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Does being on the autistic spectrum make you more likely to be the next whistleblower?

When it comes to calling out wrongdoing in the workplace, could it be that some people are more likely to speak up than others? That’s the assertion of academic David Lewis, Professor of Employment Law and Head of the Whistleblowing Research Unit at Middlesex University, who’s calling for more research to look into the subject. 

In their joint article ‘Is there a link between whistleblowing and autism?’, Professor Lewis and Helen Evans (autistic whistleblower, previously of Oxfam) hypothesised that the characteristics commonly associated with autism spectrum conditions might mean those on the autistic spectrum are more likely to whistleblow than their neurotypical counterparts.

At Protect, a notable number of callers to our Advice Line identify as being neurodivergent and/or on the autistic spectrum. While this observation doesn’t prove a link, we think this warrants exploration.  

Autism characteristics 

As Professor Lewis and Helen Evans identify, key strengths associated with autism can include a strong sense of right and wrong as well as determination and conviction in ideas and beliefs. Callers to our Advice Line who identify as being on the autistic spectrum also describe valuing rules (and therefore feeling uncomfortable when they are broken), being less susceptible to organisational pressure to stay silent (due to challenges interpreting social norms) and strongly believing that wrongs should be made right. With this in mind, it is possible to conjecture that people on the autistic spectrum may possess traits which could lend themselves to both identifying misconduct and making them more likely than their neurotypical peers to call out the wrongdoing. 

As whistleblower Helen Evans says:  

“When I received my autism diagnosis, I was told by those close to me to keep it quiet when blowing the whistle on sexual abuse at Oxfam. That there was a risk it’d be used against me to undermine my credibility, when in fact I believe it was probably the reason I blew the whistle when others hadn’t, given my hyper-focus, particularly strong sense of social justice and failure to be influenced by social hierarchy. If it’s possible that autistic people may be more represented amongst whistleblowers than in the general population then this has significant implications for how we support whistleblowers. More research is needed but in the meantime I’m grateful that Protect is helping to start a wider conversation in the sector about this under-researched area.

Speaking of their experience as a whistleblower with autism and ADHD, Tommy* a caller to Protect’s Advice Line said:   

“Being neurodivergent, characterised by traits like hyperfocus, lateral thinking and a heightened sensitivity to stimuli, equipped me with the ability to identify misconduct within my organisation. However, my strengths and persistence were met with significant obstacles including stigma, discrimination, misconstrued intentions and serious health and safety concerns. My concerns were often misinterpreted, dismissed, and pathologized as symptoms of stress or mental illness. This was rather than recognising my reaction as a normative response to witnessing wrongdoing, enduring prolonged exposure to psychosocial hazards and experiencing retaliation for over a year for reporting concerns. This journey, although daunting, highlighted the need for organisations to bridge communication gaps, address power imbalances, and better understand neurodiversity.  

Whistleblowing and the law 

Under the Employment Rights Act 1996, if a whistleblower is victimised or dismissed by their employer for making a protected disclosure (the legal term for whistleblowing), they can bring a claim against their employer in the Employment Tribunal. To succeed, the negative treatment suffered by the whistleblower must be directly linked to them having blown the whistle. However, employers can argue that their reason for disciplining or dismissing a whistleblower wasn’t related to their whistleblowing and instead, was down to their conduct or manner when they raised their concerns.[1]

Professor Lewis and Helen Evans suggest autistic whistleblowers could find themselves unintentionally committing misconduct by trying to find supporting evidence for their concern, due to their need to prove the wrongdoing they perceive. Autism is also associated with repetitive behaviours which could cause issues for any potential whistleblower who may be penalised for the way they raise their concerns, which some may view as inappropriate behaviour. 

This focus on ‘how’ a person blows the whistle fails to recognise the differences facing a neurodivergent worker attempting to raise concerns. However, this is where section 15 of the Equality Act 2010  – providing protection to someone with a qualifying disability – could come into play, although this is still an untested area of law. 

A barrier to whistleblowing? 

With the focus of whistleblowing being to stop harm and wrongdoing, another troubling prospect is that neurodivergent workers may in fact decide against raising their concerns at all for fear of exacerbating pre-existing discrimination. Research has shown that seven out of ten neurodivergent workers say they have experienced workplace discrimination.[2] Such employees are therefore likely to require additional support and reassurance from their employers in the whistleblowing process to safely voice their concerns. 

To conclude, it is certainly possible that workers on the autistic spectrum may be more inclined to raise concerns and therefore stop harm. But further research and employer understanding of neurodivergence is needed to ensure there is better support for all those who speak up to stop harm. 

*Name has been changed at request of the individual.

[1] Kong v Gulf International Bank (UK) Ltd [2022] EWCA CIV 941

[2] The Westminster AchieveAbility Commission for Dyslexia and Neurodivergence, Neurodiverse voices: Opening Doors to Employment, January 2018, page 49,

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