Shattering Silence: Autistic Women Redefining Coaching and Inclusion in the Workplace

Cara Langford Watts is a postgraduate research student, a Coaching Psychologist and the Director of a coaching, training and consultancy provider that specialises in progressive coaching for neurodivergent individuals. Cara has published a paper that investigates the effectiveness of workplace coaching practices in addressing the needs of autistic women. 

The article considers some of the challenges encountered by autistic women in the workplace including discrimination, adversity and systemic biases that impact professional development. Wider life challenges faced by autistic people are also set out and factors such as higher unemployment rates, misdiagnosis, impacted earning potential and societal expectations / barriers are acknowledged. 

The paper seeks to help address this gap by providing autistic women the opportunity to share their experiences of workplace coaching. 

The Approach

A qualitative data collection was undertaken on a relatively small sample size which enabled deeper conversations during semi-structured interviews. The sample focused on women within the autistic community who had experienced coaching in the workplace within a defined timeframe. The results were then thematically analysed and collated into a narrative reflective of the research questions whilst presenting the story from the dataset. 

The Findings

Participant’s narratives revealed varied experiences of workplace coaching alongside differing needs and wants. Professional and personal challenges around autism were highlighted together with the need for greater understanding around autism and celebrating differences. The varying experiences of neurotypical focused coaching were also discussed. 

The emergent themes and sub-themes extracted from the data analysis are shown in the following table:

Table 1: Emergent and sub-themes

Emergent Theme Sub Themes
Lived experience of autism. • Coaches’ relationship to the experience of Autism.
• Coach knowledge of Autism and understanding the individual’s unique needs.
Alignment of autism-inclusive culture. • Institutional ableism - coaching isn’t enough.
• Cultural ignorance of coaching.
Diversity is not Typical. • Beyond existing coaching models.
• Congruence of autistic perspectives within the field of coaching and coaching research.

Lived experience of autism

  • Understanding the lived experience of autistic women is fundamental
  • Greater empathy and understanding were expected from coaches with experience of neurodivergences, however the potential effectiveness of those with only neurotypical experiences were not overlooked
  • The potential biases of coaches who identify as neurodivergent and role this played in the experiences was also considered

Alignment of autism-inclusive culture

  • Participants had all contended with stereotypes and stigmatisation in the workplace, and when coupled with other ableist and gender-based workplace barriers the outcomes had impeded on the effectiveness of reasonable adjustments being implemented
  • In some instances external workplace conditions had resulted in 'internalised ableism', which in turn drove an unwillingness to disclose autism in order to avoid discrimination
  • Whilst there were overall positive views of workplace coaching in supporting autistic women, concerns were identified regarding the process trying to ‘fix’ individuals to fit an ableist society

Diversity is not Typical

  • Experiences where coaching had failed to sufficiently take key issues related to autism into account were identified
  • It was recognised that the duration and coaching styles deployed ought to vary depending on the individuals needs, not a ‘one size fits all’ approach
  • Coaching models may not consider, and in turn therefore not address, the needs of autistic women in the workplace due to a lack of lived experiences within the research

The themes and sub-themes identify a number of significant gaps that need to be addressed in order to ensure the effectiveness of coaching for autistic women in the workplace. Identification and recognition of strengths, resulting in fit for purpose coaching models, are key in delivering an inclusive culture. 

Read the full article.