The Second Windmill

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. Thank you for being here. I’ve had one of those weeks in which the days have flashed past with life almost on autopilot. I get up, go to the office, come home, either write or go to the gym, and repeat. This is not a bad thing – please don’t think I’m complaining. I’m just observing that the days are flowing by like half-glimpsed scenes through the window of a fast-moving train.

Last week I promised you – some might say I threatened you – with a blog post today that would be provocative and controversial. It is another instance of me stumbling across an autism-related issue online, and finding myself drawn into an exchange that has left me shaking my head. While the issue I’m going to discuss today is absolutely centred on autism, the problem that emerges from it is broader in scope, as you will see.


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It all started with a report from The Sheffield Star, a newspaper from my city, about a young autistic man who encountered problems at his workplace after he tried to exercise an exemption from wearing a covid mask. It’s not as straightforward as it first seems, and a good place to start to understand the issue would be to read the actual report. It’s not a long article, and I would urge you to read it carefully, and pay attention to what is actually being said, rather than jumping to swift conclusions. To read the report, click here.

Okay, if you’ve read it, let’s clarify how we move forward with dissecting what has happened, and what has gone wrong with some responses to what happened: I was not a witness to the events described, and most if not all of you reading this were not witnesses, either. If anyone reading this was a witness, and you feel the report is inaccurate, please get in touch. But barring that, all we have to go on is what was reported in the story. The report may or may not be completely accurate, but it’s all we’ve got to go on, so any speculations about inaccuracies aren’t helpful if they are just that; speculation. Some other outlets have reported the story, but they’re saying the same things as the Sheffield Star. With that out of the way, let’s just summarise the key points in the story:

  • A young autistic man, Lewis, goes into his usual workplace, wearing a lanyard saying he is exempt from wearing a covid mask. His justification for this exemption is anxiety, related to autism.
  • Another staff member was unhappy with Lewis not wearing a mask, and reported him to a manager.
  • The manager tells Lewis that they do not recognise the lanyard, and that he needed a letter from his doctor to prove the exemption.
  • A team leader then told Lewis to put a mask on.
  • Lewis complied with the order, and went to get a mask.
  • On his way to get a mask, Lewis was stopped again, pulled to one side, and told to put on a mask.
  • Lewis’s anxiety began to get the better of him. Upset, he said, “I can’t f***ing breathe.”
  • A manager then told Lewis he was being disrespectful, and sent him home.
  • Again, Lewis complied with the order, and went to go home. But the manager took his security pass, which he needed to get out.
  • Lewis had to ask three times for his pass to exit the building.
  • Before Lewis left, a manager told him he would not be paid for his work that day.

Are we clear so far? Good. I want you to bear in mind that simple bullet point outline – it’s going to be important. My reaction to this report was anger. It was clear to me that Lewis had been treated unfairly. While I have never worked for the company Lewis was employed by, retailer Pretty Little Thing, I do have thirty years experience in retail management, and this story rang largely true to me. I’ve worked with some brilliant, amazing managers in retail, but it is a fact that the industry does also attract more than its fair share of inept management, at all levels. Furthermore, this was just one story in a seemingly never-ending series of reports about autistic people being treated unfairly, whether that be bullying, assaults, online abuse, or whatever. Anyway, I was ready to level my metaphorical lance, and tilt at yet another windmill online. I decided to tweet Lewis’s employer, Pretty Little Thing. Here’s the tweet:

I don’t have a large following on Twitter. I lost many followers when I came off the platform a few years ago after suffering some online abuse. I’m certainly no influencer. So I wanted to find a way of getting some support for the tweet, and for putting a little pressure on Pretty Little Thing, so that they would clarify their position on the unfair treatment of an autistic employee. I thought a sure-fire place to get some support would be the autistic community on Reddit. But I encountered a reaction I did not expect. Here’s what I posted on Reddit:

In retrospect, I wish I’d worded this differently. But I still think my main point was plain: Young autistic man bullied in the workplace. However, the reactions I got shocked me. Here’s a selection of the replies I received:

