In October and November, trade unionists from a variety of different unions will attend a one-day seminar on “Autism in the Workplace”, hosted by the Workers’ Educational Association London Region.
Working with the WEA, and with RMT’s sponsorship, I have put together this seminar to enable trade unionists to mobilise around this issue, effectively representing autistic workers and those who care for autistic dependants, tackling discrimination, and engaging with political debates about autism and disability.
When the first seminar was advertised, it was fully booked within a couple of days; so we set a repeat date, which booked up just as quickly.
We are now organising a third event, and working on extending it into a three-or four-day course with full accreditation.
There are several reasons for the high level of interest in this subject. Over recent years, there has been a big increase in diagnosis of both children and adults as having autism. Some suggest that this is just a modern fad (“everyone’s got a syndrome these days”), and others that there is some kind of “epidemic” that should panic us all. Neither of these is accurate or helpful.
The truth is that understanding of the autistic spectrum has increased over recent years, the internet has increased access to knowledge, and self-organisation of autistic people has given a more positive view of life on the spectrum.
Also, as schools become better at identifying pupils with autism, many of those kids’ parents come to the realisation that they may also have autism and seek assessment.
It may also be the case that increasing pressure to conform socially has put people with autism under increasing stress, so more of us seek out answers which may lead to an autism diagnosis.
Add to this the last Labour government’s introduction of some progressive but weak laws. New legal rights to request flexible working, to time off for domestic emergencies, and to protection from disability discrimination have some value, but mean very little in practice unless trade unions fight for them.
These are some of the issues we will be looking at during the seminar. John McDonnell MP will lead a discussion on autism, politics and the labour movement, and we will also discuss fighting to make workplaces — and our own trade unions — more autism-friendly.
There are some appalling cases of employers’ mistreatment of workers and carers.
These include persistent bullying, paying less than the minimum wage because of a worker’s autism, and even on-the-spot sacking of a worker who told his manager that he might have Asperger syndrome.
A better understanding of the autism spectrum and of the neurological diversity of humanity (and therefore of the working class) will enable trade unions to better defend their members. It will also enable them to involve and mobilise more members by ensuring that union culture and procedures and not unnecessarily geared towards a narrowly-defined neurotypicality.
I hope that these seminars — together with the policy development and handbook for trade unionists that will follow in their wake — will be a useful contribution to that process.