I’m autistic, I work at the centre of the UK government on COVID response, and 2020 — horrible as it’s been — has helped me be more successful than I’ve ever been at work.
I’d like to explain how that happened and how — even though you might not realise it — you could very well have a colleague just like me.
“He’s got no people skills — he’s obviously on the spectrum!”.
Even though it is a couple of years ago, I remember these words vividly. They came from a colleague who was speaking about a senior leader in a government department.
“On the spectrum” — meaning “autistic”, but here used to convey “odd and unpleasant” — was an off-hand slur against an unpopular leader. It was a throwaway remark, but it reinforced my belief that if colleagues knew about my autism, they would think me unlikeable, that “autistic” was an insult, and that it was something to be ashamed of and hide.
Clearly it would be impossible to get into the senior civil service if you were like me. Or at least if you didn’t hide who you were very, very carefully.
In 2020, however, I was promoted — very recently reaching the senior civil service in the UK Cabinet Office — so it’s time to show the world that autistic people can succeed.
And it’s time to challenge the clumsy stereotypes, which I regret I didn’t do back in 2018. For example, I’ve proved to myself, and I want to share with you, that disabled people in general and autistic people in particular can work on high-profile fast-moving areas. You don’t have to “protect” us — just ask us what we can do and what we need.
The upshot of 2020
In fact, the horrible problems of 2020 have been very helpful for success with my particular autism.
Firstly, we with autism tend to be truthful and blunt. When responding to crises, you don’t have time for all the indirect language of hints we use in the civil service in normal times so there’s less stigma in plain speaking. And an absolute dedication to facts and precision is a boon — when an emergency is unfolding, nothing is more important than accurate and truthful information.
Secondly, while continual video conferences are exhausting, they do allow people like me to fidget and avoid the usual pressures to make eye contact in meetings — all the strain I usually have to deal with from responding to physical people has gone away.
Eye contact is really hard for almost all autistic people, and I’m spared it on a video call. Next time you’re on a video call try it — you’ve really got no way of knowing whether the person you’re talking to is making eye contact or not.
Thirdly, having interviews over video has been a huge bonus — I can use more and better memory prompts, and so much of my mental bandwidth which is usually occupied with deciphering social cues is now freed up to to do some actual thinking and responding to the questions. For the first time in my life I’m succeeding regularly in interviews.
Not all disability is visible
In case you’re unfamiliar with it, autism is a difference in how your brain is wired — I perceive the world differently to neurotypical people. (“Neurotypical” means “brain wired in the typical way” so a neurotypical person is not autistic, dyslexic, or with ADHD, and doesn’t have any of the other neurodiverse conditions).
I don’t perceive the world the same as all other autistic people though — we really are all different. There’s a range of characteristics of autism that we have to varying extents. For me, the main things are that I find being around people tiring, loud noises or background noise overwhelming and impossible to ignore, and a very deeply ingrained sense that I need to hide who and what I am.
That last one is what comes from spending my whole life, until I was diagnosed three years ago, feeling that the ways I was different were my fault. I came to believe that if only I tried harder, if only I was less lazy, if only I was less selfish, I could be normal. But I can’t.
Autistic children grow up into autistic adults. Autism is innate, it can’t be “caused” and it can’t be “cured”.
What can happen is that autistic people experience such trauma from others’ reactions to their autism that they learn to hide it. That’s what happened to me — but it’s not any sort of “cure”. It makes the situation worse, because the person learns that not to hide who they are is to be rejected and ostracised.
You might not believe it, but there are a lot of other autistic people working in public service, who try to hide who they are to fit in. Perhaps you have 200 or so colleagues where you work — or maybe 2000. If about 1% of people are autistic, possibly 2-20 people that you work with right now may be autistic.
And if they are, they are showing that autistic people can succeed, but they’d like to know that you don’t think autism is a horrible secret. They’d like success at work not to depend on being sociable and going out for a drink after work (another sad Covid benefit is that this has stopped), they’d like to be forgiven when they accidentally say something too bluntly, and they’d like not to be judged for avoiding eye contact some of the time.
Autism isn’t an insult
There weren’t any autistic role models for me earlier in my career, so I’d like to put my head above the parapet in case I can help those who come after me.
If you are autistic, or have an autistic child, then please raise your ambition about what you and they can do. Autism isn’t a ticket to failure. And if you have an autistic colleague (and trust me, you quite possibly do!) then please let them be themselves and feel safe to ask for what they need.
Above all — please don’t use “autistic” as an insult. Only last week, a colleague described his humorous attempt at a creative team-building exercise as “not so much artistic as autistic”. I know he didn’t mean to hurt me by saying it, but he did. And because I didn’t want to “spoil the moment”, I didn’t say anything. I wish someone else had spoken up for me. Maybe next time that person will be you.