People with autism are less likely to succumb to the bystander effect

The study points to the benefits of having neurodivergent people in the workplace.


The bystander effect is one of the most critical findings in the psychological literature. Scientists have not explored whether autistic individuals are prone to the bystander effect.

The “bystander effect” refers to the well-established psychological hypothesis that most people are less inclined to step in and help in a difficult situation if others are around. This theory also holds in the workplace.

On the other hand, compared to neurotypical individuals, those with autism are less likely to be impacted by this social contagion, according to recent research from York University. Findings show that they are less inclined to remain silent in the face of severe wrongdoing or even minor errors, highlighting the advantages of autism and how businesses stand to gain from recruiting more neurodivergent employees.

Lead author Lorne Hartman, an instructor with the Schulich School of Business, said, “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.”

Braxton Hartman, a graduate student in the Faculty of Health at York, said, “One of the motivations here is that a lot of the current literature on autism comes from a deficit mindset. It’s saying these differences in autism are sort of exclusively negative. We want to reframe that and ask, ‘What are ways that some of these differences could be an advantage rather than just a negative?'”

“One of the core areas that people tend to consider a deficit in autism is in terms of social interaction. We wanted to examine whether this is a positive to the extent that people with autism are less influenced by others when it comes to dysfunctional or unethical situations.”

Lead author Lorne Hartman, an instructor with the Schulich School of Business, said, “But most importantly, in all of these cases, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of people who may not have been involved in the wrongdoing, but they should have been aware that it was going on. So having people around who are willing to blow the whistle, so to speak, is very important for organizations.”

The study examines whether autistic employees are more likely to report issues or concerns in an organization’s systems and practices that are inefficient or dysfunctional. Employees with autism may provide possibilities to enhance organizational performance by raising awareness of these problems, which could result in the growth of a more ethical, high-performing, and adaptable culture.

The study participants involved employed individuals, 33 with autism and 34 neurotypical. They were asked to weigh in on hypothetical scenarios involving everything from inefficiencies to inequalities to quality concerns.

The researchers say their work has important practical implications, even though the results are preliminary and more research is required. This is mainly because the rates of unemployment and underemployment for people with autism can reach 90%, and even with higher education, that statistic only decreases to 70%.

The findings suggest that employees with autism might be less vulnerable to the bystander effect than employees without autism. Because they are more likely to recognize and report ineffective procedures and dysfunctional practices when they see them, employees with autism may, therefore help to enhance organizational performance.

Braxton said“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.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Lorne M. Hartman, Mehrdad Farahani, Alexander Moore, Ateeya Manzoor, Braxton L. Hartman. Organizational benefits of neurodiversity: Preliminary findings on autism and the bystander effect. Autism Research. DOI: 10.1002/aur.3012
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