Autism and Strike Action: Guidance for Autistic Workers and UCU branches
By: Anna Nibbs (University of Sheffield) and Janine Booth (TUC Disabled Workers’ Committee)
Whilst striking can be difficult for anyone, there are extra layers of difficulty for many autistics. By placing autistic (and other disabled) workers front and centre in your plans for industrial action, you’re likely to:
- improve the experience for all those taking part
- improve the effectiveness, visibility and reach of the action
- set a precedent for wider inclusive practice
Because our experience of the world is so overwhelming, we like to be able to have control, plan, and prepare wherever possible. The nature of industrial action means that this is very tricky.
Basic details (eg. dates of action) are often only communicated a matter of weeks before it takes place. Specific details are communicated at even shorter notice, and continue to change up to, and even during, the action. The strike could be called off at the last minute.
- If the employer knows the full details of the union’s action well in advance, then it will have more time to prepare to undermine and defeat your campaign. So please be aware that the union will release some information at relatively short notice.
- There may be a forum in your branch such as a strike committee. If you get involved, you can be part of making decisions and keep up-to-date with all developments.
- We understand that If the employer knows the full details of the union’s action well in advance, then it will have more time to prepare to undermine and defeat the strike. But it would help if the union explained this to members, and gave a timetable of what information would be circulated when (and how).
- The most effective way of communicating decisions that change the course of the action is to involve members in making those decisions. Branches can set up strike committees that discuss and decide tactics such as when and where to picket.
- If you do this, allocate someone to take written notes during the meeting (not an autistic participant – allow them to focus on one form of communication at a time!) and circulate these to members as soon as possible afterwards. Written information is easier for many autistic people to process.
- Maintain a ‘strike calendar’ on the branch’s website, social media page and at branch HQ. Include all meetings, pickets, and expected times of decisions and announcements.
2. Discussing our plans
We don’t know whether to tell people our plans or not. The nature of strike action is that no-one needs to communicate their intentions ahead of time – but this is difficult for autistics to deal with!
- You do not have to tell your employer whether you intend to strike. If your managers know what you’re planning to do, they will have more time to prepare, which may contribute to undermining and defeating the wider campaign.
- If you want to, you can discuss your plans with a union representative.
- It is important to tell autistic workers that they don’t have to tell the employer their plans, but do explain why this is the case.
- It may also be useful for branches to brief reps on the sort of issues and questions that autistic workers may like to discuss with them.
3. Financial support
It can be very disconcerting for autistic workers to not know what financial support will be available to them to contribute towards refunding their lost earnings. Many autistics are underpaid and/or overqualified for the roles in which they are working. It may be that a disproportionately large number of autistics are at the lower end of the paygrade spectrum represented by a union such as UCU.
Autistics are more likely to be in insecure employment. We may have co-occurring conditions or impairments: we’re often multiply disabled. Being disabled is expensive. Many of us have reduced, limited or even no disposable income.
- The union may be able to provide you with financial assistance to help offset your loss of wages during the strike. Ask your branch secretary for information.
- Please circulate information to members about available financial support – if it isn’t possible to do this well in advance, provide a clear timeline of when this information will be available, and how it will be circulated.
- Because of information overload, and executive functioning difficulties – challenges with planning, prioritising and organising – some autistic members may need additional advice or support with completing forms to request financial support. If possible, anticipate this upfront and plan for this help to be available, with clear information on how to access it.
- Please also consider taking disability into account when making discretionary payments.
- As well as money, there are other material ways in which the union can support strikers eg. providing food, transport, childcare, etc.
4. Information overload
This is HUGE. All those last-minute communications. A mishmash of emails, tweets, shared Google Docs, WhatsApp group conversations, websites and so on. Not to mention all the extra conversations going on in the office.
“Like many autistic people, I struggle with information communicated by speech alone – partly because of difficulty processing language in this form, partly because of my poor working memory (once what’s said has been said, it’s gone!).”
Plus, the information overload tends to continue long after the period of official industrial action has finished – particularly if the dispute does not reach a satisfactory resolution.
“I’m going to hold my hand up here and confess that I’ve set up a filter to mark as read and archive all emails sent by UCU nationally.”
