The Equality Act 2010 is relevant for all employers in the process of hiring and managing autistic people. It applies across England, Wales and Scotland. There is different legislation in Northern Ireland, but the protections for disabled people and duties on employers are broadly the same and the practical information provided here applies across the UK.

For a general overview of how the Equality Act operates in employment, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has both summary guidance and the Employment Statutory Code of Practice.

The Equality Act 2010 identifies nine specific “protected characteristics”, including disability. The Act details types of prohibited conduct as well as establishes the context in which such conduct might occur. For our purposes, we will discuss only the Act’s treatment of autism within the context of employment and management.

It is important to note that although the Equality Act 2010 defines autism as a disability, an autistic individual may not necessarily define themselves as such.

For businesses and organisations  that provide services and public functions, education and transportation, as well as for landlords and associations there are wider duties defined by the Equality Act 2010. Those duties are not covered in detail here, but improving recruitment, employment, and support for autistic staff will help facilitate an understanding of how to meet the needs of all autistic people, be they customers, service recipients, students, members or tenants.

Disability in the Equality Act 2010

There is a specific definition of disability in the Equality Act. This is important because it covers people who may not consider themselves disabled or who don’t call themselves a disabled person.

The legal definition of disability is objective. It is a matter of fact whether a person is a disabled person according to the Equality Act 2010. One thing that sets disability discrimination apart from other types of discrimination is that it is asymmetrical. Race and sex-based discrimination, for example, are symmetrical in that it is equally unlawful to discriminate against a man or white person for their gender or skin colour as it is to discriminate against a woman or person of colour. Conversely, a non-disabled person cannot claim to be the victim of disability discrimination because a disabled person has been treated more favourably than them. In fact, the Equality Act 2010 states that under certain circumstances an employer must treat a disabled person more favourably than a non-disabled person. 

The definition of a disability in the Equality Act 2010 is as follows:

        Section 6 Disability

        (1) A person (P) has a disability if—

        (a) P has a physical or mental impairment, and

        (b) the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on P's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Note: “substantial” here means “more than minor or trivial”, which is a lower standard than would be expected in the common use of the word substantial.