Being autistic means having ‘brain wiring’ that is different from most people’s. Not faulty, but different. It is like the majority population being Windows and autistic people being Apple Mac. Autism is a ‘spectrum’; every autistic person is an individual, with individual skills, challenges and sensitivities. The spectrum includes Asperger syndrome.
The modern workplace is often a difficult and distressing environment for autistic workers. Jargon and communication can seem like it is in a foreign language. The noises, light levels, crowds and smells can be unbearable. The pace of work may not be suitable. The unwritten or social rules can be hard to follow and exhausting to keep up with. Managers – and even workmates – can bully autistic workers. Changes to routines and working practices can be disorientating. Support or mentoring is not usually available.
Because of this, only around 15% of autistic adults are in full-time employment – and a further 9% in part-time jobs. Most autistic people can work, but unsuitable recruitment policies, hostile workplaces and discriminatory employment practices drive them out of work.
I have been organising with trade unionists for autism equality in the workplace since my own diagnosis five years ago at the age of 45. I am active in the RMT transport workers’ union, but have also worked closely with PCS and its members. I know of autistic civil servants who have been driven out of their jobs by harsh and inappropriate performance regimes, excluded socially by workmates, even sacked because, essentially, they don’t ‘fit in’.
April is Autism Awareness Month. There will be lots of events, memes and merchandise. Some of it will be useful and enlightening. Some, however, will be patronising and pitying, some will spread fear rather than awareness. Autistic people want more than ‘awareness’. We want acceptance. We want rights, support, equality and access. And our involvement in our trade unions is essential to winning that.
Are you a PCS rep? Let us know how you have campaigned for autism equality, email: [email protected]