A Story of Autism and Employment.
By Quinn Dexter of Autistamatic
It’s a sentence that strikes dread into the heart of almost everyone in the workplace. Autistic people in employment, even those who are undiagnosed and unaware of why they are different, hear it more than most.
Often it’s followed by, “We need to talk about your performance,” “You’re not fitting in very well,” or “There’s been a complaint.” All too often that “quick word” is the first step on a journey towards unemployment.
It is illegal for an employer in the UK to allow someone’s autism, or any other neurological characteristic, to influence an employment decision. The same applies to gender, sexuality, ethnic origin, religion, disability and a number of other “protected characteristics” covered by The Equality Act 2010.
Any employer proven to exhibit a clear sign of prejudice is liable to prosecution under the act; however, whilst it is illegal, it is not considered criminal. The worst an employer can expect for their transgression is a fine and a reprimand.
Companies and the staff responsible are at no risk of suffering any substantial sanction such as custodial sentences. They can pay their modest fine & at a push some token compensation to the person they wronged then go back to business as usual.
Seeking justice for discrimination is an uphill struggle. It can be very difficult to get Legal Aid. It’s income-based and usually only partially covers costs. Whether it’s discrimination at the application stage or wrongful dismissal, such cases are not considered criminal and one is still expected to pay for the initial legal consultations.
The outcome of the case is far from optimistic, too. Most companies retain specialist lawyers to fight in their corner, and since the burden of proof is on the person discriminated against, there are any number of well-worn excuses the victim must disprove.
They may claim that autism was not a factor in their decision because there were better applicants, a lack of “alignment with [their] company culture,” or failure to demonstrate some intangible-but-vital personal attribute.
Providing the real reason for rejection was only given verbally (if at all), and there were no witnesses (or only witnesses who toe the company line). Then, there is next to nothing the victim can do to win the case. No wonder that the number of cases brought is pitifully low.
I’ve gathered many personal stories whilst researching the employment challenges of other autistic people, but few have illustrated the unbridled prejudice facing autistic people in employment quite so starkly as the story told to me by Lewis (a pseudonym).
Lewis was 19 when he was offered a job by a large UK company. It was a low waged, manual role, but as is increasingly common among larger employers, he had to attend an unpaid orientation and induction course before he started.
He travelled a long distance, and basic accommodation was provided for the nights he would stay over. His travel expenses were to be repaid in his second month’s wages. Following advice from a career advisor, he’d been careful not to mention being autistic on his application or at his interview.
Diversity & Inclusion
On the second day, a significant portion of the proceedings were devoted to the company’s “Mission Statement,” with particular attention to their “Diversity & Inclusion Policy.” The company rep, a tall, dark-haired woman, went into great detail about their enlightened attitude to race, gender, and sexuality.
One of the other new employees present chose to mention that they were gay during the session and how his last employer had failed to be supportive when they were needed. They were pointedly told how welcome they were and how valued they would be as a member of the team.
Nobody would turn their backs here. Everybody would be judged by their performance and their team spirit, not by anything else. Lewis chose at this point to come forward and disclose that he was autistic.
The initial reaction from the company rep and the rest of the group was nervous laughter, which puzzled Lewis. Why laughter? When the previous employee had mentioned they were gay, the rep had led the small group in a gentle round of applause. He thought he must be missing something and tried to laugh along.
“It’s true, I’m… autistic. Well, Asperger’s actually, but it’s the same thing”
The rep frowned at him…
…a slight smile still hovering on her lips.
“Seriously? I don’t understand?”
“I’m autistic,” repeated Lewis. “I have autism. It’s really good that you guys are so accepting of people being different. Not everyone is.”
“Sorry– you’re absolutely sure about that, err…Lewis? A hundred percent? I need to be really certain you mean what you’re saying.”
“Yes,” Lewis replied. “I found out when I was 8. I got really depressed after my Mum died, and the doctor I went to told me I was on the autism spectrum.”
The rep looked worried for a moment, then took her phone out of her pocket. “I have to make a quick call. You all take a break. You know where the coffee machine is,” and left the room.
About 20 minutes later…
The rep came to the door and beckoned Lewis out into the corridor.
“Can I just have a quick word?”
She led them both to a smaller room and asked Lewis to sit down as she leaned back against the wall, arms folded.
“Lewis, I’m going to have to ask you to go back to the hotel, pick up your things, and go back home. We can’t continue with your induction.”
He was stunned. He’d been without a job since leaving school over a year ago and was over the moon to be there.
“What’s… what’s happening?” he asked, as he slowly started to rock, back and forth, wringing his hands between his knees.
