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Is There Power In a Union for Autistic Workers?

Submitted by Janine on 2 February 2022 at 15:16

 

An assessment of trade unions as drivers of positive change for autistic people at work, written as an assignment for Postgraduate Certificate in Autism and Asperger Syndrome 

[Note: this is not advocating a union for autistic workers, but assessing the potential of existing unions!]

For all my adult working life, I have been an active trade unionist. Since finding out that I am autistic in 2012, I have sought to activate unions to better involve and represent autistic workers and tackle discrimination. 

Autistic people have poor employment outcomes (Taylor, Henninger & Mailick, 2015; Office for National Statistics (ONS), 2021; National Autistic Society (NAS), 2016). Numerous papers discuss autistic workers’ difficulties and how employers can become more autism-friendly (eg. Townsley, Robinson, Williams, Beyer & Christian-Jones, 2014; Hedley et al., 2021). However, I have found none that address how unwilling employers can be made to change. Richards (2015) argues that literature on autism and employment tends not to criticise employers’ approaches and is naïvely optimistic that if employers simply learn about the issue they will improve. 

Employment disadvantage raises the question of where workers turn when facing discrimination (William & Cunningham, 2018); this assignment examines how trade unions may be an answer. It considers autism theory in relation to union practice, while recognising that mainstream theories emphasise, even reinforce, negative views of autism (Richards, 2015). It identifies ‘gold standards’ of best practice and reviews current trade union practice against these, revealing shortfalls and suggesting improvements. It considers a range of testimony and literature, some specifically concerning autism, others addressing the broader categories of neurodivergent and disabled workers. 

During the course of the assignment, I develop three areas of my practice with the trade union of which I am a member, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers (RMT): 

  • a five-day residential course on Autism in the Workplace 
  • a unionisation campaign aimed at autistic people on an employability scheme 
  • a guide to neurodiversity for union members.  

 

Trade Unions as Drivers of Advances for Autistic Workers 

UK law and government place no specific requirement on employers to make working conditions more neurodiversity-friendly (Neurodivergent Labour, 2019). While the Equality Act 2010 bars discrimination on grounds of protected characteristics and requires public bodies to consider reducing inequality, autistic people have highlighted its significant shortcomings in practice (Autistic UK, 2015). Autistic workers’ self-reported experiences suggest that employers often unlawfully fail to make reasonable adjustments and instead ‘hound autistic… employees out of the workplace’ and create ‘an extremely hostile environment for neurodivergent workers’ (Cooper and Kennady, 2021). Neurodivergent workers feel more vulnerable to disciplinary action (Bewley & George, 2016). If employers perceive trade unions as challenging, adversarial and unsupportive (Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA), 2019b), perhaps this reflects the need to challenge employers’ shortcomings. 

Over the first decade of the Autism Act, the number of autistic people not getting the support they need increased (NAS, 2019). The government’s autism strategy (HM Government, 2021) aspires to improve autistic people’s participation in employment but makes no statutory requirements on employers to make the changes necessary, despite acknowledging that 31% of employers said that autistic employees require too much support (NAS, 2009). 

Numerous writers have asserted that employers benefit from becoming more autism-friendly (eg. Jones, 2016; Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), 2018; Cope & Remington, 2021; Austin & Pisano, 2017). However, the evidence above indicates that few are acting on this message. Some managers are indifferent to learning about the subject (Cooper and Kennady, 2021). Even where employers accept the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce, their actions may target enhancing productivity rather than autistic workers’ wellbeing as a good in itself, especially in the private sector (Bewley & George, 2016), and they may be reluctant to employ autistic people who are less productive and/or have higher needs (Scott et al., 2019; Wheeler, 2016; Garcia, 2021). Trade unions report that while some employers have made progress, ‘many cynically saw equality as a means to gain good publicity’ (Trades Union Congress (TUC), 2021, p.7).  

