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Struggling through education and work oblivious to my autism (updated)

Charlie Hart works for Solicitors Regulation Authority as HR Systems Analyst. Openly autistic and bi, and passionate about diversity and inclusion, Charlie is an active member of the SRA’s staff support networks and the cross-functional EDI working group. She is SRA’s current Champion Ally and Neurodiversity Champion.

Growing up

As far as my parents and I were aware, I was normal.  Okay, so my development and behaviour may have been unusual at times, like in my eighteen-month development check when I built the Great Wall of China with building bricks instead of the anticipated tower, my solo role-playing games (spending whole weekends jumping into the car through the window, Dukes of Hazzard-style, wanting to be a cowboy), and my highly focussed interests like learning to identify any British bird.

According to the educational psychologist who assessed me, aged ten, I was fine. Nothing like my brother, who was autistic and hyperactive with learning disabilities and in special school.  Yes, he was the special one, and I was bright and full of potential. In class I often doodled or stared out of the window, but I soaked up information like a sponge. Despite doing zero homework, I could hyper-focus and recall facts in exams, so I did well in my GCSEs and A-Levels.

University

My proud parents packed me off to Lancaster University.  Little did we realise how ill-equipped I was to live far away from home and study for a degree. I knew nothing about executive dysfunction then, but I frequently screwed up. For example, I did not notice when the clocks changed and missed a full day of lectures before realising that I was out of sync with everybody else. I struggled with basic tasks like using the library and the computer room, but I was too awkward and too proud to seek any help. I had no concept of self-directed study and coursework, having done no homework at school. Without my mum around to keep me in check, I got myself into mischief and buried my head in the sand about how far behind I was falling.

I failed my first year at university, because I had not submitted enough coursework for my minor subject. Given the chance to re-sit the missing two pieces of coursework over the summer, I could not get into it, not even a single word, so I failed. I stayed in Lancaster for two more years, working unsuitable jobs and chasing a boyfriend who was not that into me. I was depressed and borderline anorexic, as I grasped for control. 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 there was in an insurance brokers office, which was disastrous. Fortunately, it gave me the office IT experience I needed to get an agency temp placement for a bank, in a large office on a business park. Their HR team leader needed help with the administrative burden of a large restructure. I proved myself keen and helpful, so they offered me a fixed-term contract. I was then asked to help with a review of salary scales for their technical grades. I started using Excel, with a steep learning curve. Suddenly I was in my element! Such was my interest in HR, I thought I had found my niche. Newly ambitious, I enrolled at Coventry University Business School and started my CIPD qualifications two evenings per week. This time I was able to get my coursework done and I passed my Certificate in Personnel Practice and Postgraduate Certificate in HR Management with flying colours. Finally, I was back on track. I had a job I liked (shame it was temporary), professional qualifications and associate membership of the CIPD.

When I moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne with my first husband, I got a job as an HR Systems Analyst. Even better! Now I could work in HR with the systems, people data and projects that I really made me tick – calculating and implementing pay reviews and other such fun stuff, without ever being 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 I ever could, so I did feel a little career-limited, but it did not matter because I enjoyed this work so much. When I became a mother, aged 27, I struggled to cope with the conflicting demands of work and home and developed an anxiety disorder. I quickly burned out, and eventually had to resign to move closer to home.

Luckily, I landed on my feet again, as I managed to secure a role “HR systems and admin support specialist”. Despite my considerable 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. She offered me an acting-up allowance to cover my manager’s role, in addition to my own. Suddenly I had two direct reports, and I represented the HR systems and admin team at HR Business Partner meetings. Outside my comfort zone, I felt out of my depth and imposter syndrome set in.

I often 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 I needed to do to get that exceed rating I was striving for, she talked a lot about “behaviours” and “competencies” and nothing at all about performance. I argued that what she described about “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, but my autistic neurology was the underlying reason I was held back from exceeding or progressing in my HR role. Also, I was unaware of how much the way I was coming across during this discussion was getting the HR Director’s back up. My intention was not to criticise the competency framework, but I genuinely wanting to know how to get ahead. Often there is a disconnect between my intentions and how I come across. She suggested interpersonal skills coaching and included this in my personal development plan.

This jovial chap of a 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 to me felt quite unnatural and uncomfortable. Then he went on to talk about non-verbal communication such as eye contact and body language. In a nutshell, without knowing I was autistic, he was trying to teach me how to pass for neurotypical – unhelpful to me, as it made me self-conscious about my social and communication differences. Previous struggles in relationships and social situations preyed on my mind, my inner demons were woken, and I was taken out by depression for months.

