Category: testimonial, Neurodiversity, Government, Hidden Disabilities, Autism, Jobs in Government, Disability and Neurodiversity, Staff Testimonial, UK Government, flexiblity, autistic spectrum disorder, flexibility, autistic, DWP, hidden disability, Adapting, Neurodivergent, Neurodiversity Network, Neurodiverse colleagues, Flexible working policies, ASD
My name is John, and I have worked for the Department for Work and Pensions since July 2016. When I was four years old, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of what is now known as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ASD is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects around 1% of the UK population, and is more commonly diagnosed in males than females. According to the National Autistic Society, there are common difficulties people with ASD experience. These include:
- Social communication and social interaction challenges
- Repetitive and restrictive behaviour
- Over- or under- sensitivity to light, sound, taste or touch
- Highly focused interests or hobbies
- Extreme anxiety
- Meltdowns and shutdowns
Like many with ASD, I have all of these traits but to varying degrees of intensity. And since I’ve been homeworking and now hybrid working, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the challenges my ASD gives me in the workplace. I’ve realised recently that life with ASD is a daily battle, and it presents me with a variety of challenges. I should point out here that I love my job role. I find it both rewarding and interesting. I enjoy what I do, and I enjoy working with my colleagues. But having ASD means there are a few additional hurdles I have to face, often on a daily basis.
First, is the sensory hurdle. I’m very sensitive to certain noises with high tones and pitches, such as fire alarms, crying children and screeching motorbikes. Our Site Support team has provided me with industrial headphones to wear when a fire drill occurs, and my team keeps an eye on me during the drill. I also struggle being in large crowds of people, and the stress tends to render me lost and disoriented quite quickly, which makes being on public transport, or unfamiliar locations nigh on impossible unless supervised. It makes job posts where I would have to travel alone unthinkable. If I ever have to go to another site, I always make sure I’m with someone else, and my Line Managers and HEOs have been endlessly supportive of this, providing reasonable adjustments and the support of Occupational Health to enable me to take on great opportunities in addition to my job role.
Then, there’s my struggle with high anxiety. I am prone to having shutdowns (which in my case involves curling up on the ground and shaking uncontrollably) when too many things are making me stressed and anxious at the same time. One time this happened at Civil Service Live 2019. In front of many civil servants. Very embarrassing! Though thankfully, that didn’t happen whilst meeting David Beckham at a Movement to Work celebration evening in London. In the office, my Line Managers have consistently allowed me to take a break to calm down when these situations arise, and check on me to make sure I’m fine.
Did I mention I met David Beckham?
But the most frequent challenge at work is with engaging in, and understanding, social interaction. I become confused and sometimes stressed by unspecific and vague instructions, non-verbal language (e.g. facial expressions), and find conversations with more than one person very challenging. Having to try to comprehend, and focus on, what more than one person is saying, at the same time, is mentally taxing for me.
I also struggle with words or sentences with more than one meaning (e.g. jokes and slang). I do have a sense of humour, believe it or not, but it’s hard when you can’t tell the difference between a joke and non-joke. One time I was accompanying an HEO to Oxford, and realising their van didn’t have a back seat, they said “oh, just go sit in the boot where the dogs go!”. I didn’t know they were joking and spent 2 minutes trying to find the seatbelt. Thankfully we both saw the funny side!I can’t tell you the number of times that: I’ve interrupted someone because I thought they had finished their sentence (because they’d paused) when they hadn’t; been in group conversations and conference calls and felt like I was drowning; taking an instruction literally or not understanding it at all, and sometimes feeling anxious and/or stammering when speaking to people. It’s because when I have no idea how someone will react to what I’m saying, my brain will frantically scramble to pick what it thinks is the correct reply when they do say something (it’s even harder on the telephone because I can’t see the other person). Sometimes I feel like I’m socially blind! But, I’m pleased to say I am getting better with the phones - through a development plan that I and my previous Line Manager co-developed, I have slowly developed the ability to engage with customers over the telephone in a limited capacity.
However, I recognise the biggest challenge of all for me, was, and still is, masking. I never knew that people with ASD can frequently do this, or even that it had a name, but it’s called masking. What mask? The one I would put on to try to ‘hide’ the traits of my ASD – a mask I was so used to putting on that I would sometimes do it on autopilot, even amongst my family and friends. Why would I do this? Because I always used to think that I would have to suppress my ASD traits to be on the same professional and social level as everyone else.
But masking is mentally, and sometimes physically, exhausting. Wearing the mask put me in situations where my brain would have to juggle several worries about my performance in social and professional situations at the same time – “how am I coming across? Do I look too stressed out? Am I being a team player? You shouldn’t have said that!” My brain would turn into a one-actor soap opera. I saw my disability as something to beat, not to live with. The mental effort I had to muster when wearing that mask left me tired in mind and body. I can’t stress that often enough. It also did a lot of my damage to my mental health. But now, unless I go on autopilot, I don’t wear the mask anymore. My Line Managers and HEOs have made me feel that work was a space where I could be honest about how I am thinking and feeling, and that they would support me regardless of how I felt. And over time, as I felt I could and should open up, the mask fell off.
I now realise that wearing a mask was a mistake, and by trying to suppress my ASD, I was simply prolonging the inevitable shutdown, like trying to stuff too many clothes in a suitcase and locking it, with the suitcase then exploding open. I am tired of wearing a mask and I try my hardest to not put it back on, though occasionally autopilot kicks in.
I hope you can see that living with a disability doesn’t have to be doom and gloom. But appropriate support is critical not just to the success of ASD employees in the workplace, but in any situation, such as formal interviews. There is always the possibility, that, as an employee of DWP, you will have to formally interview either a customer with ASD, or a candidate for a recruitment post who has ASD. And by providing appropriate support, the experience will be as positive as possible for both interviewer and interviewee.
So, what can you do? Well, the first thing to recognise is that ASD affects everyone differently (it’s called a Spectrum Disorder, don’t forget that), so there is no one simple answer on how to support someone with ASD. My experience is my own experience, and as I said at the start, the same traits are present in us but to differing levels. Any support needs to revolve around the person themselves, and how the condition affects them. Not everything you could do is always applicable. But the more opportunities for support you offer, the greater the chance you will get things right.
But as someone who has lived with ASD and been formally interviewed by DWP and other departments of the Civil Service (never Under Caution, I have to stress!), I would offer this one piece of advice for interviewing:
Recognise the signs that the person is masking or attempting to mask. If you offer them the opportunity to have someone accompany them to the interview in case they don’t understand what is being said to them, and they say no, don’t stop there. They may be saying no because they don’t want to inconvenience you, or because they think you want them to say no, or they may even be embarrassed by how ASD affects them and don’t want to admit they need extra help. These are all effects that masking can have on a person with ASD. Ensure the interviewee knows they are in a supportive space where they can be honest about how they are thinking and feeling, and be 100% transparent about all sources of assistance available to them – and that them being assisted is of no inconvenience to you.
When I faced my AO panel back in 2016, my mask was definitely on, but the panel chair clearly stated at the beginning that if it any time I didn’t understand how a question was worded, I was permitted to say so, and the question would be rephrased with no penalty to my interview score. That really helped relax me, and as minutes passed, my mask came off - and I have no doubt that helped me pass the interview.
If masking denies someone the support they need, they can misunderstand questions, create a perception they are being difficult and/or uncooperative, and the overall quality & reliability of their answers may be affected.
As for me, ASD will pose challenges for me in the future, but I am in a space where I feel l can be hopeful. Hybrid working has reduced my anxiety levels but having supportive colleagues and managers has been equally, if not, more, beneficial. The future awaits.