Speaking Out about Autism at Work

This is the speech I gave at TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference 2013 in proposing RMT’s resolution on Autism in the Workplace.

Andrew Beck has Asperger syndrome, an autistic spectrum condition. He was a golf club greenkeeper for 13 years with no problems, until a new boss bullied, humiliated and assaulted him, and forced him out of his job. Andrew won £78k at Employment Tribunal

Adam O’Dee has autism and dyslexia. He got a job through Remploy as a hotel chef. His boss bullied him and paid him half the minimum wage. Adam won £40k+ at Employment Tribunal.

There are many more examples of autistic workers and workers with caring responsibility for autistic dependants being mistreated like this

from the worker who told his manager he might have Asperger’s and was summarily dismissed to the railway worker and mother of an autistic son whose manager told her: ‘We are running a business not a creche’. Actually, you’re running a public service not a business.

With employers like this, it is little surprise that just 15% of autistic adults are in full-time employment.

As with disability generally, it is not the autism that causes the problems, it is the failure of employers to provide a workplace accessible and hospitable to autistic workers. Instead, we get:

  • over-stimulating work environments
  • unclear rules and instructions
  • expectation to conform to social protocols we may not understand
  • short notice and unreasonable changes to work schedules
  • bullying, harassment, anxiety and discrimination

We need to organise and fight for autism-friendly workplaces

The measures needed to achieve that are measures that will benefit all workers, autistic or not – they are unifying demands

Humanity is neurologically diverse

  • our brains think and process in different ways
  • autism is one form of neuro-atypicality, and is itself a spectrum
  • other forms include dyslexia, dyspraxia and Tourette’s
  • these are outside the scope of this particular resolution, but which I hope the new Committee will include and address

Instead of sidelining or trying to eliminate that diversity, our society should embrace it.

Despite the warm words of the Autism Act, the reality remains that

  • autistic kids have an uphill struggle to get the support they need
  • and for autistic adults, including those like myself diagnosed as adults, support is practically non-existent.

Then on top of all that, we get cuts

  • cuts to what services do exist
  • cuts to education
  • cuts to health services
  • cuts to benefits

And a vindictive benefits assessment which does not account for autism and which people have to take every year despite autism being a lifelong condition.

Perhaps we should not be surprised when we have a Chancellor who thinks it is ok to call a political opponent ‘faintly autistic’ as though it were an insult, as George Osborne said about Gordon Brown in 2006.

Autism is an issue for trade unions because it is an issue for workers.

But it is also an issue for trade unionists because we need to make our own movement accessible to the diversity of workers, including those who have an atypical neurology, whether that is autism, dyslexia or another.

We need autistic involvement, autistic activism, autistic self-organisation.

RMT is taking an organising approach to this issue. We want to build rank-and-file activism, with trade union workplace reps trained and supported to fight against discrimination and for autism-friendly workplaces.

That’s why we have developed Autism in the Workplace training in conjunction with WEA London. It has been very successful: we want to expand it and accredit it.

I know there is a certain reluctance to have specific courses on specific disabilities, but I think this is a case where we should.

Autism is not a tragedy, an epidemic or a life sentence.

It is a fact of life and a part of human neurology.

  • As diagnosis, including adult diagnosis, increases,
  • as autistic people get more organised and vocal,
  • and as workplace pressure from employers becomes more intense,

then union reps will need to know, and do, more about the issue of autism.

Please help that process by supporting this resolution.

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