Post-diagnosis work

Forward-wind to 2018 and, to cut a long story short, my eldest was identified autistic aged 15 and I realised that I was just as autistic as he was. I went through the adult diagnosis process and was diagnosed ASD aged 42 (my ADHD was identified later).

I texted my manager to tell her the news, and she texted back “Congratulations, I assume you’re happy about it?”. I had kept her in the loop during the process. After my autism diagnosis, I had a spring in my step. Now I finally knew there was mitigation for my struggles, a genuine reason for finding things difficult that my intellectual peers took for granted.

The next day I declared my autism as a disability, because although I know it brings many distinct advantages to me in my role as HR Systems Analyst (yes, when I find something I like, I keep doing it… 19 years so far), it does cause some profound difficulties as well.

I already had reasonable adjustments in place for my anxiety disorder, mainly to do with part-time hours and regular home-working days, and we tweaked those and agreed them again. One of my new reasonable adjustments was for those I work with to understand 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 neurodiversity inclusion presentation – including personal content and best practice neurodiversity inclusion. Everybody in HR has seen this, and many in the wider business including line managers and recruiting managers.

I went through the process of introspection regarding autistic burn-out, to recognise and document the triggers. For instance, I was able to tell my manager that the last time I was burned-out and needed time off work with depression, this was triggered by the way I was working during a big one-off project. I had been 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 recharge helped so much, I would come back with a renewed vigour and go through a hyper-productive phase. Previously I had worried this might be mania, from undiagnosed bipolar disorder, until I researched autistic burn-out and the penny dropped. I have also grown to recognise the warning signs of meltdowns and realise when I am getting overwhelmed. I can now usually de-escalate before I erupt at colleagues.

Autism advocacy

I have had many opportunities since to spread the word about autism and neurodiversity acceptance, which I love talking about. I especially enjoyed teaming up with Helen May from Belonging at Work. Helen and I are quite the double act, talking about my autism and her ADHD as we bounce off each other’s sense of humour.

I also have a social media advocacy presence under the name “Ausome Charlie”.

I always encourage people to be open about being autistic or ADHD, because openness leads to understanding and acceptance, which leads to support and inclusion. When people message me to say, “Guess what, I’ve been diagnosed autistic too” my response is always “Welcome to Club Ausome”.

Autism Awareness Month

Please don’t copy and paste random crap from social media for “Autism Awareness Month” this April with a bunch of platitudes, blue hearts and jigsaw pieces 💙💙💙

You do know #autistic people – it is not that rare. To increase your own awareness, try asking an autistic person to explain to you how their autism affects them. It’s not one size fits all, it’s an extremely variable spectrum. Even a nine year-old child was astute enough to ask me during Neurodiversity Celebration Week how autism affects me personally.

Better still, go beyond awareness and shoot for acceptance. Accept us as our authentic selves without expecting us to “act normal”, to pass as a standard typical person.

Most of us don’t strive for normality, we just want to be included, supported, valued and loved… just like anybody else.

#neurodiversity#inclusion

Reflecting on one year of pandemic WFH

Pandemic reflection: If this year since the first Covid-19 lockdown (UK) has taught employers anything, it is the need to be agile and respond to changes in the external environment plus the changing needs of the workforce.

Responding quickly to office closures required not just investment in enabling technology, but also rapid culture change, a significant increase in trust.

Employers also had to understand that we cannot be expected to be working effectively for 100% of our online time. Working from home while home schooling in a pandemic hammered home the point that we were parents, carers, members of the community… PEOPLE, not “human resources”.

New marginalised groups came to light e.g. those who live alone, maybe struggling with isolation, introverts who find it hard to find their voice in online meetings, working parents struggling to concentrate or unmute in meetings, overwhelmed with conflicting priorities.

“Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard” (Liz Fosslein).

The pandemic offered a new lens for #diversity#inclusion and #belonging. This is not about protected characteristics, but our whole selves- including our home life, responsibilities and interests outside of work.

What being an ally means to me

Being an ally means supporting people and promoting acceptance of normal human differences. Allies can help to create a culture where all individuals feel supported, included, and valued.

Sometimes allies stand up to bullying and discrimination, helping people to feel safe to be their authentic selves. Nobody should be bullied or excluded due to normal human characteristics such as ethnic background, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, neurology… or any other reason.

Being an ally can involve participating in and promoting staff support networks, helping to foster an inclusive culture.

Anybody can be an ally. It does not require specific skills or lots of time. It is just about caring for other people and wanting to do the right thing. Thanks for listening 😊

International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day… Great!

