Frist Center for Autism and Innovation

Organizational Research and Innovations

There is a growing body of evidence that organizations who incorporate the diverse perspectives of their workforce are more innovative. For diverse work environments to succeed, employers must create a supportive context that is psychologically safe; that is, where employees feel it is okay to express their opinions and take interpersonal risks. Indeed, this has been identified as the key underpinning of innovation team success at Google. In addition, these innovative work environments possess a positive diversity climate — the perception that the organization adheres to fair personnel practices and that diverse employees are fully integrated into the work environment. A key area in innovation research is to understand what organizations should specifically do in order to create the conditions for neurodiverse people to experience positive employment outcomes, to find work engaging and meaningful, and to contribute to organizational effectiveness. Prior research on employing individuals with disabilities suggests that more effective organizations start with attention and financial investments from top management, focused recruitment and mentorship programs for hiring and retaining neurodiverse employees, training for peers and managers, and flexible job design.

The Center for Autism & Innovation seeks to build on this research, make it more systematic, and illuminate what leading organizations do to create more meaningful work opportunities for autistic individuals and the key managerial behaviors and organizational practices for doing so (see Organizational Research). Partnering with other organizations like Specialisterne that work with organizations successfully capitalizing on the autism advantage provides the otherwise unavailable access and opportunity to engage in in-depth qualitative research including interviews and observation that enable documenting the ways in which specific managers and organizations elicit and incorporate the autism advantage. This is essential because although there is an active literature on diversity climate, there is relatively little management and organization research that examines autistic individuals in the workplace. Identifying the ways in which organizations can identify and benefit from the autism advantage could provide evidence that helps reduce the under- and unemployment of talented autistic individuals by offering models of how to incorporate this base of potential employees.

Also of specific research interest is understanding the autism advantage as it applies to specific task types — such as software development and data analysis. Specific questions include: (1) determine characteristics of tasks and environments where the autism advantage is likely to be manifest including repetitive and detailed tasks such as dispensing and validating patient prescriptions or visuo-spatial cognitive tasks such as pattern and outlier recognition in massive datasets, (2) developing tools that can identify the autism advantage through a matched pair design that compares performance by autistic and non-autistic individuals.

Systematically investigating the tasks and task environments most consistent with the autism advantage will also illustrate how to help autistic individuals “fit” into the organization and the type of innovation likely to result from their employment — product innovations for diverse populations and/or work process innovations that better tailor the work environment to diverse individuals.

Last, our investigations of autistic individuals in the workplace can help reveal the broad ranging benefits of their impact on management and the work environment. There is some suggestive evidence that managers benefit from managing autistic individuals, as it provides more diverse work conditions where they can better hone their managerial and communication, interpersonal, and work design skills. In particular, effective management may depend on providing more concrete guidance and making contingencies explicit. At the same time, all these same features are essential for being an effective manager — i.e., being clear about what is valued, supported, and rewarded and delivering on those promises. That is, they feel they become more effective managers. In-depth qualitative research to more precisely identify what managers are doing, novel practices they engage in, and the experience of the autistic individuals they manage.

In addition, our qualitative research is being supplemented with longitudinal survey research that explores the changes in (autistic and non-autistic) employee ratings of managerial behavior previously associated with effectiveness. This work also compares managerial behaviors and change over time between managers with autistic employees and those without. These assessments of managerial behavior include validated survey measures of psychological safety, leader inclusiveness, and leader-member exchange. This research will thus help better identify whether and how the autism advantage spills over to those who manage autistic individuals.

Taken together, this research into the work (i.e., specific tasks), managers, and organizational contexts in organizations employing autistic individuals will help to illustrate how organizations can become more inclusive and unleash previously overlooked advantages to the benefit of autistic individuals, their managers, and their organizations.