For autistic people in Scotland, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought capitalism’s contradictions to the surface. For many who already struggled to live with dignity under the usual business of capitalism, the chaos and confusion of everyday life under lockdown has only intensified their difficulties. At every juncture of the pandemic and its corresponding restrictions set by the Scottish Government, autistic people have borne the brunt. According to a National Autistic Society (NAS) report published in September 2020, many autistic people, along with their families and close ones, have felt “stranded” without the support and information they need to get by. The “disruption, uncertainty and change of pace triggered huge levels of anxiety” and for some was made worse by “the withdrawal of support from social care, education and mental health services”. For the months of June and July 2020, it was estimated that across the UK, when compared with the general public, autistic people were seven times more likely to be chronically lonely, and that nine out of ten autistic people have worried about their mental health.
In October 2020, the Scotland Cross Party Group on Autism (CPGA) published its latest review of the 2011 Scottish Strategy for Autism. Within this document, it was found that, despite the intentions of its authors, much is left to be done to alleviate a majority of the problems experienced by autistic people and their families. The crux of the document focuses on the lack of accountability of local and regional authorities in dealing with the multitude of various support needs required, and in many ways it outlines the inefficacy of the Scottish Government in its approach towards autistic people, and neurodivergent people in general. Taking a consultative approach, comprising a team of MSPs, charities and other third sector organisations, the report maintains the notion that autistic people, by default, require a “channel of communication” between themselves and the Scottish Parliament. Despite their intentions to bring as many autistic participants to the table as possible, roughly 70% of the people consulted within the report were parents or carers of autistic people. Additionally, the fact that the ‘cross party’ dynamic is compromised by the presence of no less than five Scottish Conservatives is deeply concerning. Disabled and neurodivergent people, for the last ten years, have featured among the worst affected by the programme of austerity by the Conservatives. The introduction of the bedroom tax, the rollout of ‘fit for work’ capability tests, and the scrapping of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) only scratch the surface of this impact. As such, roughly 900 people in Scotland were asked a number of survey questions regarding the effect of the Scottish Strategy since its implementation, with striking responses. To name a few of the more concerning results, 72% of respondents said they did not have enough support to meet their needs; 78% said it was not easy to access support locally; 50% felt that autism awareness among the general public had not improved; and 69% said that with more support, they would feel less isolated.
Contrasting the report, the Scottish Government has launched a supplementary website, ‘Different Minds’, which offers a welcome departure from previous understandings of autism. A clear deviation from the types of ‘autism awareness’ campaigns that we have seen time and again, its defining principles seem to be moving closer to the social model of disability, something that disabled and neurodivergent socialists have been arguing in favour of for decades. The dispelling of a number of commonly-held ignorant myths, for instance that “autism is usually thought of in the context of children”, that “autism can be cured”, and that “autistic people cannot show empathy”, is a reassuring move, albeit long overdue and still not enough. Contrary to the narrative that has placed government institutions, healthcare professionals and allistic (non-autistic) parents as authorities of the condition for years, autistic people have always known these myths for what they are. The mere fact that the Scottish Government has felt it necessary to reiterate that we are indeed people with feelings and emotions, and that we don’t need a cure, is a dire indication of the social climate of Scotland, and it shows that ableism still permeates every sphere of Scottish civil society. Placing autistic people at the centre of these decisions and initiatives, rather than relying on paternalistic consultations, would be a significant democratic step, and would foster a greater relationship between neurodivergent people and the institutions whose job is to represent them and improve their lives.
The public face of the Scottish Government and the material impact of its Strategy continue to be contradictory, and the pandemic has only made the pre-existing neglect of autistic people and their needs more pronounced. A 2016 NAS report made it clear that only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are currently in full-time paid employment, and it is likely that the pandemic has further decreased this figure. Whether this was due to indirect discrimination by industries which see autistic people as unproductive, or by the stressful and anxiety-inducing process of searching for jobs and going to interviews, it is staggering that nothing substantial was done to resolve this, pre-pandemic. Diagnosis waiting times continue to be abysmal, with the expectation of a minimum of 18 months, and with most families struggling to obtain clear answers from psychiatrists and health professionals. According to the aforementioned CPGA report, “diagnostic waiting times are not collated and published”, highlighting further a lack of accountability and concern by health authorities. Furthermore, even when a diagnosis is secured, this is no guarantee that support services or disability benefits can be accessed. A lack of understanding from professionals often makes the process of diagnosis even more difficult, sometimes resulting in misdiagnoses, as experienced by many people familiar with mental health care across Scotland. The combination of these factors, with seemingly little intervention or focused attention, has sustained a lonely and miserable environment. The prevalence of ableist notions among the political class, who assume we will be satisfied with piecemeal reform or the occasional awareness campaign, stifles any genuine transformative change.
The neglect of autistic people in Scotland, as elsewhere, is a class issue as well as a disability issue. An overwhelming majority of the individuals and families suffering this stress are on low incomes, and live in areas where local services have been slashed for many years under the guise of austerity. The pandemic’s impact on local services has meant that many family members and close ones have had to sacrifice work in order to compensate for this lack. For many of these working class families, this would have been their lifeline. The ‘accountability gap’ referred to in the report may well address specific areas with scrutiny, but fails to address the root causes. The root cause is capitalism, which prioritises profit over the intrinsic worth of disabled and neurodivergent people. The Scottish Government’s brand of social democracy, along with its awareness campaigns and 10-year plans, will always fall short without a plan that centres autistic people and recognises them as real people with much to contribute.
As Scottish independence is once again becoming a real future possibility, socialists and activists fighting for a radical restructuring of society ought to be engaging in more of these conversations. An over-reliance on the Scottish Government under the current model will continue to reproduce the same failures and instances of inequality we see today. A collective effort, particularly but not exclusively by disabled and neurodivergent people themselves, will be needed to bring our interests closer to the table. The STUC Disabled Workers’ Committee, as well as other union organisations, should be encouraged to take these alarming reports more seriously, and foster an environment which ensures our needs and concerns are met, in the workplace and otherwise. The rights of disabled and neurodivergent people ought to be constitutionally enshrined in an independent Scotland, as was suggested by former Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) co-convener Sandra Webster in 2013. The continuing fight for independence should encompass the intrinsic value of our presence in society, and which recognises our agency in informing policy, not least policy which concerns our lives. An independent Scotland that recognises the value of neurodivergence, and makes a collective effort to uplift those left behind by austerity, is a future worth fighting for.