When you think about autism what are the things that come to mind? Is it maths? Is it boys? Is it somebody rocking or flapping? How about an inability to communicate? Or T.V programmes like ATypical, The Good Doctor or The A Word (All of which the main character is played by a male)?
There is a lot on the internet and on TV programmes about Autism, about people with my condition. However, most are an incorrect picture of what Autism actually is.
For example would you expect an autistic person to call over 100 strangers a day and try to build a rapport with a complete stranger to find out information? Well that is my job and I love it.
Did you also know that if you are Autistic you are less likely to be employed and also more likely if employed to be employed in a job way below your capable skillset. Only 1 in 6 diagnosed autistic people are employed in some capacity. There are currently over 700,000 people estimated to be diagnosed in the UK. This means of those 700,000 people only 116,000 are employed.
I only got diagnosed at 31, 2 years ago despite repeatedly going to the doctors in my 20s pleading with them that I didn’t fit in and there must be a reason why I couldn’t connect with people. Despite also spending most of the time in the classroom in primary school being sat alone because I was ‘easily distracted’ and would not be able to concentrate when sat on a table with more than 1 person.
My story starts with an ‘Are you Autistic?’ quiz I was sent by a well-meaning colleague in my previous job and ends with a diagnosis of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).
For 31 years of my life I had to develop my own coping mechanisms to get by. I now know this as masking. I was bullied and held back in my careers due to my inability to read a room or navigate office/workplace politics.
I am above average intelligence and I’m hopelessly honest. I question everything and try to understand a world that doesn’t seem to understand me, the best I can. Although Autism is classed as a disability it is important to understand that autistic people are often only disabled by an environment that makes them extremely uncomfortable and not the condition itself.
Being diagnosed Autistic was a massive relief to me because it meant I was not weird, not a freak and not an alien. It provided answers where before I only had questions and self-doubts. I have OCD, Anxiety, Misophonia and Auditory Processing Disorder all associated and Co Morbid conditions of being autistic. I am also borderline dyslexic so can be quite a slow reader and often get dates mixed up which happens more when I am tired.
A lot of people have asked me why I needed the diagnosis at the age of 31. Why did I seek the diagnosis? The reason is because I needed answers. My whole life up until that point I would also hit obstacles more so in my career whereby I would be excellent at my actual job but not so excellent when it came to the social side of an office or navigating office politics. I still do not understand office politics. It reminds me of being on the playground at school where you have the cool kids who know all the right things to say and do to make friends. Then you have the not so cool kids who no matter how hard they try to fit in just don’t. They get ostracised and are easy targets to be made fun of or make other people look superior. That was my life before my diagnosis. I was often the top performer, relied upon for harder tasks and overloaded with work, but I was overlooked for promotions by others who were not proven to be as good as me at the actual work but were good at talking the talk. Something I can’t do because I am hopelessly honest.
After I was diagnosed Autistic, I left my previous employer. It was a hard thing for me to do as for the first time in my life I actually quit a job without having another lined up. Sadly after diagnosis you are not told anything about disability law or reasonable adjustments and my last employer didn’t understand why after 5 years of not needing reasonable adjustments (despite being refused several requests of being allowed to listen to my music whilst doing admin before diagnosis) why I would now need them, as to them there was nothing actually wrong with me. After 3 months of furlough I had finally found happiness and lasted only 1 month when called back to work before handing in my notice. I decided my mental health and happiness was far more important than any pay cheque and that attitude has not changed. I was on a great salary but what’s money if you are so desperately unhappy and not helped or accepted for who you are?
A new start
So I started a job search and all my friends told me not to disclose I was autistic in an interview so I didn’t. Even though I struggle to give eye contact and concentrate I am good at interviews because I google all the perfect answers and memorise them. I still tell the truth; I just go in prepared. I was offered 7 jobs and settled in the one I am in now as a researcher at Barbour ABI. I disclosed I was autistic when employed and advised the reasonable adjustments I would need. However I was only in the office for 1 month really before lockdown ensued and we all worked from home.
I can honestly say I have really landed on my feet with this job. The job is in construction, an area I have never worked in before, however my degree is in Geography and the job I am in now funnily enough ties in rather well with my degree. I make over 130 calls a day to complete strangers to build a rapport and find out the progress of construction projects all over the United Kingdom.
At Barbour ABI when you first start you are trained in construction for 6 months and this is further enhanced by a day of training from John Moores University to help you understand more about building sites and the project design teams and the roles each of them play. You are also allocated a mentor which you spend 30 mins a day with to help support you in the role and I was given a really understanding mentor who I was open with about my struggles and she was able to help me navigate when I needed to reach out to a manager and helped me understand the job more.
In March we were advised to return to the office and then the panic of a change in routine set in. I use routines to help keep things as consistent and calm as possible and struggle when my routine is unexpectedly changed, especially by something out of my control. I have to work really hard to deal with a change and maintain a positive front especially if this happens in an open office.
To combat the above I had meetings with managers and HR to put in place reasonable adjustments. None of which cost money. One thing I will say that my employer has been excellent with is that nothing has been too much trouble and they very much let me feel in control of decisions even though it is collaborative. We work together to ensure the business’ needs are met but not at the expense of my mental health. I was allowed to programme my own timetable to return to the office and even now I can request days working at home when I feel I need to recharge. It has been made clear to me that within reason whatever I need is no bother. I sit by the window facing the door and wear noise cancelling headphones. My manager Neil sits opposite me so it is easy for me to grab his attention if I am having a bad day and when he is absent other managers step in to help and make me aware of any changes to target or my job role with as much notice as they can possibly give. I am allowed to leave the office whenever I need to no questions asked to take 5 or 10.
This is the first job I have had in 16 years of employment where I was asked to apply for a position on Rising Stars and got on the programme because managers saw and appreciated my strengths. I am often asked to look into projects that need updating or given different tasks to try to see what I come up with. I would say my employer helps me cope with the difficulties of being autistic but gives me tasks that definitely play to the strengths I have being autistic. That is basically what every employer needs to do with every neurodiverse employee. They need to make them know it is not a problem and make them feel comfortable. I know for example if I am not happy, I can approach the subject with my manager and we can discuss it and I will be heard.
I am very honest about who I am as a person because I hid it for 31 years. I think being honest is ultimately all you can be because it is better to be accepted for who you are than to be accepted for who you are not.
I am a very logical person and will often give feedback on tasks I am given on the things I found hard about the task and often provide solutions on how the task could be made easier. My opinion matters.
My colleagues are very supportive and it is nice to walk into an office where people greet you with a morning and take time to talk to you. It is also nice I do have relationships with people who will read my blogs and take time to get to know me. People are genuinely interested. Like everyone else in research I am on the same target because I expect in that sense to be treated like everyone else. Yes, I do have reasonable adjustments but that is so I can hit the same target everyone is expected to.
I have been the top researcher for the past 7 months and also had one month where I hit every KPI every day because I set myself a challenge. I often set the bar higher than my manager sets me because I do not have much self-confidence and will prove myself in tangible ways such as on a figure sheet or leader board rather than intangible ways like how many people like me.
What’s to come
Over the next 5 days you will see more content in light of Autism Acceptance Week. Such as videos from my colleagues, information about the different aspects of ASD, how they affect me personally and what you can do to help a person with ASD. Follow us on LinkedIn to make sure you don’t miss it!