Austin Harney

Labour and Autism/Neuro-Diversity

Austin Harney

Labour is the first political party to acknowledge autism and neuro-diversity in an election manifesto. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Janine Booth (RMT and TUC Disabled Members Committee) were the driving force behind this. Their initiative matters to me personally. It was in 2013 that I first publicly declared that I had been diagnosed with quasi-autism at the age of 4, back in 1972. At that time, society was very hash in its attitudes towards disabled people. Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism, was not recognised until 1994. Before 2013, I had been active in the Trade Union movement and the Labour Party. I was accustomed to public speaking, but never had the nerve to come out in the open about my autism! I thank John McDonnell and Janine Booth for helping me to publicly reveal this disability!

When I received the diagnosis, the authorities recommended that I be taken away from mainstream education, against my wishes. Medical experts stated that I had subnormal intelligence, making me unfit for mainstream society, education or employment. I was sent to an autistic compound at the back of Grasvenor Infants School in Barnet. There was no air conditioning in those days, and sometimes we had to spend hours confined to the building even on a very hot sunny day. When I was collected, my parents demanded an explanation. The response from teaching staff was that because of the Harvest Festival, the parents of normal children would be there that day. Had those parents known anything about that compound on the back of the playground, they would have taken their children away from the school.

After a couple of years, it was clear that I was not improving, and so my family decided to take me away from the school. I was not in any school for quite a few months until I was returned to my former mainstream place of infant education.

Because of so much prejudice during those years, it was very difficult to adapt to mainstream society, especially in secondary education. After I left school, it was not easy seeking employment either. I was dismissed from the civil service at a time when reasonable adjustments did not exist; this was before the Disability Discrimination Act became law in 1995.

I appealed against this dismissal and, thanks to my trade union, successfully gained re-employment in the civil service although, unfortunately, on a lower grade. I have shown my gratitude to the trade union by representing all members of different grades in the civil service. I have been a delegate to many Trade Union conferences, including the televised TUC, and spoke from the rostrum on more than one occasion. All these years, I kept quite about my condition. But today, I hope we can boost hope and inspiration for all autistic people, including the parents of those who have received the same diagnosis!

We now have a golden opportunity to transform the lives of autistic people, eradicating the prejudices of previous centuries! That’s why I ask you to vote Labour in the general election on Thursday 8th June!



Secretary, Labour Party Autism/Neuro-Diversity Steering Committee