But thanks, but no thanks, to including me in long taglists 🙄

Overwhelming notifications overload 🤯

Finding out about blocks I didn’t know about 🤦

Muting notifications 🙈

Sorry, not sorry 🤷

This is self-care 😇

Autistic #BurnedOut

On this International Women’s Day, I was blown away by this amazing poem by Ludmila Praslova

Image description: Smartly-dressed woman in black with umbrella and briefcase walking alone.

Text:
Aww, little girls are celebrated,
But – only cuteness is highly rated.
Mirror, am I unincludable?

School might reward great learning speed –
But nerdy girls are a bully feed.
I might just be unincludable.

Good students are welcomed in Higher Ed!
But not if your clothes are second-hand,
The poor are unincludable.

At work, I prevented a major loss
But “a girl can’t be smarter than her boss.”
So yeah, I remain unincludable.

This program supports top performers, hurray!
But not if “your name is too hard to say.”
Again, I remain unincludable.

Oh wow, your work is amazingly great!
But – “single women don’t need to be paid.”
Yep, I remain unincludable.

“Too weird, too nerdy – but too artistic,
Can grown women be autistic?”
I no longer accept “unincludable.”

Stuck in a checkbox, no human can thrive
I want to free our talents and drive
No human should be unincludable.

By Ludmila Praslova, Ph.D.

Also don’t assume people identify as a woman. Take the trouble to find out.

Gender identity information is usually in the person’s bio or description, not in their underpants.

Weird Pride Day #WeirdPrideDay 4 March 2021

Some things I do which are normal to me, but may be considered weird by others.

This blog may grow over time, as it is a stream of consciousness, so I may keep adding to it as I think of things.

When it’s foggy, I stand in the middle of a mown field, so I’m in a perfect hemisphere.

When it is misty, I walk up a big hill and take many photos of farm fields getting fainter and fainter into the distance.

In torrential rain, I go out for an off-road run, splashing gleefully through all the muddy puddles.

When I was a kid, I once spent an entire weekend jumping into the car through the door window, pretending to be in the Dukes of Hazzard.

I memorised all the lyrics to all the songs in Charlotte’s Web and acted the whole film out solo in the garage.

When Iggy was a baby, I would talk back to him in his own language, echoing all his urgle murgle noises like we were deep in conversation. I’d take him grocery shopping and talk to him about every item I put in the trolley. When he was a little older we would sing “Mahna mahna” together while grocery shopping, usually with me singing “mahna mahna” and Iggy responding “Do doo do do do” etc. We attracted some funny looks, but we didn’t care.

This blog wasn’t going to be about Iggy, it was going to be about me, but that’s what happens when you lose someone you love. You can be doing anything, thinking about anything, and your loved one butts in.

Don’t feel sorry for me. These memories are precious, not painful. The fluffy white vapour trail is not jagged, it doesn’t spoil the clear blue sky, it is a beautiful part of the picture.

Anyway, I couldn’t write about Weird Pride without mentioning the weird and wonderful Iggy. He always said “I like being weird”, but he wished the bullies wouldn’t target him for it.

As a baby, he didn’t crawl. He bum-shuffled at amazing speed, one hand helping propel him along, the other out stretched to grab things. He didn’t pull himself up on furniture like other babies, but turned his back to the furniture and gradually reversed himself upright.

He was hypermobile, and regularly grossed out our friends at karate by showing them weird things he could do with his body, like turning his elbows inside out.

Ok back to me. I enjoy singing. I love songs. I’m not a talented musician, but what I lack in talent I make up for in enthusiasm.

Some songs have to be belted out, both publicly and privately. This includes, but is not limited to: Vienna, Gold, You’ve lost that loving feeling (this I’ve belted out in ASDA. Sorry, not sorry), The sun ain’t gonna shine any more…

And my particular favourite, the wonderful dynamics of Bridge Over Troubled Water. It’s against my law not to belt out the crescendo. It feels like a message to me and my fellow weirdos everywhere.

“Your time has come to shine, all your dreams are on their way”

P.S. It delights me that by holding your thumb over Paul Simon’s eyes, you can give Art Garfunkel a handlebar moustache

Lockdown 2, home schooling while home working day 1

12 November 2020

8:25: Me “I’d better get up”. Si “Why?”
8:30: Me “Shit, where is Jess’ Teams log-in?”
8:32: Jess “Mum can I have crisps for breakfast?”
8:50: 6 kids are in the Teams meeting, but neither teacher is
8:51: Jess “Bye Izzy ha ha, you have to go to school and I don’t”
8:56: Kids speculating about well-being of the missing Mr Ancorn, using phrases such as “worst case scenario”
9:26: Mr Ancorn appears
9:27: Miss Taylor continues “…and once you’ve done all of those tasks, if you still want to do more, you can always read a book”
11:11: I’m actually hiding in the spare room, with my work laptop
11:59: Thinking about opening a bottle of Chardonnay
16:00: Major stress headache.