Trade unions are organisations of workers, whose priority is to improve the conditions of workers in all their diversity (Marx, 1857). Research shows that union members see representing neurodivergent workers as a natural extension of traditional union representation (Richards and Sang, 2016). Therefore, this assignment looks to trade unions as potentially powerful actors on employers to change: as drivers for improvements for autistic workers. Unions can help autistic people understand their experiences at work (Brown, n.d.). Union presence in a workplace correlates with better pay, safety and job security (TUC, n.d.). Union members are significantly more likely than non-members to know their employment rights (Casebourne, Regan, Neathey & Tuohy, 2006) and to report disability discrimination (Richards & Sang, 2016). Slorach (2021) argues that unions’ progress on disability issues has been uneven but significant. Moreover, trade unions follow a collective agenda and pursue issues more broadly relevant than autism-specific matters (William & Cunningham, 2018): pay, hours and other working conditions are important to autistic workers as they are to non-autistic workers.  

 

Gold Standards 

 

1. The union proactively recruits autistic workers, using inclusive strategies and materials. The union recruits where autistic workers commonly work, including part-time (ONS, 2021a, 2021b), low-paid, casual and entry-level work (Hedley et al., 2017), while acknowledging that autistic people work in all sectors and do not fall into a binary of hypercompetent or capable only of unskilled labour (Garcia, 2021). Evidence suggests that disabled workers in casualised work see unions as inaccessible (William & Cunningham, 2018). This can change if unions make a positive effort to reach autistic workers. 

Common reasons for not joining a union, especially for disabled workers, include not being asked (Unison, n.d.), working on a temporary contract, and doubting the union’s relevance and ability to help (William & Cunningham, 2018), suggesting that unions will recruit if they seek out autistic workers and explain their relevance. The principle of ‘like recruits like’ (Unison, n.d.a) suggests that unions can effectively recruit and involve autistic workers if they involve autistic members in the organising campaign. 

The gold-standard union communicates with new and ongoing members with circulars, speeches, videos, websites and other media that are easy to navigate and avoid jargon (RMT Disabled Members’ Advisory Committee (DMAC), 2020a). All major autism theories recognise autistic people’s need for clear communication, albeit explaining it in different ways (Rajendran & Mitchell, 2007). Central coherence theory explains autistic bias towards detail, indicating that effective union communication will include relevant, accurate detail along with the overall message.  

 

2. The union adopts, understands and applies the social model of disability (Oliver, 1990) and the neurodiversity approach (Singer, 2017), and promotes autism acceptance rather than simply ‘awareness’ (Silverman, 2012). The social model sees people as disabled by societal and workplace practices, attitudes and environments not appropriate to them (GMB, 2018). It can be applied to neurodivergence, including autism (Booth, 2019), enabling unions to remove their own barriers to autistic participation and to identify demands on employers to reduce autistic disadvantage. 

Recognising neurodiversity involves accepting that some individuals are neurodivergent and entitled to acceptance, rights, adjustments and freedom from discrimination, and that the collective (here, the workforce and therefore the union membership) is neurodiverse and ensuring that union practice reflects this. Embracing neurodiversity benefits both diagnosed and undiagnosed autistic workers, those unaware they are autistic, and workers who have atypical sensory, communication and other preferences for other reasons, such as minority language or epilepsy.  

The social model benefits autistic people’s sense of self. Research engineer Jamie Knight (2009) explains that understanding the social model led him from a childhood view of himself as broken to seeing the environment as disabling him.  

 

3. The union considers autistic members as subjects, not objects, of the union’s work. Autistic members may not just need union representatives (‘reps’) but may become reps (Isabel, 2020; Richards & Sang, 2016). Policy may be written by autistic workers not just about autistic workers. Autistic members may become involved on issues other than autism. 

