Autism, Personal Stories, ADHD

How I struggled through education and work, oblivious to my autism

As far as my parents and I were aware, I was “normal”.  

My behaviour may have been unusual at times. Like in my eighteen-month development check when I formed the Great Wall of China with building bricks instead of the anticipated tower, my solo role-playing games, or when I memorised the field guide to the birds of Britain and Europe.

There was “nothing wrong with me” though.  Not like my brother, who was autistic, hyperactive, had learning difficulties and went to special school.  Yes, he was “special”. I was clever and normal.

My education

I drifted through school, under-achieving. I never ever did any homework. I was too distracted by my intense interests and fierce crushes. The bullies called me “square” and I was desperate to prove them wrong.

I had a good memory, soaked up information like a sponge, could hyper-focus in exams, and managed to scrape the A-level grades I needed get into Lancaster University.

My proud parents packed me off to University.  Little did we realise how ill-equipped I was to live away from home and study for a degree. I knew nothing about executive dysfunction then. I struggled with basic tasks like using the library and the computer room, but I was too awkward and too proud to seek help. With no responsible adults around to check up on me, I got myself into mischief.

I failed my first year because I had not submitted enough coursework in my minor subject.  I did surprisingly well in every exam, despite zero revision, being high as a kite during one exam and having just walked in from an all-nighter at a goth club in Manchester for another. Given the chance to re-sit the missing two pieces of coursework over the summer, I could not get into it, so I was excluded.

I stayed in Lancaster for two more years, working unsuitable jobs and obsessing about my control-freak boyfriend who was not that into me. I was depressed or suffering from autistic burn-out, and at serious risk of developing anorexia.

Nothing wrong with me though, hey?

Office work as an undiagnosed autistic

Eventually I returned to the Midlands to live with my mum and my brother. My first job was in an insurance brokers office. Constantly seeking validation from others in the only ways I knew how, I was vulnerable to abuse in that corrupt and morally bankrupt company.

Fortunately, it gave me the office experience I needed to get an agency temp placement in the large office of a bank. I really landed on my feet there!

The job was in HR, which I knew nothing about. They needed help with the administrative burden of a restructure with a “voluntary early leavers scheme” (i.e. large-scale redundancies). I fit in well and got a fixed-term contract. Next I helped with a review of salary scales for their technical grades, and I quickly learned to use Excel. I was in my element! Such was my interest in HR, I thought I had found my niche.

I enrolled in the local business school two evenings per week and started my CIPD qualifications, newly ambitious for a career in HR. Living with my mum, and with the help of a computer, I was able to get the coursework done and I passed the Certificate in Personnel Practice and the Postgraduate Certificate in HR Management with flying colours. Finally, I had qualifications and a job, and felt less of a failure.

I met my first husband in my next job, another temporary generalist HR job, and eventually moved away with him to the North-East.

There I got a job as an HR Systems Analyst. Even better!  I could work in HR with the people systems, data and projects that I really made me tick. I wasn't expected to do the uncomfortable “touchy-feely” side of HR such as handling grievances and disciplinaries and other employee relations issues. I had zero inclination to manage people, nor any confidence that I ever could. I did feel a little career-limited, but it did not matter as I enjoyed this work. Then aged 27, I became a working mother (a culture shock leading to anxiety disorder and another monumental autistic burn-out, but that’s another story).

I managed to secure a “HR systems and admin support specialist” role for a regulatory authority. Despite my trepidation about starting again and having to make the right impression with new colleagues, I settled into the HR team and passed my probation period. My team manager went on maternity leave, so I found myself reporting directly to the Director of HR, and she offered me an acting-up allowance to cover my manager’s role in addition to my own.

Managing people for the first time

Suddenly I had two direct reports, and I represented the HR systems and admin team at HR Business Partner meetings. I felt out of my depth. Imposter syndrome set in, and I felt like a little girl swinging my legs under the chair in meetings with HR Business Partners. I didn’t have a clue how to motivate my team during quieter periods, despite the CIPD management qualification I had breezed.

I received positive feedback about my productivity (“eats workload for breakfast”) and the quality of my work (“meticulous attention to detail”, “painstaking”), yet I never got anything above “achieved” in my performance development reviews.

When I asked the HR Director what was needed for the "exceed" rating I was striving for, she talked a lot about “behaviours” and “competencies”. I argued that the “behavioural development needs” was my “fundamental personality” and not linked to performance.