- Consider setting up a separate email account specifically for receiving union-related correspondence. This will reduce overload in your work or personal inboxes, and also allow you to avoid checking your work emails during the strike action.
- You might also want to set up you own folder (electronic or physical) for filing together all the key documents or communications you might need to refer to during the action.
- Limit long paragraphs of text in all Bullet pointed lists are easier to process for many readers, not just those who are neurodivergent – including time-pressured academics!
- If there is a lot to communicate, provide the bare minimum in an email message, with clear links to further detail located (securely) elsewhere.
- Lots of members – including autistics but also those new to picketing – might benefit from a plain English ‘Picketing 101’-type guide, that includes key practicalities on what to expect, some hints and tips on how to respond to passers-by, what happens before, during and after etc.
- Provide visual as well as text-based information about pickets and other activities taking place during the period of action. The following will be useful:
- a map of the campus, clearly indicating official picket sites and the locations of key events and activities.
- photographs of buildings where pickets will be located, as well as venues for ‘teach-outs’ and other events. Don’t assume that members are familiar with every building on campus.
- route maps for any planned marches
- It’s also worth providing the same information to Student Unions, to better aid them in inclusively engaging students with supporting the action.
- Make sure any information communicated by email to members is also published elsewhere, and clearly timestamped and collated. If there are concerns that information being made public might undermine your plans, set up an intranet or Google site with restricted access, or a shared online file-sharing system (eg. Dropbox or Google Drive) where this information can be made available only to members.
- For local branches: provide clear digests of any information communicated from UCU nationally, as some members may have set up inbox filters to reduce overwhelm. Rather than repeating the information in full, it may be helpful to summarise in bullet points, with clear signposting to the original information source.
5. Information clarity
Autistic people tend to think literally. So jargon, figures of speech and incomplete information can be hard to understand.
- If union communication is not clear, please ask your rep to explain it, or ask for it to be made more clear.
- Avoid or explain acronyms eg. USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme – our pension scheme). If you explain an acronym when you first use it, you can then use just the acronym for the rest of the text or speech.
- Consider making a glossary of key acronyms and terms available online – this may also be helpful to newer strikers, students, and other allies.
- Avoid figures of speech eg. Instead of saying that management have “driven a coach and horses through our agreements”, say that management are “breaking the procedures they agreed with the union”.
- Give complete information. eg. when the picket finishes as well as when it starts!
- Try to ensure that union communications are clearly written, with accurate grammar, spelling and punctuation.
6. Sensory overload
Autistic people are often unusually sensitive to noise and other sensory inputs.
“Shouting human voices are one of my worst anxiety triggers. Personally, I really struggle with marches and rallies. I basically don’t take part in them – the shouting, the noise, the crowds, the aggressive tones of voice (even while there’s camaraderie between those present). All of these are likely to bring on a meltdown or panic attack, or contribute to a migraine later on in the day.”
Many autistics are also unusually sensitive to extreme temperatures – either hot or cold. We may also need to move around more than some of our fellow picketers – whether to keep warm, self-regulate or express ourselves.
“Picketing can be really fun. I had a great time the last time I was involved in a picket line dancing in the rain with a load of colleagues. I’m not saying we’re all joyless sad sacks who don’t want to be involved; but much of it is difficult.”
But bear in mind: we may not be able to get as visibly involved as many of our abled peers. We will be far more tired out by the whole process, and will need far more time to rest. Plus, many post-picket social activities emphasise large gatherings in noisy environments – it’s great to get together and keep spirits raised between picketing, but remember that some colleagues may not feel comfortable getting involved in this way.
- Don’t feel pressured to picket if you really aren’t comfortable. There are other ways you can get involved in the struggle. Find out about other activities your branch might be running. If nothing appeals, set up something yourself.
- If you can take part in face-to-face picketing, do take breaks if you need to. Know your limits, and don’t spread yourself too thinly by agreeing to too much. Schedule some quiet downtime later in the day to recover if you need to.
- If possible, find a safe room (perhaps in the branch HQ?) that can be designated as a quiet space – this will be helpful not just for autistic strikers, but those with anxiety, and anyone else needing a break from the hubbub. Make sure this is clearly signposted and marked on relevant maps and in any picketing briefing documents.