A gold-standard union recognises that autistic people have strengths as well as challenges (Mottron, Dawson, Soulières, Hubert & Burack, 2006; Russell et al., 2019). Theories based on assumed autistic deficit, such as ‘theory of mind’ (Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith, 1985) and ‘executive dysfunction’ (Rajendran & Mitchell, 2007), cast autistic workers as clients needing help rather than as contributors who may need things done in a certain way to facilitate their contribution. The evolved version of the ‘weak central coherence’ theory recognises autistic bias towards detail (Rajendran & Mitchell, 2007), which may highlight skills that unions would welcome. Monotropism theory (Murray, Lesser & Lawson, 2005) allows unions to recognise that autistic people may be very effective in their areas of interest. 

Autistic writer Caroline (2014) argues that unions empower people who are not getting a fair deal, citing a worker whose background as a trade unionist empowered her to respond to her autism diagnosis by asserting her rights and enabling others to do so. Fletcher-Watson et al. (2019, p.950) make a recommendation to researchers that might also be made to unions, that they create ‘supportive environments’ and ‘a culture where autistic people… can take on active, meaningful roles.’ 

 

4. Branch meetings, committee meetings, conferences and other decision-making events are accessible to and inclusive of autistic members. NHS England (2021) suggests circulating the agenda and providing opportunities to visit, or see pictures of, the venue in advance; and giving clear directions to the meeting. An accessible venue will be spacious, with minimum background noise, a choice of seating, and natural or full-spectrum lighting. At the meeting, it is important to keep to agenda timings, ensure only one person talks at a time, and avoid jargon. 

A benign sensory environment enables autistic members to concentrate and participate with minimum distress (Davidson, 2010). While the ‘Big Three’ autism theories offer little insight into sensory sensitivities (Chown, 2017), monotropism theory explains the negative consequences of unwelcome sensory intrusion (Murray et al., 2005). Minimum jargon enables autistic members to more easily understand proceedings. Acceptance of stimming and fidget items helps autistic members to regulate and remain calm (Kapp et al.. 2019). Predictable structure helps autistic members to know when to raise issues and reduces anxiety about what happens next. Fletcher-Watson et al. (2019) argue that a clear meeting programme reduces power imbalance between autistic and non-autistic participants, creating shared expectation of how it will run. Shea, Verstreate, Nonnemacher, Song and Salzer (2021) found that many autistic adults were interested in attending a support or self-advocacy group (a term that might encompass trade unions) but were not doing so, which may distress them. They suggest quiet spaces and environmental modifications. Online events may use some of these measures, and additionally use personal reminders beforehand, opportunities to practise using the technology, and communication options such as captioning (Autistica, n.d.). 

If trade unions enable autistic members to participate on equal terms in decision- and policy-making, the resulting decisions and policies will better reflect autistic workers’ views and needs. 

 

5. The union has specific structures through which autistic members raise issues. RMT (2018) and civil service union PCS both discuss neurodiversity as a standing item on their disabled members’ committees’ agenda. Many unions have disabled members’ structures: Wales TUC (2019) urges unions to publicise their activities and ensure they are welcoming to autistic members. Such publicity might enable autistic workers to see their identity reflected in the union, which they are currently more likely to see in civil society organisations such as charities (William & Cunningham, 2018). When TSSA ran a Neurodiversity project, some members were inspired to become more active in the union (Richards and Sang, 2016). 

Specific structures help ensure that union policy about autism is led by autistic members, identifying demands and actions which autistic workers want rather than what others think they want. Unions identify specific structures as one of the two main factors influencing which equality-related demands they raise with employers (TUC, 2021). This aligns with ‘nothing about us without us’, a slogan widely used in English-speaking disability activism (Charlton, 1998). Through these structures, autistic members develop their understanding and discuss issues collectively with disabled colleagues, which may make them more confident to raise those issues in the wider union, and to scrutinise autism theory. 

If the union does not act on input from autistic members, it risks becoming tokenistic (Fletcher-Watson et al., 2019). Decision-making structures that are top-down, hard to navigate, unwelcoming and/or slow-moving will obstruct initiatives driven by and/or aimed at autistic workers. Fletcher-Watson et al. (2019) advocate adapting structures to facilitate autistic people’s involvement, an approach as relevant to trade unions as to their subject, research. 

