As it is World Autism Awareness Week, I was interviewed by the National Autistic Society for a piece that they wanted to do on Autistic women in the workplace. There were some hard truths that I wanted to be highlighted but due to word count at their end, they had to cut it short. So here is the full thing and I will also leave a link below for the one published on their website:
Job Title: CEO and Holistic Therapist
Where do you work: Super Calming and Holistic
1. How long have you been in work? (Maybe talk about your varied career)
My employment career lasted four years. The actual timeframe that I was employed for within those 4 years was one year. I was an entertainment host, an aerial acrobat, a mural technician/artist and a holistic therapist. Currently, I am a self-employed holistic therapist for my company Super Calming and Holistic (as in the Mary Poppins song Super-cala-fragalistic).
2. When did you receive your diagnosis?
The minute I was put into my mother’s arms, she instinctively knew something was very different. At a very early age, my mother could not make a connection with me. Within a few months, my response to outside influences or any change to the environment would trigger a panic attack, I would stop breathing and pass out. It was not until a doctor had witnessed this that they started believing my mother. Over the years, records had been kept of every single incident that had ever happened to me that was directly caused by it. I was nine years old when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and the only reason that had happened at that age was because there was a cancellation and the psychiatrist just so happened to be in the area. I would have had to have waited another two years before I would have received my diagnosis.
3. How has disclosing empowered you or your employers?
In my employment career, I had only ever disclosed my Asperger’s Syndrome once and that was my first ever job. I understood the barriers that Asperger’s Syndrome gave me. However, when I was asked what they could do to help me; my mind was not able to think laterally enough at that time to put strategies in place to overcome those barriers. I had never been asked a question like this before, in fact, I never even released that was even a concept. Ever since then, I never told employers that I had Asperger’s Syndrome because not being able to explain how to overcome the limitations that it can sometimes bring made me shut down as a person. This was the thing that got me into a lot of trouble and consequently, I failed every probation in my employment career ever since. In fact, in one particular job, I was advised by an employment expert to not disclose my condition to avoid potential discrimination. As terrible as that sounds, it did have an advantage; I was upsetting my co-workers due to the way I interacted with others and the way that I worked. As a worker, I was perceived as lazy and as a person I was offensive. The management had picked up on these demeanours and behaviours not knowing the reasons behind them. When I was paid off, the reasons why I was let go lined up exactly to the traits of Asperger’s Syndrome. When you are told those kinds of reasons, it was confirmed that this was not something that I had perceived incorrectly in my head, this was based on actual documented evidence.
4. Do you have any advice about how someone should disclose and how colleagues can support this?
I cannot really say much on advising on an Autistic person disclosing their condition, but I can answer the second part of the question more articulately:
Those who lack knowledge of Autism, they think of the film such as “The Accountant” – a mathematical genius that can assassinate people. For an employer reading this, meeting a potential employee like this will never happen.
An unhelpful statement that I hear people say a lot is “Well, isn’t everyone on the spectrum?”
As well intentioned as that probably is to the person saying it; it is highly misleading because what that person is doing is trivialising a condition that can be extremely crippling to those who did not have the opportunity to receive the right help. Furthermore, I actually believe that spectrum an inaccurate description to place Autism in. I do not know what that description should be, but it would put an end to such statements that sounds like off the cuff remarks.
If you are an employer who is going to interview an autistic person, if you ask them the question how can we help you overcome your barriers, they will probably be stuck for an answer because this kind of question can be taken as quite an abstract concept. Any employer should have an employment specialist come into their place of work and do a presentation on Autism. I am aware that this is being done but it needs to be utilised so much more.
For employers, I think every company should have a life coach that specialises in Autism for any problems that may arise during the time an Autistic person is employed. The reason why I say a life coach is because I have studied their patterns in conversation and they have a full understanding of where the responsibility lies within an individual’s reactions and responses. I would have found this extremely having a middle man to translate between both worlds (Autistic and non-Autistic). Furthermore, if a problem did arise from the employer’s perspective; you could explain to the life coach the situation and they can help you explain it to the Autistic individual in a way where you are graciously challenging them instead of going in guns blazing. For the Autistic individual, they could discuss strategies and develop coping mechanisms in a non-abstract way.
5. What do you think the different challenges are that autistic women face in the workplace versus autistic men?
The challenges are the same for both men and women but the way we respond to those challenges are different. When I have spoken to the women, they tend to be better at hiding their Autism whereas the men are less inclined to do that. I also believe that it is industry specific; if very little interaction with co-workers was a part of the job then you would be less inclined to see the faults in us socially.
