This shows a child in a street with people standing around.
One of the core areas that people tend to consider a deficit in autism is in terms of social interaction. Credit: Neuroscience News

Autism Poses Advantage in Bystander Scenarios

Summary: Researchers shed light on the lesser-discussed advantages of autism in workplace settings.

Contrary to the ‘bystander effect’, where individuals are less likely to intervene in adverse situations when others are present, those with autism do not conform to this norm. They are more prone to act in the face of wrongdoing, indicating the potential benefits organizations could derive from hiring neurodivergent individuals.

The study challenges the deficit mindset commonly associated with autism and emphasizes the strengths these individuals bring to social contexts, especially in the workplace.

Key Facts:

  1. People with autism are less influenced by the ‘bystander effect’ than their neurotypical counterparts.
  2. The research was driven, in part, by personal experience, with both father (Lorne) and son (Braxton, who has autism) at the helm.
  3. Despite the unique strengths they offer, unemployment rates for those with autism are alarmingly high, reaching up to 90%.

Source: York University

A well-established psychological theory states that most of us are less likely to intervene in a bad situation if other people are present, and this ‘bystander effect’ also applies to workplace settings.

However, new research led by York University shows that people with autism are less likely to be affected by this social contagion than neurotypical people.

They are less likely to stay silent in the face of gross misconduct or even just everyday mistakes, pointing to the positive aspects of autism and how organizations can benefit from hiring more neurodivergent people, findings reveal.

“Our 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. And in situations where they 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 lead author Lorne Hartman, an instructor with the Schulich School of Business.

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 was published this week in the October issue of Autism Research and 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 to 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.

About this autism and psychology research news

Author: Emina Gamulin
Source: York University
Contact: Emina Gamulin – York University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Organizational benefits of neurodiversity: Preliminary findings on autism and the bystander effect” by Lorne Hartman et al. Autism Research


Organizational benefits of neurodiversity: Preliminary findings on autism and the bystander effect

Although the bystander effect is one of the most important findings in the psychological literature, researchers have not explored whether autistic individuals are prone to the bystander effect. The present research examines whether autistic employees are more likely to report issues or concerns in an organization’s systems and practices that are inefficient or dysfunctional.

By bringing attention to these issues, autistic employees may foster opportunities to improve organizational performance, leading to the development of a more adaptive, high performing, and ethical culture.

Thirty-three autistic employees and 34 nonautistic employees completed an online survey to determine whether employees on the autism spectrum (1) are more likely to report they would voice concerns about organizational dysfunctions, (2) are less likely to report they were influenced by the number of other witnesses to the dysfunction, (3) if they do not voice concerns, are more likely to acknowledge the influence of other people on the decision, (4) are less likely to formulate “elaborate rationales” for their decisions to intervene or not, and (5) whether any differences between autistic and nonautistic employees with regards to the first two hypotheses, intervention likelihood and degree of influence, are moderated by individual differences in camouflaging.

Results indicate that autistic employees may be less susceptible to the bystander effect than nonautistic employees. As a result, autistic employees may contribute to improvements in organizational performance because they are more likely to identify and report inefficient processes and dysfunctional practices when they witness them.

These preliminary findings suggesting potential benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace are promising. However, further research is required.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.