Supporting Autism in the Workplace

Published as a blog post on TUC unionlearn:

Three years ago, at the age of 45, I was diagnosed as autistic. It made complete sense to me, like being short-sighted all my life and finally getting a pair of glasses!

As an active trade unionist – I was on the RMT’s national executive at the time – my response was to begin a drive to raise the trade union movement’s game in fighting for the rights of its autistic members. This was to be an organising response: not simply ‘awareness-raising’, but increasing the capacity of trade unions and their rank-and-file representatives and branches to represent autistic members (and members with caring responsibility for autistic dependents) and to fight for equality in the workplace.

It is becoming more common for workers to ask their union rep to help them with an autism-related issue. Perhaps a member is autistic and feels that s/he has been discriminated against; or a member with an autistic kid is having trouble getting time off for appointments; or maybe a workmate does not know s/he is autistic and is struggling with social pressures or sensory overload at work. Especially in a time of austerity, pressure on autistic people is increasing. Despite our many and varied abilities, only 15% of autistic adults are in full-time employment.

In 2013, I successfully proposed a resolution on Autism in the Workplace to the TUC’s Disabled Workers’ Conference. A year later, this was followed by a TUC handbook for union reps on the subject (download it here).

But perhaps the key element of this drive has been Autism in the Workplace training for union reps. I have run one-day courses for the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in London, which have been over-subscribed every time. This has led to various trade unions inviting me to run training for their members, either full-day courses or shorter workshops as part of events covering a variety of subjects. 

The courses begin by explaining what autism is, and go on to look at case studies, legal rights, how to make workplaces and working practices more accessible, and how to make our own unions more welcoming to autistic members. They approach the issue using the social model of disability, looking at the barriers that society and workplaces present to autistic people rather than blaming the autism.

Each and every course has been thoroughly enjoyable, educational for all concerned, and most importantly, has sent a growing army of union reps back into the workplace armed with the knowledge and skills they need to fight against inequality and for autism-friendly workplaces.

2016 will see my own union, RMT, hosting week-long Autism in the Workplace courses at its Bob Crow National Education Centre in Doncaster. As far as I am aware, this is a first, and I am very much looking forward to tutoring a range of reps from the transport industry around the country.

I am more than happy to deliver these courses to your union, including to travel to your area and to design a course to meet your needs in terms of length, facilities and content.

You can contact me at [email protected].

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