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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

1. Uncertainty

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.


Autistic workers:

  • 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!


Autistic workers:

  • 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.


Autistic workers:

  • 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.”


Autistic workers:

  • 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.


Autistic workers:

  • 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.


Autistic workers:

  • 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.


Autistic workers:

  • 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.


Autistic workers:

  • 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.

PRESS RELEASE: Eight days of strikes at Sheffield Hallam and University of Sheffield on from Monday

Date: Thursday 21 November 2019 for immediate release. Members of the University and College Union at 60 UK universities will walk out from Monday (25 November) to Wednesday 4 December. Disputes are over pay and working conditions, and rising pension costs.

The University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University will be hit with eight days of strike action from Monday (25 November) after no agreement could be reached between university representatives and the University and College Union (UCU) over pensions, pay and working conditions.

Striking staff will be on picket lines at all entrances to the University of Sheffield from 8am, including Firth Court, the Hicks Building and Jessop West. At Sheffield Hallam, staff will be on picket lines in the city centre including the Owen Building and entrances on Charles Street, as well as outside Collegiate Hall at the Collegiate Campus on Ecclesall Road.

On Thursday (28 November) striking staff will make their way to a 12pm rally in Barkers Pool where speakers will include UCU general secretary Jo Grady.

Earlier this week, UCU accused universities of playing games after their representatives refused to even discuss pay. The union said things were no better at talks yesterday (Wednesday) over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), where their representatives failed to make a serious offer.

UCU said it feared that universities had learnt nothing from last year’s dispute, when university campuses were brought to a standstill by unprecedented levels of strike action.

Last month, UCU members backed strike action in ballots over both pensions, and pay and working conditions. The results mean that UCU members at 60 UK universities* are walking out on Monday.

The disputes centre on changes to USS pensions and universities’ failure to make improvements on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads. At the University of Sheffield, members were polled over striking in defence of USS pensions and about pay and conditions. Four in five members (79%) backed strikes over pay and conditions and 84% backed strikes over pensions.

UCU members at Sheffield Hallam are in a different pension scheme and were balloted for strikes over increasing workloads. Three-quarters (76%) of members polled backed strikes. Staff at Sheffield Hallam are also taking action on a local dispute about changes to how work is allocated, which has seen some members’ workloads increase by as much as 15%.

UCU members at both institutions will take eight days’ action from 25 November and begin “action short of a strike”. This involves things like working strictly to contract, not covering for absent colleagues and refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action.

UCU regional official Julie Kelley said: ‘Strike action is a last resort, but universities’ refusal to deal with these key issues have left us with no alternative. It is staggering and insulting that universities have not done more to work with us to try and find a way to resolve these disputes.

‘We hope students will continue to put pressure on university vice-chancellors to get their representatives back round the negotiating table for serious talks with the union.’

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner has called on both sides to get round the table for talks and the National Union of Students says students stand shoulder to shoulder with staff in the disputes.

Universities affected by strike action from Monday 25 November

Both disputes (43):

1.       Aston University
2.       Bangor University
3.       Cardiff University
4.       University of Durham
5.       Heriot-Watt University
6.       Loughborough University
7.       Newcastle University
8.       The Open University
9.       The University of Aberdeen
10.   The University of Bath
11.   The University of Dundee
12.   The University of Leeds
13.   The University of Manchester
14.   The University of Sheffield
15.   University of Nottingham
16.   The University of Stirling
17.   University College London
18.   The University of Birmingham
19.   The University of Bradford
20.   The University of Bristol
21.   The University of Cambridge
22.   The University of Edinburgh
23.   The University of Exeter
24.   The University of Essex
25.   The University of Glasgow
26.   The University of Lancaster
27.   The University of Leicester
28.   City University
29.   Goldsmiths College
30.   Queen Mary University of London
31.   Royal Holloway
32.   The University of Reading
33.   The University of Southampton
34.   The University of St Andrews
35.   Courtauld Institute of Art
36.   The University of Strathclyde
37.   The University of Wales
38.   The University of Warwick
39.   The University of York
40.   The University of Liverpool
41.   The University of Sussex
42.   The University of Ulster
43.   Queen’s University Belfast


Pay and conditions dispute only (14):

1.       Bishop Grosseteste University

2.       Bournemouth University
3.       Edge Hill University
4.       Glasgow Caledonian University
5.       Glasgow School of Art
6.       Liverpool Hope University
7.       Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts
8.       Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh
9.       St Mary’s University College, Belfast
10.   Roehampton University
11.   The University of Oxford
12.   Sheffield Hallam University
13.   The University of Brighton
14.   The University of Kent

USS pensions dispute only (3):

1.       Scottish Association of Marine Science

2.       The University of East Anglia

3.       Institute for Development Studies


University of Sheffield UCU – Jess Meacham m: 07912 301 615; e: jess.meacham@sheffield.ac.uk

Sheffield Hallam UCU – Jane Fearon m: 07597 577917; e: j.fearon@shu.ac.uk; and Deborah Adshead m: 07786 082 428; e: d.adshead@shu.ac.uk

National UCU – Dan Ashley t: 020 7756 2600; m: 07789 518 992; e: dashley@ucu.org.uk


Industrial action guidance and upcoming meetings

UCU has called 8 days of strike action, starting on the 25th of November and continuing through the 4th of December. While Sheffield UCU committee remains hopeful that Universities UK (who represent the employers on USS) and UCEA (who represent the employers on pay) will return to meaningful negotiations, we will be locally preparing for industrial action in the event that they do not. 


