Review: Removing Barriers for Autistic Workers

From Solidarity 405, 18 May 2016.

Cathy Nugent reviews Autism Equality in the Workplace: Removing barriers and challenging discrimination by Janine Booth.
Available to buy online here.

This is not a book of advice for autistic people on how to adapt to work or how to socialise with colleagues. There are other books and resource that do that.

This is a book, based on many interviews with people with autism, as well as the author’s own experiences, which says employers should remove barriers that autistic people face at work. As Janine argues, “if we wait for employers to make their workplaces autism friendly voluntarily we will be waiting a long time — far longer than a fair society would expect anyone to wait for progress and equality.”

Not least because some autistic people need a good deal of support and employers just don’t do “support”! Janine advocates a political goal — wider democratically-organised public ownership of industries and services, where equality and inclusion for all is at the heart of work organisation. But she also recognises we need to mobilise our labour movement to fight for this goal, and in the meantime as much equality as we possibly can. In the meantime labour movements (and the socialist movement) need to educate ourselves about the relevant issues, exactly what an autism-friendly workplace (and world!) would look like.

First and foremost Janine says we need to expand our appreciation, acceptance and tolerance of neurodivergence, human qualities which relate to the austic spectrum (but also to conditions such as dyslexia and ADHD). At the moment societal emphasis on adaptation is creating problems and distress. It is for instance pushing people on the autistic spectrum who are able to adapt into “masking” (e.g. by anxiously “practising” social skills).

Many autistic people are ashamed to “come out”. Or are, if they can find work at all, channelling themselves into jobs and occupations which they are stereotypically seen to be suitable for. At best social acceptance may be based on being “gifted” or “nerdy” or the go-to person for scientific and technical information. This is a one-dimensional view of any human being, a recipe for misunderstanding and miscommunication. And worse, having one’s emotional life dismissed as either non-existent or unacceptable.

On the other hand if society, starting in the world of work that Janine writes about, was prepared to (or forced to) attempt better understanding and remove the barriers to acceptance, then a world of possibilities opens up for people on the autistic spectrum. In fact — it is clear to me from reading this book, and the point is made by Janine at various points — a world of possibilities opens up for all of us. Janine raises quite fundamental questions about what work is, who it is for, and how it should be organised.

Take for instance the current emphasis by employers on employees having so-called “soft skills” and “emotional intelligence”; ideas which underpin customer services. Service sector workers especially are expected to connect with, anticipate, and emotionally identify with a customer’s needs to a ridiculous extent. Being forced to mimic emotional connection (doing “emotional labour”) is a great effort. For some of us this is okay. For many of us, whether we are autistic or not, it is not. And, as Janine points out, it is often obvious to customers (i.e. the rest of us) that this effort is false, shallow, unecessary and demeaning to everyone.

Certainly, I don’t want to have someone be forced to wish me a nice day with a degree of well-performed cheerfulness. But I do often want accurate, concrete information, delivered in a straightforward way. These are not only skills an autistic person might be able to acquire, they are also ones with a great deal of virtue in any economy based on rapid exchanges.

Janine’s argument is based on the “social model” — the idea that society disables impaired people. It is a guide to social action, to identify barriers for disabled people in society, then work to remove them. Janine points to a debate on this model (one we have had in the AWL). The danger may be that the social model understates the difficulties people face when they have severe impairments.

For autistic people this may mean those who are relatively better able to function in our society become the “spokespeople” for others, and get their needs prioritised. These issues clearly need more discussion, alongside continuing research into disagnosing and understanding autism itself.

Janine’s book is eye-opening, should be read by all trade unionists. It is a manifesto for a future workers’ government and it is full of ideas for workplaces, things for unions to fight for now. This requires that trade unions have better, fighting policies for access to work for all disabled people as well as drives to organise the unorganised. Many of the practical ideas here — such as getting rid of strip lighting; shorter meetings; quieter workspaces; written as well as spoken instructions; jargon-free information; banning “hot desking”; ending supervisory bullying, micromanaging and performance management — are things that autistic and non-autistic workers can unite aroun

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