Published in the National Autistic Society's magazine 'Your Autism' – Winter 2016
How do I… challenge discrimination at work?
By Janine Booth
Most autistic people want to work, but often encounter difficulties in the workplace which employers can address better. Author and workplace trade union representative Janine Booth, who is on the spectrum herself, outlines her ten examples of barriers for autistic people at work, and offers advice for removing them.
Advice to autistic people on getting and keeping a job usually involves tips on ‘acting normal’ in order to ‘fit in’ at work. But what if, rather than changing ourselves, we change our workplaces?
What if we demand that employment fits all workers rather than autistic people fitting ourselves into jobs which are often distressing, discriminatory and disabling? What if, rather than listing autistic traits and the problems they cause at work, we list the problems that workplaces cause for autistic workers? Perhaps then we can change the situation where shockingly just 15% of working-age autistic adults have a full-time job.
The social model of disability identifies barriers that society puts in the way of disabled (in this case, autistic) people’s participation. It aims to remove barriers which prevent us accessing work and services and living independently. Let’s apply this model: identify barriers and remove them. Only a fraction of issues can fit in this article, so these are just examples.
1. Getting work
Job adverts often use jargon. Interviews may have sensory distractions, use sloppily-worded questions, and judge applicants on social behaviour such as posture. Employers can remove these barriers by advertising jobs clearly, using practical tests and allowing autistic applicants to have an interview companion. The Government can do more to actively support autistic job-hunters.
2. Getting on with the job
Once you begin a job, the induction you get may not cover social issues. Training may not recognise autistic learning styles. Employers may not recognise our abilities. To remove these barriers, employers can give information in advance, train managers about autism and provide a support worker or mentor to offer assistance.
Autistic workers may prefer written or visual communication. We may not speak, may not ask for help, or may ask endless questions. To remove these barriers, employers can make sure their communication is straightforward and given in manageable chunks, does not rely on tone, gestures or facial expression and is in the worker’s preferred format.
4. Social interaction
Workplaces often demand intense social interaction, which can be difficult if you’re autistic. Employers can provide space to de-stress, and – importantly – they can accept us for who we are: if we skip along the corridor or rock on our chairs, what’s the problem?
5. Sensory issues
Autistic people’s sensory experiences can be more (or less) intense than those of non-autistic people. To address this, employers can make it possible for each worker to control his or her sensory environment. They can alleviate difficulties with light by using full-spectrum light, sound by using noise-cancelling headphones, smells by shielding work spaces from canteens or food preparation areas, and fabrics by allowing people to wear comfortable clothing.
6. Organising work
Many workplaces have rigid work schemes, causing autistic workers difficulty managing time or prioritising. To stop this being a barrier to autistic employees, it’s important to offer more control to autistic employees over their work. Offering practical tools such as visual timetable and apps, and allowing staff to explore ideas and go at their own pace, will also help.
7. The trouble with managers
Managers may know little about autism, show favouritism, communicate inappropriately, or be too bossy. To make sure this isn’t a barrier for autistic people getting on at work, employers can make sure managers understand autism and avoid disabling behaviour – such as not providing enough processing time or giving vague instructions. Going further, we could question assumptions about authority at work, and reorganise work on a democratic, collective basis.
8. Bullying and harassment
Bullies target people who seem different, whether they know their victim is autistic or not. Bullies often have authority over victims. Employers can adopt an anti-bullying policy which includes designated people to contact if you are being bullied, taking complaints seriously and offering support to the individual from an autism worker and/or union representative.
9. All change!
Unexpected change is hard to cope with, whether that’s day-to-day disruption or grand reorganisation. To remove barriers to autistic people, employers can keep things the same for that person where practical (for example, parking space allocations and working hours). They can also negotiate, and give notice of, unavoidable changes.
10. Job insecurity
Recent years have seen cuts to many services that support autistic adults – including some for finding and keeping work. Work can also be less secure, for example with fixed-term or zero-hours contracts. To remove barriers, Government and employers need to work together to expand services, meeting needs and creating jobs. They can keep jobs in the public sector where they are more secure and not push autistic people into unsuitable work, while providing adequate benefits.
What can we do as autistic individuals and family members?
A few employers are trying to change their practices; perhaps more will. To make change happen, autistic people and thour eir friends and families can campaign and lobby governments and political parties. We can also assert our rights as individual workers and job-hunters, and organise with others to demand more autism-friendly workplaces.
One way to do this is to join a trade union. It can help you with your personal situation and provide a powerful collective voice. You can join a union whether or not there is one in your workplace already, or even if you don’t have a job. Most trade unions have structures for disabled members and/or train their representatives about autism.
To misquote Karl Marx, ‘Thus far, autistic people have had to navigate, suffer or avoid the workplace. The point, however, is to change it.’
Legal rights at work
Is autism a disability? Legally, a person is disabled if s/he has ‘a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his/her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’. Most autistic people will ‘qualify’.
Discrimination Direct and indirect discrimination is unlawful, as is that arising from disability.
Positive action It is lawful to take positive measures to assist disabled people.
Reasonable adjustment Employers must adjust working conditions (if reasonable) to remove disadvantage to a disabled worker.
Disclosure You are not obliged to tell your employer that you are autistic. However, many legal rights are only accessible if you do.
Bullying Workplace bullying is not explicitly unlawful. However, other laws can be invoked against bullying.
Harassment Unlawful harassment is ‘unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic [eg disability] with the purpose or effect of violating the target’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the victim’.
Victimisation It is unlawful to penalise someone for doing a protected act such as complaining about discrimination.
Health, safety, welfare Some health, safety and/or welfare laws affect working conditions such as rest facilities or working time.
Trade union rights Workers have the right to join a trade union, and to be accompanied by a union representative to some meetings with their employer.
Take legal advice, for example from your trade union, if you think you have been treated unlawfully.
- Read more advice on this topic in Janine’s book, Autism equality in the workplace (Jessica Kingsley Publishers)
- Join our Too Much Information campaign calling on the Government and employers to make the changes needed to help more autistic people find and keep work. Sign the petition at www.autism.org.uk/tmi