La città che sale (originally titled Il Lavoro), 1910, Umberto Boccioni, oil on canvas, MOMA New York retrieved from Widimedia Commons 13 Aug 2017
When we look at the list of positive characteristics autistics have identified in themselves as a counterpoint and correction to the prevailing picture of deficits and impairments, one stands out as problematic. That characteristic is Loyalty.
On the face of it the concept of loyalty appears quite positive. We speak with admiration of a loyal pet dog, of loyalty to a life partner, boast of remaining loyal to a favourite sports club through thick and thin. All good stuff really – what’s not to like? Well, there is a hint hidden in there: “through thick and thin”.
Loyalty is not something that can be quantified. You cannot hold it in your hand. It is even more ephemeral than that – it is meaningless unless there is a reason to be disloyal. Essentially it does not exist unless there is an opportunity and reason to take advantage of that opportunity.
Specifically in the context of the workplace, loyalty means remaining in your job despite the availability of alternative employment that offers easier access, better pay or opportunities, better work conditions and so on. When a person does not have those options – or does not feel confident in those options – they stay where they are. And the boss boasts of their ‘loyal workforce’.
Employment is a problem for many autistics. It is estimated that in the region of 85% of adult autistics are either unemployed or under-employed at any time. From an autistic perspective, this situation creates a real vulnerability to abusive and unhealthy working conditions that simply does not exist for most of their peers. When this is coupled with a lifetime of experiences that commonly include exclusion from social activity – and consequently limited opportunities for networking, restricted access to educational opportunities, and all too often an early life filled with traumatic experiences, there is a very real risk that employed autistics will endure an abusive work environment. They will stick it out, not protest, not leave. There is too much at stake. There is too much to lose.
This is called loyalty.
Now certainly there are circumstances where autistic dedication is coupled with a supportive environment. The two work in harmony and everyone benefits. We’ve all read reports of businesses that have capitalised on the real positive attributes that many autistics have to offer, Microsoft being a well-known example. These instances only result in – at best – a few hundred jobs. There are well in excess of 200 million autistics globally, which means in the region of 27-30 million autistics holding down some form of employment. Those are the people at risk.
This issue is three-fold. We’ve seen that employers can exploit autistic disadvantage in the name of loyalty; we have seen that, for autistics, those same disadvantages mean the opportunity to nullify the negative impacts of that exploitation are heavily restricted. We have seen, too, that central to this problem is the word ‘loyalty’. So, let’s break this down.
In terms of addressing this deeply problematic situation – and it is a common one for many neurodivergent and disabled people – we know that seeking to change employer attitudes directly will be a long and slow process with many instances of back-tracking. We know also that, while easier in some ways, addressing the self-image and opportunities for autistics is also a long-term project. What we can do today is unmask the lie.
The word is perfectly suited to hide abuse. More than that, when it is presented to autistics as an attribute they can ‘sell’ to a prospective employer, we directly undermine their already deeply compromised opportunities to self-advocate, to protest abuse, and to seek a future that is better than their past.
While I’ve focused on the workplace here it is important to appreciate that this issue does not stop at the factory gate. It applies to abusive personal relationships; it applies to schoolyard bullying; it applies to the denial of services and supports; it applies even to the exploitation of autistics by organisations (and individuals) claiming to be ‘about autism’ or ‘combatting autism’ or even ‘curing autism’.
Let’s think about this. Let’s unmask the lie. Let’s make the future honest, respectful and dignified. We have waited long enough. The ‘loyalty’ stops here.