- Make the picket itself comfortable. Chairs, shelter and refreshments all help. Braziers in winter and gazebos in summer can help with extreme temperatures.
- Considering offering some associated activities and events that don’t involve loud verbal communication and social interaction. Some branches organise banner/placard-making workshops. You can be even more creative! Poetry slams, activist crafting workshops, interactive art installations, zine-making, compiling anthologies of writing, blogging/writing/art challenges with daily relevant word prompts … There are plenty of activities and events that can be inclusive and quieter, whilst still fostering camaraderie and solidarity and increasing the impact and visibility of the wider action.
- Please recognise that for some autistics on strike, physically being on campus during the period of action really is too distressing.
- Do also recognise, however, that we’re all different. Don’t make assumptions about what we can or can’t do, or how we might be willing to get involved. Do invite us along – sometimes we’re happy to take part; other times we may not be. But we’re the ones who know our limits.
- Marches can be great, if well-planned. Please try to ensure they are as accessible as possible. Also, chanting slogans is more positive, and less distressing, than blowing whistles.
- Consider providing printed lyrics for chants or songs that people might want to use, and publishing these online.
- Arrange a quieter place for autistics, and others who may need it, to meet up a few minutes before joining the main starting location for the march.
7. Action short of strikes
Although it is called ‘action short of strikes’, actions such as refusal to carry out certain tasks can be more difficult to carry out than striking. As well as many of the difficulties (and solutions!) outlined above, there are the added pressures of understanding exactly what the union is asking of you, and of refusing managers’ instructions to their faces.
- Remember that you are legally entitled to take part in official industrial action.
- Ask your union rep to talk through the action with you. Practise what to say and do.
- Explain any action short of strikes in detail. As well as written details, you may like to provide a visual, step-by-step guide, like a ‘social story’.
- Provide a ‘script’ for the worker to say to management when carrying out the action.
- Outline all possible scenarios and the appropriate responses.
- Perhaps produce a question-and-action briefing about the action.
8. Industrial action: a difficult decision
Some autistic workers may not feel able to strike or take other action. Because of all of the difficulties mentioned above, some autistics may feel that taking strike action is something they really can’t cope with doing. We hope that the advice given above will make it easier for autistic workers to take part in strikes. It is important for both autistic workers and the union to consider the issues carefully.
- There has been a democratic decision to strike, in which you and your workmates had a vote. It is important to respect the outcome of that vote.
- The strike is about an important issue. We understand that there are difficulties with striking, such as those outlined above, but if we don’t beat back the employers’ attacks, then we will face far greater difficulties at work: lower pay, more insecure contracts, etc.
- While some autistic people rely on a strict routine, the fact is that the strike will disrupt your routine whether you take part in it or not. You can make a routine for yourself for the duration of the strike, just as you have a different routine during weekends or holidays than on working days..
- Many autistics experience intense empathy, and concern for their students or their own dependants may seem to outweigh the demands of the strike. However, many students support our strikes, because they know that their education is better when their educators are treated properly. And we and our families will be better off in the long term by taking effective action.
- The strike may well win real benefits for all workers. Ask yourself whether it is really fair for people to receive those benefits when they have refused to make the sacrifices that others have made to win them.
- Seek to persuade and convince workers to join the action. Browbeating is unlikely to work.
- Answer questions and concerns sympathetically and clearly. Remember that an autistic worker might be concerned about something which has never been raised by other workers, but is nonetheless very important to them.
- Remember that autistic workers may have extra barriers and issues, such as those described above, and make sure you address these.
- Do not assume that autistic workers are familiar with the jargon of industrial action, or understand the slogans and demands in the same way that others do. Explain the issues in straightforward terms.
- Support autistic workers with the difficulties they may have in striking: the branch could allocate a ‘buddy’ to provide reassurance and advice.
Finally, a message to all UCU activists:
The upshot of all this is: be kind to your neurodivergent colleagues and comrades. You may not be able to imagine what their experiences are; you may not understand their perspective.
Try to understand that this time may be very difficult for them. Try to develop a ‘theory of mind’ about how they may be feeling – try to empathise with those whose neurotype differs from your own.
Be kind, but not overbearing. Welcome your autistic comrades to the picket lines, but respect that they might need extra space at times. And recognise that being visible and physically present is not the only way to take action.