Some examples of feedback I was receiving in annual performance development reviews:

  • “You get too bogged down in the detail, and miss the bigger strategic picture”
  • “Your output is great, but you fall down on the building and maintaining relationships aspect of the role”
  • “You excelled at this project that you were really interested in, but only just met requirements for the business-as-usual work”
  • “Your meeting behaviours really let you down”
  • “You can’t exceed just by doing great work on your own, but not pulling together as a team”

Little did either of us realise, my autistic neurology was the underlying reason I was held back from exceeding or progressing in my HR role. I was unaware of how the way I was coming across during this discussion was getting the HR Director’s back up. I was not trying to criticise the competency framework, I genuinely wanted to know how to get ahead. A disconnect between my intent and how I come across. She suggested interpersonal skills coaching and included this in my personal development plan.

A jovial learning and development consultant was assigned the task of helping me develop my interpersonal skills. He would bestow upon me the importance of small talk, breaking the ice, gentle banter, showing an interest in other people’s holidays, kids, pets etc. This felt unnatural and uncomfortable. Then he went on to talk about non-verbal communication such as eye contact and body language. In a nutshell, he was trying to teach me how to pass for normal. This was not helpful to me, and I started to lose my self-confidence.

Previous struggles in relationships and social situations preyed on my mind, as did criticisms from old boyfriends (“women don’t like you and men just want to sleep with you”), school bullies (“square”) and my inner demons were woken. I was struck with depression, or autistic burn-out, as I now realise.

Work as a diagnosed autistic for an inclusive employer

Forward-wind to 2018. My eldest was identified autistic aged 15, and I realised I was too. I went through the adult diagnosis process, and here I am diagnosed autistic. I later discovered I have ADHD traits as well, but that’s another story.

I texted my manager to tell her the news, and she texted “congratulations, I assume you’re happy about it?”. I had kept her in the loop during the process, and she knew I had a renewed spring in my step knowing that there was mitigation for my struggles.

The next day I declared my autism as a disability, because although I know my autism brings many distinct advantages to me in my role as HR systems analyst (yes, when I find a job I like I keep doing it for ooh 17 years so far), it does cause some profound difficulties as well.  

I already had reasonable adjustments (part-time hours and regular home-working day) in place for my anxiety disorder, which we tweaked. One of my reasonable adjustments was to ensure everybody I work with understands more about autism and how it affects me in the workplace. As I wanted to personally spread this message of acceptance, I killed two birds with one stone and developed a presentation. Everybody in HR has now seen this, including the recruitment team.

I went through the process of introspection regarding my periods of autistic burn-out. I recognised and documented the triggers. I was able to tell my manager that the last time I needed time off work with depression was triggered by the way I was working during a big one-off project. I was spending half my time in meetings where I had to curb my enthusiasm and maintain professional behaviours, and the rest of my time training 1:1 the colleague assigned to cover my day job. I did not have any time to myself, to just get my head down and plough through spreadsheets or similar. I had been struggling to function, far outside of my comfort zone for weeks, masking so much I could hardly breathe. Time off work to recover from autistic burn-out would help me so much I would come back with a renewed vigour and have a hyper-productive phase. I thought this was undiagnosed bipolar disorder, until I read about autistic burn-out.

Since I’ve been through this discovery process, I have with my manager’s help managed to avoid any further serious autistic burnouts, although I have since had a lengthy period of depression due to bereavement.

Overwhelmed meltdowns are another thing I’ve grown to recognise the warning signs of, talking to my husband or my manager to hopefully nip them in the bud before I erupt at colleagues.

Autism advocacy

I have also had the opportunity to go out and spread the work about autism acceptance, and wider neurodiversity acceptance, in my office and the London office, twice. And really loved doing this, especially when I teamed up with Helen May of Leadership for Extraordinary Futures who talked about her ADHD. We were amusing together, bouncing off each other’s sense of humour, as well as informative and inspiring to the staff and managers who attended.

My talks have made a big impression on our recruitment team too, who realise the value of a neurodiverse workforce and are actively recruiting from the disabled and neurodivergent talent pool.

Adapted from the original post on Ausome Charlie's blog site

If you are interested in sharing your story, insights or experiences then please get in touch.

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About Charlie Hart

Charlie is a HR systems analyst at the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Since her late diagnosis of autism in Sept '18, Charlie's joined SRA’s AccessAbility network as a neurodiversity advocate.
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