Guest post: Autistic Workers and Trade Unions

by PCS rep, Helen Sheridan

Never give a trade unionist a platform if you want to get away on time. I hope you’re all sitting comfortably. For anyone who cares about these things, my name is Helen Sheridan and I am a trade union representative with the Public and Commercial Services Union. I have served on the Executive Committee for my branch for almost ten years, as well as on various sub-committees within the branch. I’m also Autistic.

As you’ve probably noticed, awareness of neurodiversity has increased dramatically over the past few years, with high profile campaigns from groups like the National Autistic Society, increased representation in film and television, such as The A Word, and the rise of social media giving a platform to Autistic people themselves. Self Advocacy groups have gained more control over the conversation being had about Autism and are steering it to the areas that matter to Autistic people.

The Trade Unions have a role to play promoting acceptance of neurodiversity as well. In 2014 the TUC published a guide titled Autism in the Workplace, written by an Autistic woman, Janine Booth of the RMT. This highlighted the fact that a great many Autistic adults are unable to find or keep employment, not because of a lack of ability for the job, but because of bullying, discrimination and a lack of reasonable adjustments. Most Autistic adults can work and want to work, but are prevented from doing so by discriminatory working practices.

This is where the unions come in, to challenge this and promote neurodiversity. But, we don’t just want it to be accepted, we want it to be celebrated. When environmentalists study an area, they count the number of different organisms present, because they know that diversity is crucial to the ecosystem. In the same way, neurodiversity is crucial to society. We need people with a wide range of skills, we need people who can think about problems from all different angles.

You’ve probably heard the popular theory that many prominent scientists were Autistic, such as Isaac Newton, Henry Cavendish and Albert Einstein. And, you’re probably aware that a number of the high profile figures from the tech industry are Autistic, and that’s great, but it’s not the whole picture. No less important to the running of society would be someone like the Autistic filing clerk at the tax office, who keeps meticulous order and knows where everything is off the top of their head. Or if you want something a bit more modern, the Autistic server farm monitor. The same behaviour that has children lining Lego bricks up according to size and colour allows adults to thrive in areas where keeping order is important. An Autistic trait can be either beneficial or detrimental depending on the situation.

We need workplaces that embrace people’s differences and allow them to explore their strengths, instead of holding them back because of their difficulties. The world we live in is changing, and the way we work is changing. For example, we don’t need to chain people to desks in massive offices from 9 to 5, technology gives us the capability to work from home, surely a massive benefit to someone who suffers from social anxiety.

But this isn’t just about being charitable and giving Autistic people token jobs. Autistic people tend to share a number of traits that are extremely useful in a variety of occupations, such as attention to detail, intense focus, ability to think outside the box, and a strong work ethic. Getting Autistic people into work also reduces the need for them to rely on benefits, and offers them some financial independence and a sense of agency.

Obviously, there are more career paths than just office work, other jobs that need doing, with varying levels of complexity and requiring different skills. The only thing keeping Autistic people from filling these roles are the barriers put up by employers, and by society at large. Barriers such as the sensory environment of the workplace and the commute to get there, social demands, methods of communication, and so on. These barriers could be easily removed, but a combination of ignorance and prejudice keeps them in place.

The Trade Union movement is working towards dismantling these barriers and creating an inclusive workplace. We’re doing this by pushing for reasonable adjustments for Autistic workers, and challenging discriminatory practices. We’re educating employers and workers alike to dispel the myths surrounding Autism. We’re working with Self Advocacy groups, and true to the spirit of “nothing about us without us”, many prominent trade unionists are Autistic, including Austin Harney from the National Executive Committee of my own union PCS, and Janine Booth, who I mentioned earlier.

I’m not going to lie, there is a massive task ahead of us. It’s going to take a long time to get rid of the old attitudes. If only there was a group of people who were renowned for being focussed and obsessive over things. Equality in the workplace is a special interest for many Autistic trade unionists like myself, and you know how hard it is to get an Autist to shut up about their special interest. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, we’re not stopping until we’ve created an environment where Autistic people are allowed to flourish in their own way.

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