Personal Stories, Autism, Challenges

The challenge of an office for someone who is #ActuallyAutistic

The one area of my life where I got so good at masking what I was really feeling as someone who is #ActuallyAutistic was at work.

Today I work from home in cyber security and I couldn’t be happier. I am fascinated with anything to do with hacking and I have my ex-husband, who was very high up as a penetration tester who did a lot of government work, to thank for this interest. I have been able to turn it into a career and one that I can do from home or anywhere that doesn’t involve being in an office.

When I was diagnosed as being #ActuallyAutistic earlier this year the penny dropped as to why I struggled so much with working in an office. I am not a very social person, I miss social cues and I can’t stand being interrupted when I am trying to work. I didn’t realise just how much I masked my true self in my work to survive, and it goes right back to when I got my first job as a teenager.

When I was 16 I started working at my local Sainsbury’s supermarket while I was studying for my A-levels. It was for 9 hours on a Saturday and 3 hours on a Wednesday night as a checkout operator and stock replenisher. The money at the time was excellent and I took home £48 a week, which was £192 a month.

I hated the work environment. I hated having to be nice to people who passed through my till who were rude and nasty to me. I had to grit my teeth and smile at them as they left, say “thank you” as I handed them their change and receipt, and make sure I always gave them respect and courtesy, even if they showed no respect or courtesy to me. I struggled to make eye contact with people, but I remembered my manners, called the customers “Sir” and “Madam” (even the nasty ones) and gritted my teeth to get through it all. I had no idea why I felt like this, I just did.

I had been brought up to believe that once I had finished my studies that I would enter the world of work and that it was something that I had to do, no matter what. That having a job, any job, was the most important thing in the world. My Dad once said to me that he wouldn’t care if I operated the checkouts at Sainsburys for the rest of my working life, or if I was a cleaner, as long as I brought home an honest wage every month.

So I accepted that this was the way it would be for the rest of my working life. It took everything I had to get through those hours at work. At college I could retreat and study on my own, and I learnt best when I was able to do that without anyone else around me. I could process information and what I was learning more effectively and quickly.

Taking part in debates in English and Sociology filled me with dread – I would try to sit as far as I could at the back of the lecture theatre and not make eye contact with the lecturers. Thankfully, I was rarely if ever picked on to or asked questions where I would have to speak in front of others. If I was picked I would go to pieces and crumble, and I could hardly string a sentence or two together. However, because my written work was exemplary I was never pulled up on this by my lecturers. What mattered was that I passed my exams and pass them I did.

My first proper job came out of the blue at a company that managed a range of TV and Radio personalities including one who was very famous and a leading quiz show master. I was the PA to his manager, and I was chucked in at the deep end when in my first week of starting that job his PA announced she was leaving to start a new life in Gibraltar with her husband. My initial role was to take over some of the administration tasks in the office from her, so I naturally assumed that my boss would simply recruit another PA.

When she left this didn’t happen and I assumed the role by default at the very young age of 21. Yet despite this I did not feel out of my depth at all. As the manager and agent of all the TV and Radio personalities that we represented my boss was out of the office a lot.  I therefore had my own office to all intents and purposes, and I thrived there. Very quickly I discovered I had the gift of the gab and excellent negotiation skills when it came to the famous quiz show master, and I spent seven years working with him. They were seven very happy years, but when the company had a reorganisation it was time to move on.

From this point forward I spent many years working in open plan offices and companies of all shapes and sizes from tiny start ups to large corporates. It was a far cry from the seven happy years I’d spent working in my own office. I hated the noise, the bright lights, being interrupted when I was in the middle of doing something but most of all, I hated the people and having to be nice to them when I had nothing in common with them and couldn’t relate to them at all. Worse than that, I absolutely hated anything to do with office politics and I did anything I could to avoid getting drawn into them.

The things that I struggled with the most was snapping at colleagues who interrupted me and being put on the spot with questions. Although I could answer these straight away I needed time to process and formulate my answers. My heart races, I feel sick and extremely anxious, as if all eyes are on me waiting for me to trip up.

I found many of the workplaces I was in to be childish, immature and like being back at school. However, I carried on with it because I had grown to accept that “this is the way it is”. I also hated the structure and wanted to be free to do my best work whenever I wanted to do it.

In the mid 2000’s the internet made it possible to work from home, but this was so in its infancy that hardly anyone did this back then. Up until 2015 I managed to find companies to work for that wouldn’t consider working from home if you paid them, so mistrustful they were of their staff to slack off and not do what was required of them. I felt as if I was in prison, chained to a desk 5 days a week with no way out. Yet still I carried on working like this.  The only time I was able to have a degree of home working was when I was a Director of my ex-husband’s cyber security software company.

In 2015 I was working for a local law firm based in the centre of Worcester, and when they wanted me to work from their Hereford office I asked to be made redundant. I loved the fact that the role was on my doorstep and while I have never minded travelling for roles I didn’t like the idea of travelling to Hereford, as it isn’t the safest of routes with no motorway access.  At the same time my husband and I rehomed our dog Poppy, and as he was going out to work every day I decided now was the time to embark on a work from home career so I could be at home with Poppy every day.

I have been lucky enough to work from home full-time employed since then. Although I have to attend meetings occasionally, as well as events and conferences, I have found my working utopia. I have my own dedicated office and space which allows me to work to the very best of my capabilities. I have also discovered that I do some of my best work on trains, planes and coffee shops, giving new meaning to the term “digital nomad”.

Despite my being #ActuallyAutistic I feel I have a lot to offer an employer. I am loyal, hardworking, reliable and trustworthy and I always go the extra mile. I’m a lone worker rather than a team player, and although I can work in a team I prefer to work on my own.

I hope I never, ever work in an office ever again. But if financially I must then I will put the mask back on – and grin and bear it.

In my next article I will share some insights into how I work best and how to approach me in the workplace as someone who is #ActuallyAutistic.

If you have a story or insights linked to Neurodiversity which you would like to share, then please get in touch.

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About Rosemarie Simmons

Rosemarie Simmons was diagnosed as autistic in 2018 at the age of 44. Neurodivergent & proud, she uses her experiences to raise awareness of autism & living in a world that is set up for neurotypicals