 

6. The union responds to autism-hostile employer policies and proactively places specific demands on employers which remove barriers to autistic workers. It makes collective demands arising from, or to pre-empt, individual cases (Wales TUC, 2019; William & Cunningham, 2018). 

Nearly half of UK trade unions have won gains for disabled workers via collective bargaining (TUC, 2021). Unionised workplaces are more likely to achieve equality rights (William & Cunningham, 2018). The gold-standard union tables demands to employers to remove barriers, including allowing autistic workers to work in ways that suit their executive functioning profile and allow them to focus on their areas of interest and strength, aligning with the more constructive insights from autism theory (Chown, 2017). It checks that proposed agreements avoid the common failing of formalising, even extending, tacit discrimination (William & Cunningham, 2018). 

Less than half of trade unions train their lay negotiators (reps) about bargaining on disabled workers’ issues, and only a quarter train their paid officials (TUC, 2021). Disability is not in the top three equality-related training topics for lay negotiators in large, medium or small unions; however, every large union publishes guidance on bargaining for disabled workers (TUC, 2021). 

TSSA’s neurodiversity bargaining standard (2019) sets out demands on employers, although most of the content refers to discussing the issue rather than to specific workplace changes. Anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass (c.1850) argued that ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand’. In my experience, non-specific exhortation to improve is more likely to result in gestures than in concrete gains. 

 

7. Industrial action is accessible to autistic members. Withdrawing labour is potentially very powerful (Gall, 2008). It is most effective when the maximum number of members, including autistic members, take part in and decide the course of the action. Accessibility benefits both autistic workers and the union’s prospects of winning the dispute (Nibbs & Booth, 2019). Measures to include autistic workers in industrial action include: reducing uncertainty through clear communication, providing financial support, and reducing sensory overload (Nibbs & Booth, 2019). 

 

8. Every autistic worker has access to a trained union representative. Without appropriate training, reps may have little, or stereotypical, understanding of autism, limiting their ability to help autistic members. A trained union rep may understand, for example, that an autistic worker facing disciplinary action for lateness may have atypical executive functioning or may experience sensory distress on public transport (Richards, 2015) and therefore advocate a change in working arrangements instead of disciplinary sanction.  

Gold-standard union training addresses the role of a union rep, is shaped by priorities set by the union’s autistic members and challenges pathological views of autistic people. Unison (2021) fell short of this by holding an ‘autism awareness’ training workshop which referred to ‘symptoms’ of autism and to working with ‘children with autism’ rather than to autistic workers. 

As well as workplace reps, unions have specialist health and safety reps, union learning reps (ULRs), and, less commonly, equality reps and disability champions (William & Cunningham, 2018). TSSA promotes ‘neurodiversity champions’ as a specific type of ULR (Richards & Sang, 2016). There are many situations in which autistic workers may benefit from, and are legally entitled to, union representation. They may wish to press for adjustments, as employers often fail to make these (Cooper (ed.), Hewlett & Jameson, 2019; Richards, 2015). They may want advice about disclosing their autism to their employer (GMC, 2018; Cooper et al., 2019; Amatina, 2021). NAS (n.d.b) recommends that autistic workers speak to a union rep if they are bullied at work, stressing that the discussion will be confidential. Other situations include redeployment (Roe and Althestan-Price, 2020), probation and performance review (Employment Autism, n.d.a).  

NAS (2019) acknowledges the role of trade unions, recommending they have workplace reps who can represent autistic workers and advise them of their rights. Union representatives are elected by workers, are on the side of the worker and can bring the power of the union to pressing for workplace change. Fletcher-Watson et al. (2019) identify election and accountability of representatives as a positive factor in working with an autistic people’s organisation; it is similarly a strength in trade unions. 