“Just look at yourself…”
“…This is what we’re concerned about– you’re wobbling all over the place. You didn’t tell us you were mentally unstable when you applied. There’s laws about that sort of thing, insurances we have to pay if we employ someone who’s mentally unpredictable, liabilities. Think about the risk to other employees, to customers. What if you hurt someone?”
Lewis just stared back, tried to argue, but his words stuck in his throat. Speech was lost to him. He started to shake his head as his rocking became more pronounced, and he started to keen. He knew he was heading towards shutdown as the rep continued.
“Look I’ve been on the phone to our HR and legal department, and they’ve told me that if you don’t go quietly, we’ll have to prosecute. You’ve lied to us on your application. You didn’t tell us about something that could be a risk to the company’s reputation… and other staff, too. That’s illegal. It’s like trades descriptions you know – you’ve falsely advertised yourself as something you’re not, and they can’t allow that. You’ve taken us for mugs. Be a good lad and just get your things and go home.”
“But….” Lewis managed to sputter.
“No buts, young man. My hands are tied. It isn’t down to me. This is the law. Either you go home quietly, or the company takes you to court– and you know where that could lead, don’t you? This is very, very serious.”
By now Lewis was helpless.
He could still see and hear everything that was going on, but he couldn’t react. His shutdown was almost complete. Tears were streaming down his face, but there were no sobs.
He just continued to rock, shake his head, and keen. How could they call him a risk? He hadn’t hurt anyone in his life. He’d never even had a meltdown like those he knew some autistics could go through. When he was overloaded he always shut down, just as he was doing then.
The rep stood watching him for a moment longer then stepped forward.
“Look, I don’t know why you’re making such a big fuss or what you expect me to do about it. It’s out of my hands, and you brought this on yourself. You tried it on but you got caught out, so take it like a man. I’ve got a room full of people waiting for me back there, so I’m going to have to leave you to pull yourself together. You’ve got until four o’clock to leave, get your things, and go home. Make sure you give your key-card back to the reception desk on your way out. I’m sorry you forced us to do this.”
…Lewis managed to calm himself enough to get to the train station and then back home. He never went back to the hotel to pick up the couple of things he left behind. His motivation to find work has been at an all time low ever since.
He knows he should be protected by law, and he’s fully aware that the threats of prosecution were empty words. There is no legal obligation to disclose autism to an employer at any stage. He also knows that if he took it further, it would be the word of an expensive company lawyer against his.
Everything was done verbally and away from witnesses. As far as the other new employees were concerned, Lewis just left the room and never came back. We’ve no idea what they were told, nor if they’d even corroborate that it all started when he mentioned his autism. They all laughed along with the company rep after all. They were part of the problem.
Would the company rep have taken the action she did if the others hadn’t laughed along with her? We can’t even say for sure that the rep even made the phone calls she spoke of. Did her HR department know what happened, or did she act purely out of her own prejudice?
Too many questions remain unanswered for Lewis to ever be able to write it off as a bad experience and move on. He never even got the cost of his train ticket paid back to him.
Lewis’s story is not unique…
But such extreme disregard for the law is uncommon, an over-the-top case of an ignorant corporate employer hiding behind their legal muscle to flout the law or the raw animosity of a company representative exploiting their position.
It is, however, a stark indicator of the broader trend towards treating autistic people as a risk factor or even unemployable. From clandestine sabotage to overt prejudice and bullying, the challenges facing autistic people at work are many and various.
There are some employers beginning to understand that autistic and other neurodivergent employees can be assets. A number of technology companies in particular are actively working on programs to improve their neurodiversity. However the pace of change is glacial, and it is too slow to make a difference for people like Lewis.
The blunted teeth of the law means the only hope for young people like Lewis, not to mention the millions of other adults in– or hoping to join– the workforce lies in eradicating the harmful narrative around autism.
Everything we do to stamp out the negative perception of autistic people, that which is characterised only by deficit, that suggests we are functionally compromised or even a risky proposition, is a step towards justice for Lewis and others like him.
Nobody should ever be treated the way Lewis was. As long as legal redress without financial burden and significant distress to his remaining family is out of reach, we are left with no choice but to fight on Lewis’ behalf.
Change will come, and only a united autistic community can make it happen.
*This account is a dramatised summary of the story told by the real life “Lewis” who shared it with me in early 2019. The dialogue and events are as close to his recollection as possible and occurred in 2017.
The video linked below, which accompanies this article, examines the some of the distinct difficulties autistic people encounter both finding and staying in employment with ideas about how opportunities and outcomes could be improved.
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