Photo: Paul Mattsson
Photo: Paul Mattsson

Mary Finch, Waltham Forest Socialist Party and Unison member

Only around 3 in 10 autistic adults are employed, and while many autistic people are unable to work, a huge number are forced into unemployment because of a lack of support in the workplace. The Buckland Review of Autistic Employment, commissioned by the Tory government and headed by Tory MP Robert Buckland, investigates the experiences of autistic people in the workplace and how they can be better supported to get into and stay in work. It does so with no trade union input.

It seems unlikely that this report is an altruistic attempt to change attitudes towards autistic people. The Tories recently floated plans to make it harder for disabled and long-term sick people to claim benefits. Supposedly they are able to work fully remotely, so they should look for a job where they can work from home – and face having their benefits cut if they’re unable to find one.

Unsurprisingly, the recommendations for change are woefully inadequate. Many of the recommendations amount to sharing “best practice” and raising awareness among employers. But the report itself mentions a 2020 study by the Institute of Leadership and Management that found 50% of managers were uncomfortable with the idea of hiring disabled people. Their top two concerns were the cost and practicalities of making workplace adjustments.


Ableism plays a huge part in the underemployment of autistic people. Many people still see disabled and particularly autistic people as child-like, so they tend to underestimate their abilities.

Understanding of autism and how autistic traits show up in different people, especially women, has also dramatically changed over the past few years. Many autistic people learn to hide our traits, for example relying on scripts or planned conversations to make up for our different understanding of social cues, or deliberately making eye contact even when it feels uncomfortable.

Outdated attitudes and stereotypes of autistic people are still deeply rooted, so people often expect to be able to ‘tell’ that someone is autistic because of their behaviour. When faced with a person who doesn’t ‘look autistic’, many people will assume that they aren’t really disabled and downplay or ignore the things they struggle with.

This obviously has significant implications for autistic people in the workplace. Theoretically, employers have a legal responsibility to make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers. A diagnosed autistic person should be able to access all the support and adjustments they need. But in reality, employers can and do spin reasonable adjustments as being unreasonable and this can be incredibly difficult to challenge.

This also points to a glaring omission from the report: the incredibly long waiting lists for autistic assessments on the NHS, and the total absence of support available post-diagnosis. Changes to our understanding of autism have led to a huge increase of people seeking assessments – which the underfunded and broken NHS is totally unable to deal with. The NHS is increasingly outsourcing autism assessments to the private sector to cope with demand, but even this is proving insufficient. That leaves millions of undiagnosed autistic adults, waiting years for a formal diagnosis, unable to access support or reasonable adjustments at work.

There is an existing Access to Work scheme which provides grants and practical workplace adjustments, run by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). In 2022-23, only 49,820 received Access to Work provisions. That’s compared with around 1 million autistic adults alone in the UK, not including millions of other disabled people.

It’s little wonder that so few eligible workers are using the scheme. This is the same DWP which declared terminally ill people fit for work and once claimed a double leg amputee could “climb stairs with his arms”. How can disabled people be expected to trust the DWP to accurately assess their needs, and treat them with respect throughout the process?

The DWP also employs work psychologists within Jobcentres who support autistic and other disabled people who have additional needs which affect their job search – but there are only 85 of them. 85 work psychologists to support millions of people!

Many left out

Around one third of autistic people also have a learning disability. Despite the fact that 95% of learning disabled adults are unemployed, they are completely left out of the report.

Many learning disabled adults are unable to work, but for those who do want to enter employment, there are very few options. There are several social enterprises opening shops and cafes specifically designed to hire learning disabled adults and support them to find future employment. But with small businesses facing hugely inflated costs and decreased customers, they face an uncertain future and many will be forced to close.

Any government that is serious about supporting autistic adults to enter the workplace must urgently address the funding crisis in the NHS, and provide structured, genuine support for all autistic people searching for work and entering the workplace.

Labour is almost certain to win the next general election and has made it very clear it won’t reverse any of the attacks on public services. In fact, the worst may be yet to come, with Keir Starmer preparing workers for even deeper cuts when he comes to power.

We urgently need a new mass workers’ party that will genuinely fight for autistic and disabled people, and all workers. Trade unions taking steps towards the development of new working-class political representation would be decisive.

Trade unions key

The trade unions are also key to fighting for the rights of autistic people within workplaces. Many of the reasonable adjustments which autistic people typically need are changes which would benefit all workers – which may be why some employers are so reluctant to implement them.

Autistic people can have sensory differences which can lead to feeling extremely overwhelmed by bright lights or loud sounds, for example. Everyone would benefit from more comfortable light levels and earplugs for staff working in noisy environments. Autistic people can also find social interactions very draining and may need breaks from this. All staff in public or customer-facing roles would probably be a lot happier at work if they could take regular breaks from dealing with the public.

Many employers and managers want their staff to be happy, and try to create positive work environments. But we can’t rely on their goodwill to accommodate autistic people – or for any of our other rights at work. The essential role of management is to maximise productivity, and profit in the private sector. Management often believe that breaks, or greater flexibility in how and when people work, will decrease productivity – regardless of whether it actually does.

The only way to safeguard our rights at work is through the six-million-strong trade unions. Strikes – or even just the threat of strike action – have won pay increases and fought off attacks on conditions in workplace after workplace.

The trade unions can also campaign to change attitudes towards autistic people in the workplace, and fight for sufficient funding for reasonable adjustments. Hiring managers wouldn’t be concerned with (and can’t hide behind) the difficulty of making adjustments as a reason not to hire autistic people.

The bosses’ desire to squeeze maximum productivity and profit out of workers is a driving force behind the discrimination against disabled people – utilising existing prejudices and reactionary ideas developed by their own capitalist system. To end discrimination and oppression means fighting for socialist change.