  •  “I also don’t think he should be allowed to work around other people without a mask on.”
  • “Masks cause him anxiety, but his lack of a mask could cause serious illness and death for others.”
  • “I have a kiddo on the spectrum and we had to work on keeping his mask on. Took a lot of work, but we did it and now he keeps it on when we go out. My youngest is high risk. So death supersedes anxiety. We can use CBT to work through anxiety, but we can’t bring people back from the dead. If the kid is vaccinated then I can see why he shouldn’t wear a mask, still we are in a middle of a pandemic. MaskUp” (sic)
  • “Yikes, how are the risk of sensory distress and the risk of death even comparable? If masks cause too much sensory distress for someone, maybe they should get a job working from home or outside or go on unemployment or something. Or like, find or make a mask [or something that serves the same purpose] that causes less distress… I’m autistic and care lots about accommodating autistic sensory needs [my own and others’] but the idea of putting other people’s lives at risk to accommodate my sensory needs is so unfathomable to me.”
  • “Wow you really do have a strong sense of entitlement don’t you? You don’t care if you put people in danger as long as you are uncomfortable (sic). Maybe he should do what I do since I can’t deal with wearing masks or pretty much shoes. I found work from home. I understand I can’t work in most settings barefoot or maskless so I do what I can and don’t whine about how unfair life is.”
  • “Yeah no your emotional reaction here isn’t convincing me to fight your battle here. I don’t care what the law says in your country it’s completely irrational to think that someone’s discomfort over wearing a mask during a pandemic where people have been dying and having serious complications for over a year now. If he can’t do the job because of a health reason that’s what disability is for HERE where I LIVE. Where you live the law is different but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it and I certainly won’t advocate for him to be compensated in some way. The guy was cussing his manager because he didn’t want to wear a mask and then he said she bullied him. Sounds like nobody was bullying him, there were people complaining because they didn’t want to work with the guy because he was raging over having to wear a mask.”
  • “I understand there are people with worse sensory issues than I, but I wear my mask for hours every day at work. In my opinion, if you are unable to wear a mask (which can of course be legitimate, as in this case) you should work from home if you can or not work at all.”

I could go on in this vein. Not all the comments were like this – some actually understood the real issue, and were supportive. But most of the responses to my post were roughly the same in tone and content as the ones above. And they all missed the point. Can you spot where they went wrong? I’m pretty sure most people reading this will see the error the respondents made, but I’m going to point it out anyway: Nowhere in my post did I say Lewis should be allowed to work without a mask. I’m not an anti-masker; wearing masks is important, it helps save lives. Yes, some people are allowed exemptions, but it does not follow that an employer has to give the okay to workers not wearing masks, even if they have an exemption: It might be that a given workplace is not suitable for someone not wearing a mask, perhaps because it’s not possible to maintain distance between workers. Maybe, just maybe, Lewis didn’t understand that. Maybe, when he heard about exemptions, he thought that would be good for him, because wearing a mask triggers his anxiety. So maybe he turned up for work with his lanyard thinking it would be okay, but understood when he was told he had to put on a mask. After all, if you remember, he agreed to comply and wear a mask when he was told to. He actually attempted to go and get a mask as he was directed, but was stopped from doing so by another manager giving him a telling-off for not wearing the mask he was on his way to get! So, the complaint about unfair treatment and workplace bullying is not about him being told to wear a mask, or him not wanting to wear a mask: The issue is about how the situation was handled.

Let me explain by going back to the bullet point list I showed you earlier, but this time with some snazzy bold type to highlight some important parts:

  • A young autistic man, Lewis, goes into his usual workplace, wearing a lanyard saying he is exempt from wearing a mask. His justification for this exemption is anxiety, related to autism.
  • Another staff member was unhappy with Lewis not wearing a mask, and reported him to a manager.
  • The manager tells Lewis that they do not recognise the lanyard, and that he needed a letter from his doctor to prove the exemption.
  • A team leader then told Lewis to put a mask on.
  • Lewis complied with the order, and went to get a mask.
  • On his way to get a mask, Lewis was stopped again, pulled to one side, and told to put on a mask.
  • Lewis’s anxiety began to get the better of him. Upset, he said, “I can’t f***ing breathe.”
  • A manager then told Lewis he was being disrespectful, and sent him home.
  • Again, Lewis complied with the order, and went to go home. But the manager took his security pass, which he needed to get out.
  • Lewis had to ask three times for his pass to exit the building.
  • Before Lewis left, a manager told him he would not be paid for his work that day.