Our students are standing with us. The National Union of Students has declared their support, and last week, our local Student’s Union Council voted to support our strike action.


We have put together a Sheffield UCU industrial action document, which should hopefully answer many of your questions, and a specific set of guidance for GTAs and PGRs. We will continue to update these documents as and when we get more information, and will let you know when we do.


How can you get involved? We need your help! There is a trade union adage about the power of collective action: “The longer the picket line, the shorter the strike.” This sentiment applies before the start of the strike as well–the more visible we are collectively, the more we show our employer that we demand real, substantive change in our sector.   See our Guidance Document for more ideas of how you can get involved, but for a start, we have three upcoming meetings before the start of industrial action.


Pre-Strike Roadshows: In addition to any department meetings your SUCU departmental rep might be organising, we are holding two ‘Roadshows’ aimed at addressing concerns and queries from staff and students, members and non-members on what the strike action will involve

  • Monday, 18 November 1-2 Dainton LT1
  • Friday, 22 November 1-2 Alfred Denny LT2


SUCU branch General Meeting: In addition to discussing any updates on the imminent industrial action, there are several important motions that have been tabled by our members. Please attend, and bring a colleague! Our agenda is attached.

  • Thursday, 21 November 1-2 Council Room Firth Court

UCU and the University of Sheffield reach agreement over casual teaching arrangements and commit to further joint work.

Following concerns being raised by UCU, and negotiations between representatives of the University and the Sheffield UCU branch, a revised position on the use of casual engagements for those undertaking teaching has been agreed by the University Executive Board. Following negotiations with the University, it was agreed that all regular scheduled teaching would be undertaken by staff on an employment contract, making this the default position across the University. This led to the creation of a new GTA contract and the agreement that casual worker agreements can only be used if the work is genuinely of a short term or ad hoc nature (e.g. professional practitioners enhancing learning and teaching or one-off guest lectures). 

This signals positive progress on our campaign to end casualisation in our sector. Although the fight is far from over, having won GTA contracts at Grade 6 and Grade 7 means that there will be more security for GTAs across the university. This includes access to the same rights as other employees across the university including holiday pay, sick pay and The Deal scheme. 

Whilst the changes above mean that Sheffield UCU is able to close its claim from 2017 on casual teaching, tackling casual working and precarity of employment remains a key element of UCU’s national HE campaigns and the fight at Sheffield is far from over. We still have a long way to go both in terms of recognising the level of work undertaken by GTAs and the precarity that casualised colleagues face. 

Alongside our campaigning at a national level, over the coming year, we hope to improve pay and conditions for colleagues across the university. Using the new Grade 7 GTA contract, we aim to encourage departments to remunerate the hard work undertaken by GTAs by reviewing their pay grades. We also hope to develop a best practice guide for GTA employment across the university and work to recruit UCU ‘casuals’ reps to alongside existing departmental reps. 

If you’re keen to get involved in the campaign to end casualisation at Sheffield or need advice and support, do get in touch with the branch.

Congress and the Democracy Comission

Last spring, Sheffield UCU passed a motion calling for a review of UCU’s democratic structures that we then submitted to Congress, UCU’s annual policy meeting. You can read more about the history of the motion here and in the delegates’ report from Congress 2018 here.

Since the motion was passed at Congress last May, the Democracy Commission has been at work, organising itself around five working groups covering a wide range of UCU’s activities. The initial report of the Democracy Commission will be presented at this year’s Congress (25th-27th May).

You can read the full interim report here, but in short, the recommendations are focused on accountability and transparency in UCU’s structures and senior roles. There are recommendations relating to the following:

    1. recall of the General Secretary
    2. delegation of some of the General Secretary’s duties to elected officers in the event of their absence
    3. changes to how members can view policy
    4. changes to how NEC members can submit papers to NEC meetings
    5. the possibility of elected deputy General Secretary roles
    6. dispute committees made up of branch delegates should be convened for all multi-institution disputes.

All of the recommendations represent changes that increase the ability of members to influence the direction and work of the union.

The interim report of the Democracy Commission will be voted on at Congress by the delegates present and we urge all members to ask their branch delegates to vote in favour of the report and the ongoing work of the Commission. Should this be accepted by Congress, there will be a further Special Congress in the autumn of 2019 to consider the final report of the Commission and we hope that branches will send representatives to that meeting.

Here at Sheffield, we held an action group to discuss this and other motions that are on the agenda for Congress, as well as the ongoing General Secretary election. We continue to do all we can to try to make UCU’s sometimes non-transparent processes clearer to members. If you have any questions about anything to do with the Democracy Commission, Congress, or the national elections held within UCU, please do get in touch.

We will be updating after Congress at our AGM on Thursday June 6th at 1pm in the Council Room at Firth Court – we look forward to seeing you there, and at our end of year party at the Showroom on Friday 14th June (book your ticket here).

SUCU Committee