How workplaces can create difficulties for autistic workers

From the TUC handbook, Autism in the Workplace

Workplaces and employers make work difficult for autistic workers for the following reasons:

Discrimination: Treating the autistic worker differently from, less favourably than, others.

Bullying by management, including ridicule and physical/ verbal abuse.

Lack of communication and support.

Andrew Beck, who has Asperger’s Syndrome and learning difficulties, had worked as a golf club green keeper since 1986. He had no problems at work until the appointment of a new head green keeper in 1999. His new boss:

  • told him to wear highly visible clothing and a red cap to distinguish him from other staff and to alert golfers to his presence
  • banned him from using a motorised vehicle and made him cart heavy equipment in a wheelbarrow
  • gave Andrew duties which involved an unfair amount of heavy work, often without breaks of lighter work, in contrast to other green keepers.
  • approached him from behind and violently knocked a rake out of his hands, then pushed him out of the way, using bad language.
  • accused him of not pulling his weight and used a stream of obscenities.
  • subjected Andrew to a cheap joke by giving him a child’s game as his staff Christmas present.
  • gave him a verbal warning because of alleged numerous instances of failing to carry out tasks.

The employer did not communicate with Andrew properly and he had no-one to talk about his anxieties. In 2007, Andrew resigned because of continuing pressure and its effect on his health. Andrew won an Employment Tribunal claim for constructive dismissal and disability discrimination, and was awarded £78,000.

Preventing an autistic worker from carrying out duties or using equipment when there is no valid reason reason to do so.

“The first line manager to be informed of my Asperger’s reacted by recommending that I be excluded from presenting results at conferences, on the grounds that I didn’t give a ‘favourable impression’.”
Louise, formerly employed in the scientific civil service

Rates of pay: An employer might pay a worker less than the rate for the job, using the autism as a pretext or excuse.

Exploitation: An employer may think that s/he can ‘get away with’ treating an autistic employee badly.

Adam O’Dee, who has Asperger’s syndrome and dyslexia, worked as a chef at a hotel from February 2010, having been introduced by Remploy, which helps disabled people find work.
His boss paid him £95 per week – less than half the minimum wage – because he thought he could get away with it. He was not paid for working extra hours at weekends and busy times like Christmas.
The boss claimed that Adam had to be ‘carried and pampered’. He threatened to sack Adam for ‘taking too much off the end of a cucumber’; and threw frozen bread rolls around the kitchen after wrongly blaming him for not taking them out of the freezer.
Eventually, Adam resigned, complaining of harassment and victimisation.
Adam won an Employment Tribunal claim for unfair dismissal, disability discrimination and breach of minimum wage law, and was awarded £40,000+.

New work processes: The imposition of new arrangements at work may cause difficulties for workers on the autistic spectrum.

“Following a change in working practices it became apparent that my [autistic] son could not cope with the increased demands and the conflicting requirements of the job role. Having changed from a ‘job and finish’ work pattern to one that involved prioritising, swapping and changing, he became very ill, depressed and stressed, resulting in a breakdown. Once he became ill, his duties were changed and his role altered, he was allocated a mentor and did a phased return to work.”
Mother of an autistic postal worker 

Past experiences: Working conditions in the past may have caused difficulties for the worker, perhaps especially when the law was weaker.

Unemployment: Autistic workers are more likely to have periods of unemployment, often due to losing or leaving a job because conditions are unsuitable.

Self-confidence may be decreased by experiences of discrimination or bullying.

Performance management regimes may cause undue pressure and distress to autistic workers.

Working environment: Autistic workers may need a ‘benign’ environment with fewer distressing factors.

“I was out of work for 15 months after I was dismissed in 1991, when there was no disability legislation requiring employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to support my performance at work. I appealed against dismissal with the support of my trade union, but was downgraded as there was no Disability Discrimination Act to ensure that I was transferred to another job on the same grade. I had to wait till January 1994 to be re-employed within the Civil Service.
“I experienced bullying with performance again in 2004. My self-confidence since 1991 was destroyed and I felt deterred from striving for promotion. I felt ashamed of my condition and could never trust any manager or employer.
“Recently, I have been coming out in the open as a disabled person. My main area of weakness is a learning disability associated with new duties. I need more time than others to become accustomed to the technical duties.
“When I revealed my condition to my line manager in 2005, I asked to work in a benign environment with a supporting letter from my doctor. I was, then, made to feel that I was not being bullied. As a result, my performance improved.”
Civil servant

Managers being overly ‘bossy’ can distress autistic (and other) workers.

Disruption of routines.

A worker with undiagnosed autism may not get support or adjustments.

Contracting-out enables third-party companies to insist that workers are removed, even sacked, just because they do not like the worker concerned.

“I represented a member who didn’t know he was on the spectrum. But he shows all the classic signs. He likes routine, and everything is black-and-white.
“He keeps getting into trouble at work primarily when people boss him about and ruin his routine. His last employers said they didn’t know he needed help (even though it is clear that he does on first meeting him). I got them to use reasonable adjustment by moving him away from destructive personalities. But by then it was too late as the contractor wanted client removal. Upshot: I got him an extra 9 months pay and he has another job.”
Kevin, RMT union representative

Expecting people to abide by ‘social rules’ at work without ever specifying what they are.

Problems with assessment and/or promotion processes.

Making judgements about a worker’s social interaction based on neurotypical standards e.g. not hiring someone because s/he did not make eye contact
during interview, assuming s/he was disinterested or dishonest.

“Think how it feels that we, of all people, who have such powerfully single-minded vocations, and hunger more than most to fulfil our vocations, must everywhere seem to be prevented by those eagle-eyed gatekeepers, the networkers, the social police who will prevent us from accessing the resources we need because we fail an irrelevant eye-contact test, or the right-kind-of-smile-on-the-way-to-the-water-cooler test.”
Judy Singer, Foreword to Jean Kearns Miller, “Women From Another Planet?”

Stress or anxiety.

Colleagues or managers misunderstanding you.

Feeling ‘left out’ socially.

Conflict with colleagues or managers.

Misunderstanding rules, policies or instructions.

Difficulties organising your work.

Feeling that autistic positives/skills are not recognised.

Frustration with others’ poor organisation of work.

Timekeeping (either yours or others’).

Unexpected events or disruption of work schedule.

“We had work meetings that would regularly start late – sometimes several hours after the scheduled time. I found it so distressing that by the time the meeting started, I was mentally exhausted and found it difficult to concentrate and keep my temper in the meeting. With a change in office personnel, meetings started on time and my working life got so much better!”
Voluntary sector employee

Irregular working hours.

Sickness/absence policies.

Dealing with diagnosis as an adult.

Sensory issues eg. noise, light, smell.

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