Okay. Let’s tackle those parts in bold, and see what the issues regarding unfair treatment really were.

Anxiety related to autism. Under UK law, Lewis is considered disabled, and is protected by the Equality Act 2010. This means his employers have to make reasonable accommodations for him. But it does not mean they have to let him go without a mask. It just means he has to be treated fairly, particularly in regards to his autism and anxiety; so, for example, listening to his concerns, and treating him with empathy.

They do not recognise the lanyard / he needed a letter from his doctor. If the employer decides that it is not appropriate for Lewis to be exempt from mask wearing, that is fine – they have to consider the wellbeing of all employees. But in this instance, it sounds as though they would have let him be exempt if he had what they consider appropriate proof of his needs: a letter from a doctor. They got this badly wrong. The following two screenshots come directly from the government’s guidelines on wearing covid masks:


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So let me make this really clear: If a given workplace is not appropriate for mask exemption, that is fine. What is not fine, is on one hand telling an anxious autistic employee he must wear a mask, but then on the other hand telling him he can be exempt if he provides proof which is directly in contravention of the official guidelines. You can see here that while the incident was triggered by a disagreement over mask exemption, the real issue is not the wearing of a mask (remember, Lewis agreed to go and get a mask to wear), the issue of unfairness and bullying is about how he was being treated. The manager was out of order telling Lewis he needed a doctor’s note for exemption – he didn’t – especially when they’ve told him he must wear a mask. Which is it? Is there any wonder the kid was upset? On with the bullet points…

Lewis complied with the order, and went to get a mask. Yes, we’ve covered this. But so many of the respondents on Reddit who insisted on focusing their disagreement on the mask issue simply did not address this point. Lewis did what his boss told him – he went to get a mask. Unfortunately…

On his way to get a mask, Lewis was stopped again. Bear in mind here, the young man was already in a state of distress because of his anxiety. Despite how bad he feels, he’s still complying, and going to get a mask, when he gets collared again. Try to deploy some empathy, and understand how the kid is feeling when…

Anxiety began to get the better of him, and he blurted, “I can’t f***ing breathe.” In my career as a manager, I’ve come across a number of instances of people using foul language in the workplace. Sometimes, it has been in jest among friends, away from anyone who might possibly be offended by it. Sometimes it has been from loud-mouth idiots with no social graces, causing offence, and it had to be dealt with. Sometimes, it has been outright aggression, sometimes accompanied by violence between workers, and this too has to be dealt with. Sometimes, the foul language has been an expression of emotional distress, as with Lewis. Of course, it still has to be dealt with, but not in the same way as someone being aggressive. This is where management skill comes in – to be able to assess people fairly, and to respond to them appropriately. The young man is autistic, suffers from anxiety, and was obviously distressed. He didn’t tell the manager to f*** off; he said, “I can’t f***ing breathe.” Do you understand the difference? As you can see from what I quoted above, some of the people of Reddit couldn’t get that difference. As a disabled person, I repeat, Lewis is protected by the Equality Act 2010, and his distress should have been handled more appropriately by the manager. Instead…

A manager then told Lewis he was being disrespectful, and sent him home. By now, the unfairness of this response should be obvious. If it isn’t let me point this out: Sending Lewis home probably was an appropriate response at this point. If I had been his manager, I would not have expected him to be able to carry out his duties while so distressed. So I would have encouraged him to go home, but not because he had been disrespectful. I would have been concerned for his welfare. But anyway, regardless of the incompetent management…

Lewis complied with the order, and went to go home. But the manager took his security pass, which he needed to get out. There is no scenario in which this is acceptable; no way in which this can be seen as anything other than unfair treatment and workplace bullying of a person in genuine distress. Particularly in the context of…

Lewis had to ask three times for his pass to exit the building. This is just deliberate humiliation of an employee. Not just any employee, but a disabled employee. Not just any disabled employee, but an autistic employee; someone I would have thought other autistic people would show solidarity with, rather than just saying he should have worn a mask… you know, the mask he had actually agreed to put on before being prevented from doing so. Everything that had happened so far was more than bad enough. But there was one final twist of the knife for Lewis:

A manager told him he would not be paid for his work that day. Wow. I can’t begin to imagine how Lewis was feeling when he left the building. If I had been his manager, as I said, I would have encouraged him to go home, but I would have reassured him that the work he had done so far would be paid, and the rest of his shift would be covered with sick leave, due to his emotional distress. I would have then consulted with HR and senior management to find a resolution for the employee.

