impairment, which implies that it is neither universal in nor unique to autism.
Milton (2017) argues that, along with other theories, WCC theory is based on a cognitive psychology perspective that does not value autistic voices. However, Fletcher-Watson and Happé (2019) bracket it with monotropism as a theory which is highly relevant to autistic lived experience. Further investigation may establish to what degree it meets the criterion of authenticity.
This theory may allow for different outcomes in different contexts, including different workplace situations, as the specific details to which the autistic person is biased, and the overall ‘gist’ against which they are biased, will vary in different contexts.
Murray (2020) argues that WCC theory overlaps with her own monotropism theory but tends to ignore enhanced functioning in autistic people. Mottron et al. (2006) argue that WCC theory presents superior autistic performances as compensatory mechanisms for inferior ones, rather than as differences or strengths. However, since it evolved to a theory of autistic bias towards detail, this theory can frame autism as difference rather than deficit and can account for some autistic strengths (Milton 2017; Chown, 2017).
This theory has some use in explaining autistic workers’ preference for certain ways of working and difficulties with others. It suggests that autistic workers may benefit from having the overall purpose of a work process explained to them.
This theory accounts for several features of autism not adequately explained by the other theories, including intense interests, sensory issues and the catastrophic experience of change within the attention tunnel (Milton, 2017; Murray et al., 2005). This is a positive indicator for specificity and universality, although further research would be useful to establish the degree to which monotropism theory meets these criteria.
There is little significant work arguing that monotropism is a feature of conditions other than autism, although there has been some suggestion of monotropism in ADHD (eg. Dwyer, 2021). This may indicate uniqueness, but alternatively, may reflect a lack of investigation.
A major strength of this theory is that it pays regard to first-person autistic testimony, giving it a strong degree of authenticity (Milton, 2017; Dwyer, 2021).
It also explains the variance both between autistic people and in the same autistic person in different contexts, by variation in which interests are ‘fired into monotropic hyperdrive’ (Murray et al., 2005, p.143).
Monotropism theory identifies difference rather than assuming deficit, explaining autistic people as monotropic and non-autistic people as polytropic (Murray et al., 2005), and explaining the exceptional skills seen in around one-third of autistic people (Murray, 2020).
As this theory goes further than the others in meeting the criteria above, it is potentially very useful in identifying and removing barriers to autistic workers. More evidence is needed to establish how useful it may be (Fletcher-Watson, 2019; Murray, 2019a; Dwyer, 2021).
How well did the theories performance against the seven criteria? Impaired-ToM theory fared worse, failing on all seven measures. Executive dysfunction theory performed a little better, and may be of some use. Weak central coherence scored better still, especially in its evolved form of autistic bias towards detail. Monotropism offers the best potential, but currently lacks a sound evidence base.
It is difficult for any theory to explain all aspects of a complex condition for which no biological markers are yet available. It is also difficult to do that with an explanation that applies to all autistic people in all contexts, including varying work contexts, and only to autistic people. However, I contend that it is both possible and desirable to make theories more authentic, by considering first-person autistic accounts as part of the evidence base, and by including autistic people in autism research (Fletcher-Watson et al., 2019).
It is also possible and desirable to shift the framework of theory from deficit to difference. The key weakness in all the ‘Big Three’ theories is that they assume in advance that autistic differences are deficits. They look for impairment and therefore find impairment. They apply tautology as criterion: if autistics do it, then it must be a deficit (Fletcher-Watson and Happé, 2019). These theories even pathologise the strengths that autistic people bring to the workplace, casting them as the result of flaws.
All three theories have shifted, albeit to varying degrees, under pressure of evidence and criticism. Baron-Cohen and his colleagues moved from asserting that autistic people lack ToM to asserting that their ToM is delayed or impaired. Executive dysfunction theorists accept that some EFs of some autistic people are impaired. The most significant move is the theory of weak central coherence becoming a theory of autistic bias towards detail. I would argue for a further paradigm shift in how autism theory is developed: from deficit to difference.
Examining autistic disadvantage at work has revealed that to understand it fully, we need to understand work, and the society in which work takes place, as well as to understand autism. There is ample evidence that workplaces present, as Cooper and Kennady (2021, p.78) argue, ‘an extremely hostile environment to all neurodivergent employees’. This cannot be solely explained by even the most accurate theory of autism. It needs a theory of work, of the mode of production in a given society.
Autism theories have varying degrees of usefulness in identifying barriers to autistic workers. The more useful the theory, the more significant measures it will indicate to alleviate autistic workers’ disadvantage. These will include making the sensory environment more benign, allowing workers more control over how they work, and removing irrelevant social criteria from job and promotion application processes.
However, as Oliver (1990) argues, the aim of these changes is to make individual disabled people more employable and productive, and while this may be achieved for some people, it is likely to exclude others. My conclusion is that in order to alleviate autistic disadvantage in employment, it is necessary both to better understand autism and to radically change the nature of work.