6. What have you found useful or helpful in overcoming the challenges?
I would say that one of my strongest characteristics is having self-awareness, which is absolute key.
As a self-employed individual, I am in charge of everything, not just making money from the business; that includes taking the time to study social navigation and certain tasks at work and how they relate to my condition. I really struggle with multi- tasking, so I have to make sure that I am extremely organised so that a potential meltdown is prevented.
7. What strengths do you bring to the workplace? Please tell us about any achievements.
In the employment world, I was never around long enough to prove that to them. However, my achievements as a self-employed individual are as follows:
At the beginning of 2017, I was nominated for and won the Cardiff Business Club Award 2017.
I was interviewed by ITV News for National Autism Week. On the first day of releasing that interview there were over 12K views. By the end of the week, over 40K views. (The reason why this is relevant is because if I was employed, I would not have been able to schedule this in).
I was shortlisted for the Great British Entrepreneur Awards for the Young Entrepreneur Category 2017, which made me top 40 in the country.
I was interviewed by Virgin Media Business when the Voom Tour was on the road. They promoted my business on their Twitter page. (This is part of the Pitch to Rich competition ran by Richard Branson).
In 2018, I was nominated for The Regional Awards – Cardiff.
8. Why should organisations employ more autistic talent?
When it comes to the actual work itself, by hiring us, we could be the very piece of the puzzle that solves that very issue that needs to be dealt with. Let me give you an example:
When I worked as an entertainment host at a theme park for their Halloween season, the actors could not figure a way to tell how the guests were going to come around the corner as they want to make sure the guests were scared efficiently. While they were chatting away about something not related to work, diagonally across the marker where I was meant to stand for the majority of the time to keep everyone safe, there was mirror that had been draped with this dirty looking tightly netted cloth and I said: “Why don’t I just look in the mirror and then I can signal to you when the guests arrive?” The actors stood there in a fleeting awkward silence and responded with: “why we didn’t think of that?” I was complimented for the observation but I sensed that it was painful for them to do so as they never thought of the idea. Then they carried on pretending to be dead people for the maze. There was actually a solution for this without the mirror which was ‘tss’ machine, but it was broken at the time. Okay, so this was not a major innovative idea that changed the entire company, but it was a minor detail where the actors could perform their job at their best.
There is a very good chance that they will have a strong moral/ethical compass that can be perceived abrasive. However, if there is injustice in the workplace, they will pounce on it like a lion on a gazelle. In addition, with this strong sense of right and wrong, you will also have gained yourself a very loyal employee.
In terms of social navigation in the workplace, sometimes when you miss certain social queues such as sarcasm, jokes and quips can make you a nicer person because those kinds of response do not immediately come to mind.
9. What should organisations be doing to be more inclusive?
If you are holding an event or party, if you could perhaps soften the lighting as we will probably hear it. Yes, hear it. What we are hearing is the electricity going through the bulb or the flickering of the lights. If there is background music, turn the music down or even switch it off because it can very difficult to separate a person speaking to us while there is background noise. These are specific to me but if an autistic has any other sensory overload, find out what that is and adjust accordingly.
If we decline an invite to an event or party, do not be offended or take it personally. We just need time to ourselves to decompress from all the sensory and social navigation issues of the day. Always remind us that we are welcome if we do change our minds and if we show up, make sure you actually look happy to see us. We do not necessarily require disgusting cheerfulness but something above a complacent demeanour would be appreciated.
If an autistic person says or does something in a way that you find puzzling, confusing or annoying; do not presume that they are doing this intentionally, because there is a very good chance that they have absolutely no idea what they have done. Give us a chance to make it right before you write us off; because sometimes the problem lies within the lack of personal responsibility and accountability of the employer and or co-worker/s and the Autistic person ends up suffering.
In terms of social interaction, do not think that just because they do not pick up on your sarcastic tone that it means that we are stupid. The only way I can explain how I understood sarcasm was that I once read a script in a play where certain words were in italics and from there, I had to listen for the italics in the voice when they were being sarcastic. The normal tone and a sarcastic tone do not sound different to us unless we have learned about it and put a strategy in place to deal with it.
If employers and co-workers understood the absolute exhaustion that having these strategies for every variable probability of social interaction and social improvisation, then you would realise that there is a very decent human being just trying to socially navigate themselves in the hopes of being perceived correctly; which non-autistic people take for granted.