All my explanation and examination of the incident above seems, to me, basic common sense. I feel for Lewis largely because he’s autistic, I’m autistic, and there’s a sense of wanting to show solidarity. But I’m also frustrated as someone who used to be in management – the utter incompetence displayed in how that situation was handled is infuriating. If any employee leaves the workplace in a state of distress because of something that happened in the workplace, then unless it was related to an unavoidable accident, an investigation will always uncover management failings as a root cause.

However, as I said at the start of the blog, the problem that emerges from how some of the people of Reddit responded to my post has a much broader scope. When I started getting the illogical responses to my post, with comments arguing that Lewis should have worn a mask, etc, etc, I posted some clarifications to my original post. Here are the clarifications:

As well as editing these clarifications into my original post, I also put them in the comments on the thread. But people still could not accept the point, and the comments about Lewis not wearing a mask kept coming. It was as if these people were blind to the part in which Lewis agreed to go and get a mask to wear. Examples:

“I can’t push this, not when I’ve already lost three people to covid. This shouldn’t even be an exemption.”

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“Rampant stupidity on all sides here – government policy aside, going to work in a shop with no mask provides significant risk to both yourself, your family, and everyone else in the shop. I would be fucking pissed if I had to shop at a place where employees were not wearing masks, and even more pissed if I was obligated to work alongside someone who refused to wear one.”

One of the clarifications I posted was downvoted four times. These people couldn’t get their heads around these simple facts:

  1. Lewis misunderstood exemption rules in his workplace, and when he was corrected, he agreed to go and get a mask.
  2. From that moment, he was bullied, treated unfairly, and humiliated, not to mention given incorrect information about government guidelines on mask exemption. And it is this unfairness that prompted my call for support.

Why is it that the people who responded to my post couldn’t see their way to the real problem? Was it lack of empathy? Was it cruelty? Was it stupidity? I don’t like those options. Normally, the autistic community on Reddit is very supportive. The only thing I can put it down to is that they used emotional reasoning, rather than logical reasoning. We’ve all done it at some point. We feel strongly about something, and so we ignore any information that disagrees with our strong opinion, and instead plough on making the same points over and over, looking for any way to justify our position without checking for objectivity. It’s a form of confirmation bias, known as interpretation bias: Choosing only to see what you want to see. And in this case, the respondents saw very clearly the mask exemption issue, and chose to ignore the awful management failings, and horrific treatment of the employee.

This kind of illogical thinking is a blight on humanity, as it affects everyone in all kinds of ways. Sometimes it is subtle and insidious, which is why anyone who wants to think clearly and sensibly about, well, anything, should be on guard against it. This is what I mean about the problem having wider scope. The thing that really upsets me in this instance, though, is that the issue seems blindingly obvious. It baffles me that the Reddit threads descended into railing against Lewis because he should have worn a mask, completely ignoring the fact that he would have worn a mask, and that the way he was treated was totally unacceptable. It’s also worrying that some of the comments in the threads clearly showed some people hadn’t actually read the article, but were arguing about it passionately, anyway. There’s really no excuse or justification for that kind of behaviour.

This has put me in a very uncomfortable position. I want, wherever possible, to show solidarity with all autistic people. But I’m having to write a takedown of unhelpful, misguided, uninformed and illogical opinions held by one group of autistic people about another autistic person. I’m feeling pretty pissed off about it, if I’m honest. Maybe I’m naïve, but I expected better.

I don’t want to end the blog on a downer. Something positive that was autism-related happened to me this week. I had to spend some time with a person I’d never met before, and we got chatting. I disclosed that I’m autistic. This person was genuinely interested, didn’t say anything dumb or offensive about autism, and asked intelligent questions without any false shyness or discomfort. We had a great conversation. It was pleasant and refreshing. I often struggle when talking to people I haven’t met before, but on this occasion we got on like a house on fire.

That’s all I have for this week, friends. Until next time, look after yourselves, but please, also, look after each other. Be patient. Be sympathetic. Think things through. Be kind.

Why Do I Write This Blog?

When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism.  I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation.  With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery.  Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers.  I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.

You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.

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