Guest post: 'Autistic-friendly' employers may not be what they seem
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There is an increasing number of companies which explicitly employ autistic people, promising to value their work and provide suitable working conditions. This has been widely welcomed.

But what are the experiences of autistic workers in these companies? 

On this website, I will be hosting guest posts to give a platform to these workers and allow people to see behind the headlines.

The first is from V, in Paris.

 

 

BEFORE ENTERING THE COMPANY

The speech to attract employees is called 'well-being at work'. It claimed to provide: 'softened lights, rest areas, customised schedule, clear instructions, shuttle service from the house to the company to avoid public transportation ... [The company] is ready to do everything to accomodate their employees'.

The company made many promises about working conditions which it did not put in writing (eg. some specific terms about holidays).

 

WHILE WORKING IN THE COMPANY

Some 'employees' don’t even have a real contract, but they’re working hoping to get one. The manager often asks them to trust him.

Some employees are not paid for their work.

People work at night, weekends, days, way beyond the time allowed by law.

In order to save money, the company has no office (the legal address is like a P.O. Box) and rents daily a room in Paris. So on Monday, I have to work at one address, on Tuesday another one, and so on. I was often informed of the address the night before, at 7.30 pm. If we are lucky, the rental company lets us keep the same room for several days. The room is rented for one person even if there are four of us and we share a tiny table. I have dyspraxia and I need a real working chair, not having my elbows touching someone else’s.

Employees are asked to work on projects that are challenging to the clients: either the client has a very complex intellectual issue and needs the autistics to solve it, or the client asks the autistic team to work within an impossible timeframe or budget that the client has not been able to meet with their own, internal team. This creates awful anxiety for autistics, but we are asked to 'be creative and find solutions'.

Some autistic workers are victims of moral harassment in the company.

We crash down in these conditions. We cannot last very long even if we hang in as much as possible to keep our job.

 

AFTER LEAVING THE COMPANY

Some employees asked for their salaries and went to court. Others contacted the labour and safety watch institution. Pressure tactics and intimidation are used by the manager so that the employee withdrew their complaint, and it worked. I am currently trying to get paid through court but psychologically it is brutally hard.

 

THE COMPLEXITY OF THIS SITUATION

An autistic person who has been destroyed or hurt doesn’t talk about it; he or she shuts down.

The list of former 'demolished' employees is getting bigger. A union advised me to gather with former co-workers, but this is beyond difficult. An ex-colleague wished me luck but told me that just hearing the name of the company is a trauma trigger for him; he suffered too much and doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. Another colleague is in psychiatric hospital because of a terrible depression he got; he has no energy to fight. Some were suicidal because of what they faced.

It is so easy to silence an autistic and go on with this sweatshop-like system. Candidates apply to work in this company because they just don’t know what hell it is. The manager asks new employees to post good things about the company on the internet. But when they are 'trashe', they don't talk any more. There is a climate of fear.

The company receives money to hire disabled or long-term unemployed people.

The manager says:

  • he’s autistic - so candidates and employees tend to trust him when he asks for trust.
  • about an employee working at night: 'He doesn’t sleep so we’re giving him occupation'
  • 'Autistics don’t sue.'
  • 'Autistics won’t change company for more money – once they’re in it’s hard for them to change.'
  • 'Autistics are model employees: they don’t ask for promotion or pay rises, they never participate in strikes and with their hyperfocus ability they can work for long hours if you have a rush in a project.'

He also asked many intrusive personal questions: 'Are you close to your family?'; 'Do you live alone?' 'Are you married?'
This wasn’t a red flag to me at the time, but now I understand that he wants to know how isolated we are.

There are some genuinely good autism-friendly initiatives. I just happened to fall in one of the worst. I looked on the internet for witnesses or other experiences like mine and found this article. It’s not as extreme as my experience, but it shows the premises of what my colleagues and I experienced in the beginning with this company.

We don’t have to mistrust everything, but autistics should ask questions to these specific companies like we would ask any other company. Do some background check, get a proper working contract, don't share sensitive private information with the employer. We have to be careful though: for example, this company misleads people (and the press) with a false number of employees, using advertising videos with extra people who are not employees.

 

If you have a story to tell about the reality of working for an employer which seeks out autistic employees - whether positive, negative or mixed - please email me.