While Baron-Cohen et al. (2015) theorise that autistic people cannot understand how others think, others (eg. Milton, 2012) identify that non-autistics can have difficulty understanding how autistic people think. A gold-standard rep will address this, by, for example, arranging to meet an autistic member in a place of the latter’s choosing (Fletcher-Watson et al., 2019), using direct language, avoiding jargon, allowing time to process, and not relying on tone or body language (Wales TUC, 2019). 

 

9. The union organises in the community, taking up issues which affect members outside work and wider social concerns. It works with autistic and disabled people’s organisations. Effective and well-publicised union efforts on social issues beyond the workplace may persuade autistic workers of the union’s relevance (William & Cunningham, 2018).  

Not all autistic people work (NAS, 2016). Trade unions RMT (Cash, 2020) and UCU (2021) actively supported the campaign that stopped young, black autistic man Osime Brown being deported. Although Osime was not a member of either union, both recognised that his campaign aligned with their social justice agenda. 

When inviting external speakers, the union chooses autistic representatives. TSSA (2019) presents as a good example a rep inviting a speaker from the National Autistic Society to a workplace safety event. Autism charities are organisations for autistic people rather than of autistic people, so are not representative bodies. Their presence may encourage participants to view autistic people as objects of pity rather than as workmates and union colleagues (Waltz, 2013). 

 

10. The union has an inclusive culture

Autistic members may find it difficult to be involved in an organisation dominated by established friendship groups, with a non-diverse social culture, and which tolerates people being belittled or excluded because they interact in an atypical way (NAS, n.d.a). A gold-standard trade union applies the principle of inclusion, recognising autistic workers’ entitlement to involvement and providing any necessary support, rather than expecting them to integrate into existing union culture (Autism-Europe, 2003). It accepts members as they are rather than exerting pressure towards a ‘normal’ presentation (Davidson, 2010) or to observe social conventions such as shaking hands, hugging or patting backs (David, 2013). Inclusive union activities may help to meet autistic people’s expressed need for social interaction (NAS, 2019).  

Sasson, Faso, Nugent, Lovell and Kennedy (2017) show that non-autistic people make rapid, negative judgements of autistic peers, and are reluctant to interact with them, based not on what the autistic person says but on factors such as facial expressivity, gaze, gestures and voice. This suggests a lack of theory of mind among non-autistic people. A trade union in which this happens will be less likely to invite autistic workers to join or become involved, to the detriment of both autistic workers and the union.  

A gold-standard union culture will look beyond deficit-based autism theories which locate the problem in autistic people only (Gernsbacher & Yergeau, 2019; Booth, 2021b). Jones et al. (2021b) note that historically, interventions have focused on autistic people’s behaviours, and argue for intervention with non-autistic people as well. Autistic author Shore (2013) argues that increasing understanding between autistic and non-autistic people requires effort from both. A gold-standard union recognises the diversity of its autistic members, rejecting common stereotypes of autistic people as white, male nerds (Patterson, 2021), and tackles all forms of prejudice and discrimination, including racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and the ways in which these intersect (Pearson & Rose, 2021). The union gives guidance to members to accept difference and has effective complaints procedures where this is breached, especially where this amounts to bullying and/or harassment. 

 

Three current projects 

 

1. A unionisation campaign aimed at participants on an employability scheme for autistic people 

Autistic participants in employability schemes generally evaluate them positively, but also identify concerns including inadequate support and problems with managers, and many experience difficulty obtaining paid employment after the scheme (Romualdez, Yirrell & Remington, 2020). Scott et al. (2019) found that employment interventions largely focus on autistic people’s perceived impairments rather than the workplace and environmental context, suggesting that this results from an embedded medical-model approach. RMT has taken up issues concerning employability schemes (Booth, 2021a; RMT, 2020) and could do so more effectively with more involvement of autistic participants.  

