I recently came across this post on Facebook congratulating Tesco for employing an autistic man. This post is problematic which is why I need to talk about my experience of being served in Tesco recently.
On Friday, I was in my local store and a lovely lady served me at the checkout. She displayed some strange behaviour trying to stare at my eyeballs which made me feel quite uncomfortable. It took me longer to pack my bags as she kept distracting me by chatting about how her chipped nail varnish was irritating her. It didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on. Especially when I observed the slapdash way she gave me my change, checking it only once. She wasn’t autistic like me, she was neurotypical. She must have been a high functioning neurotypical seeing as she had a job.
Tesco make me proud offering these opportunities to neurotypical people. Neurotypicals deserve an equal chance in life and employers like Tesco help them by providing it. Who knows how her life would have turned out if Tesco hadn’t given her a chance?
I have neurotypical people in my family and Tesco have given me hope for their future. Thank you Tesco.
This blog post is certainly not intended to be criticism of Tesco or of the original Facebook poster. I also understand the position of the commenters and those who shared and liked it. At first glance, it really does seem like a positive story of someone being given a chance. I’d like to explain why I think it is harmful to autistic people.
Whilst we have posts like this presenting autistic people as inferior, in need of charity and pointing out our flaws (neurotypical checkout assistants squash bread too sometimes!) some autistic people will feel the need to hide their autism. This means they won’t get the support that they may need. It means we get abuse when we are openly autistic online and people discriminate against us and make incorrect assumptions about our abilities.
It disheartens me that society believes an autistic person being given a job is ‘heartwarming’ and that Tesco or any other employer needs to be thanked for their generosity. Many employers are already employing autistic people, often unknowingly. We are everywhere. Some of us are out and proud, others hiding their autism because of the stigma and discrimination it brings.
In this case the perceived flaws in the man’s performance have been analysed and publicised. But they are only perceived as flaws because they are unusual. [I edited the following 2 sentences for clarity] By point of comparison, I was shopping yesterday and was engaged by a ‘neurotypical’ woman on the checkout who wanted to discuss the sad state of her fingernails. There is no logic to the lady who was chatting to me about her peeling nail varnish, [/ end edit] but because most people like aimless chit chat, anyone who doesn’t like to engage is deemed to be ‘disordered’.
There are autistic people who struggle to find or keep employment, just like there are non-autistic people in the same position. A higher proportion of autistic people have difficulties because work environments often are not accessible. Why is an interview necessary? Far better to watch someone performing the job role as a test of their ability. Perhaps job roles could be customised to help all individuals reach their peak performance. Maybe we need to put a bit more thought into the sensory environment. There are many small changes that could be made to make environments  less difficult for us to handle [/ edit] . These changes may help improve the environment for everyone not just autistic people, and not just staff – customers too!
This is just my personal opinion. This post has been discussed in private Facebook groups. Many autistic people find it offensive but are unwilling to post publicly as it is likely to attract negative attention. The fact that the original post has 117k likes and only a handful of angrys (a disappointed emoticon would have been better) shows that my opinion is sadly a minority one. Too often non autistic voices are heard louder than autistic voices on the topic of autism. This is wrong. We autistic people should be the authority on autism.
In order for autistic people to compete on a level playing field we need accessible workplaces, not well-intended but stigmatising stories congratulating other people for our successes.
Why not just assume the man who was working at Tesco was there because he is quite capable of doing the job? Just like the lady who served me yesterday was. Well done to both of them for achieving employment.
Thank you for reading. Please share if you agree with me, particularly if you are not autistic as you undoubtedly have autistic people on your friend list who will appreciate the support. Too many of us are hiding.