I am working with organisers in the RMT union to involve Transport for London (TfL) Steps Into Work (SIW) participants in the union in order to support and represent them and achieve improvements to their conditions. SIW is a partnership between TfL, charity Mencap and Barnet and Southgate College; participants spend a year carrying out work placements and classroom-based learning (TfL, n.d.). One member of the 2019 SIW intake joined RMT and recruited a small number of others. Consequently, RMT raised issues which TfL acted on, including providing travel expenses for participants and removing inappropriate learning materials. RMT’s 2021 Annual General Meeting changed the union’s rules to allow participants in unpaid employability schemes to join without charge.  

In November 2021, RMT, on my request, wrote to TfL asking to be allowed to address the January 2022 intake of SIW participants. Employers often include trade unions in inductions (Employment Autism, n.d.b). TfL replied that although it makes this provision for new employees, the participants are not employees, and it therefore refused the request. I drafted RMT’s reply, which is included as Appendix A. At the time of writing, we await TfL’s reply, but if it restates the refusal, the union will raise this with the Mayor of London’s office. 

I am arranging a meeting with the 2019 member, officers of the relevant RMT branch and union organisers, to plan further approaches to SIW participants. We aim to convince them of the benefits of joining and becoming involved in the union and to provide the support they need in order to do so. They will then be able to collectively raise concerns about the scheme, for example being paid for their work and progressing into employment, and to access support with individual issues. Those who do progress into employment will have gained experience of trade union membership and workings, and if their employment is in the same industry, may remain a member of the same union. 

 

2. Reviewing RMT’s five-day residential course on Autism in the Workplace. 

I wrote and deliver training for RMT representatives and members (Booth, 2015). The course equips RMT reps and activists with the knowledge and skills to include and represent autistic workers and to achieve workplace improvements. I am reviewing and improving its contents so that it more fully meets the gold standards. Prior to this review, the course included: autism myths and realities; facts about autism and employment; issues at work; the social model of disability; identifying and removing workplace barriers; the law; workplace autism policy; political issues including austerity; union activity and structures; an autistic worker speaking and answering questions; and an evening of autistic poetry. 

Prior to delivering the course on 22-26 November 2021, reflecting on my work so far on this assignment, I added the following content: 

  • a section on ‘Organising autistic workers on employability schemes’, including a video of an autistic SIW participant 
  • more up-to-date, more relevant case studies 
  • additional autistic-written blogs and websites on the ‘useful websites’ page 
  • a section on industrial action. 

I changed ‘campaigning for a workplace autism policy’ to ‘campaigning for workplace change’, with the activity focusing on a specific demand rather than an overall policy. My evaluation at the end of the course confirmed that these changes had improved its effectiveness in meeting its aims, and they will remain in place. 

I have identified further changes to be made for future delivery of the course. I have recommended to the union’s Education Department that it improve advance information to students, including: 

  • a virtual tour of the National Education Centre 
  • detailed information on all aspects of the accommodation, including food, rooms, etc 
  • a clear method for indicating preferences and adjustments, both for learning and for accommodation. 

For the course content, I will: 

  • include more testimony from autistic workers, to increase the autistic voice, a key element of any study of autism (Fletcher-Watson et al., 2019) 
  • extend the use of ‘myths and realities’ content, beginning each day of the course with an exercise on this 
  • move sections on making the union more autistic-inclusive to earlier in the course 
  • add material on communicating and interacting with autistic members. 

I will introduce a new section on accepting autism, titled ‘beyond awareness’. Jones et al. (2021a) demonstrate that autism acceptance training reduces explicit biases towards autism. Although their study showed no impact on implicit biases, it used only a video; a more participatory training activity might successfully challenge these, maybe drawing on reviews of ‘unconscious bias’ training methods (Atewologun, Cornish & Tresh, 2018). 

I will also press the union to improve follow-up to the course, to ensure that members who complete it apply what they learn, to the benefit of autistic workers. 

 

3. A guide for reps and members about neurodiversity, including autism, covering key areas similar to those included in the training course. The union has agreed to publish a neurodiversity guide (RMT DMAC 2020b), which I am writing. The benefits are similar to those for the improved training outlined above. The guide will consolidate the learning of those who attend the training and make the information available to those who do not. It will therefore significantly enhance RMT’s capacity to involve and achieve improvements for autistic workers. 

I have reviewed various union publications in preparation for writing the guide, concentrating on three substantial publications: Wales TUC’s ‘Autism awareness in the workplace: a toolkit for trade unionists’ (2019), the GMB union’s ‘Neurodiversity in the Workplace: Thinking differently at work toolkit’ (2018) and the TUC’s guide, ‘Autism in the Workplace’ (2014), which I wrote and which could be improved. 

All three publications include very useful content, including: explaining autism as neurological divergence, including strengths as well as challenges; ‘nothing about us without us’; myths and facts about autism; the social model of disability; autism as a trade union issue; workplaces barriers; examples of workplaces changes and reasonable adjustments; advice to branches and reps; the law; glossary of terms; details of further reading and relevant organisations. Further useful content of one or two, but not all three, includes: case studies; training activities; co-occurring conditions; mental health; information for working carers; Access to Work and other government schemes; diagnosis and disclosure; politics and parliament. 

There are shortcomings in some union publications which I will avoid. Some include content that is inaccurate or does not reflect a progressive understanding of autism or the preferences of autistic people. Wales TUC (2019) and TSSA (2019) state that autistic workers are considered disabled under the Equality Act 2010. However, the Act does not specify that autistic workers are disabled; it sets out criteria for whether each individual person is considered disabled, as accurately described in GMB (2019). Prospect (2016) inaccurately refers to autistic individuals as ‘neurodiverse’ rather than ‘neurodivergent’ and describes neurodivergent people’s strengths as compensations for their conditions rather than enhancements resulting from their neurotype. The Communication Workers’ Union (Roy, 2017) calls autism a ‘disorder’, refers to ‘treatments’ and to special interests as ‘obsessive’. Wales TUC (2019) refers to ‘people with an ASC’ [Autism Spectrum Condition] rather than ‘autistic people’, the preferred term of UK autistic adults (Kenny et al., 2016). Unison (n.d.b) explicitly recommends the term ‘person with autism’. These uses can lead to materials designed to increase understanding and acceptance unfortunately contributing to misunderstanding. Fletcher-Watson et al. (2019) argue that avoiding deficit-based language about autism is key to creating supportive environments for autistic people.  

Considering both the positive and negative features of these publications, I have drawn up a plan for the RMT guide which is in Appendix B. 

 

Conclusion 

This assignment has shown that autistic people continue to be significantly disadvantaged in employment, and evidence indicates that many employers are not willingly making the changes necessary to reduce this. Law and government seek to gently convince rather than compel them, and writers and charities have the power only to research, lobby and persuade. Trade unions have the power to make them change. Trade unions are organisations of workers of all neurotypes and take up issues both specific to and broader than autism. Most importantly, they are present in the workplace and contest working conditions with employers on an ongoing basis, through individual representation, collective bargaining, campaigning and industrial action (Gall, 2008). Because they are organisations of those who carry out the productive work, they have substantial potential power. 

However, they are not currently realising this power. Over the last four decades, unions have lost members (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, 2021) and taken less industrial action (ONS, 2021c). They have made some efforts regarding autistic workers, especially over the last decade, which has reaped results; however, these efforts have been uneven. 

Trade unions can increase their impact in winning improvements for autistic workers by aiming for the ten gold standards set out in this assignment. These will benefit autistic people by increasing their access to trade union membership and involvement in union activity; and campaigning effectively for demands on employers that represent autistic workers’ expressed needs. This will lead both to improved conditions at work, and to the personal benefits of involvement in a supportive organisation (Cameron, Borland, Tonge & Gray, 2021). Some unions are partially meeting these standards; all have scope for improvement. 

There is a dearth of research literature about trade unions and autistic workers. Research on autistic workers’ experiences of unions, with consideration of autism theory, industrial relations theory and theories of work, would be useful in taking this issue forward, to the benefit of autistic workers of the present and the future. 

 

Read the Appendices here.

References here.

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