Jess points out that we forgot to give her any lunch.

House is a tip!


This is going to be a long 2 weeks.

Autistic working mum, juggling in a pandemic

As a working parent, I am quite used to the juggling act of family life and work life, balancing the needs of my family, my job, and my own needs… usually in that order. Usually I can just about keep those juggling balls in the air. Working from home during a pandemic has certainly put my juggling skills to the test.

Cue flashback to the “old normal”, those days that weren’t unprecedented, when our efforts were not all “Herculean”.

Yes, some family emergencies and school events would occasionally encroach on my normal working time.

Yes, some project deadlines and peaks in workload could encroach on home time.

There was, however, usually a clear-cut boundary between my contracted working hours and my home time. I could say to my husband or kids “don’t bother me with this while I am at work, surely it can wait until this evening or the weekend”.

That work/life boundary was blurred when schools were closed from 23 March due to the pandemic and we all started working from home all the time. Some normality returned for me when my daughters returned to school in June, and I mainly worked during their school hours, but that respite did not last.

All too soon the summer holidays came around and I was back to working with constant distractions such as my younger daughter Jess with her running commentary about her Minecraft or Roblox games, her frequent photobombs of my online meetings with her requests for snacks and ice lollies, my husband Si’s electric guitar and other distractions.

Fortunately, the summer holidays are a relatively quiet time for my workload, so I was able to take annual leave every other week, but with all the lockdown restrictions I was not sure what to do with this time off. My maternity guilt nagged about not having quality time with the kids “making memories”. I worried about them whenever they were bored or low.

I am easily overwhelmed, due to anxiety and autism, and I particularly struggle when things are stressful both at home and at work at the same time, or when I have conflicting priorities at home. Even harder for me is when the needs of my children conflict with the needs of my husband.

Always worried that I could drop one of those juggling balls at any time, Covid then threw in another ball, one I needed to juggle in addition to all the other balls but without it touching them or my hands. I was losing faith in my own ability to maintain this next-level juggling act, because even if I could pick up a dropped ball it would be so hard to get the rhythm back.

I promise I am getting to the point now, thanks for bearing with me this far!

My daughter Izzy, 11, is from my first marriage. After spending the week in late August with my ex-husband Martin on his narrowboat, she came home on the Sunday with a sore throat, a minor cough and a mild fever. I was not particularly concerned at first and left her to sleep it off on the Monday while I worked from 8am to 2pm.

Izzy got up feeling worse, with a full-on temperature, a painful throat and a cough. Realising she was now displaying two of the symptoms for Covid-19, I messaged Martin to let him know and to ask if he and his wife were feeling OK. I mentioned it to my husband Si too, because he has type 1 diabetes so he falls into the Covid vulnerable category. I was due to work the first half of that week, and had planned to take the kids to see my mother-in-law in Dorset during my annual leave the last week of the holidays so I had to cancel that plan.

I was just about holding it together, until husbands past and current started to worry and expected me to perform miracles. We all agreed that a Covid test needed to be booked, but Si was worried about me driving Izzy to a test centre (I rarely drive, had not driven at all during lockdown, and the hand brake on our car was playing up).

I tried to book a home test, given the problem with our car, but the Covid test booking website was not offering that option.

Martin pressured me to book a test immediately that evening, because apparently Izzy had been in contact with various members of his family that week (annoying in itself, not to mention him dropping her back to me unwell). The test booking website was not giving the option of booking a test that evening, although it did say more slots would become available at 8pm.

Meanwhile I just wanted to console my tearful poorly daughter, to cuddle up with her and watch a film, conscious that I needed to isolate her from the rest of the family, but I could not bring myself to confining her to her bedroom, so Izzy lay on one sofa and me on the other sofa while Si and Jess avoided the living room. I was acutely aware that Izzy was just as concerned about the risk to Si and to her family on Martin’s side, yet she still felt hurt that we were not rushing to comfort her with cuddles and mopping her fevered brow.

At 8pm I tried again, but still the only tests available were drive-in tests the following morning. I booked for 10am in Droitwich, about 15 miles away, and attempted to de-escalate the meltdown that I had managed to keep at simmering point.

The following day, Izzy’s temperature came down a little, and her throat was even more sore. Si and I agreed that he would risk taking her to the test centre in the car, both wearing masks, while I stayed home and tried to get some work done. Getting Izzy out of bed and into the car was tricky enough, as she was feeling very sorry for herself and just wanted to sleep.

Leaving my phone on do not disturb, I tried to put my concern for my family out of my mind and get some work done. My manager was aware of the situation, as I mentioned it in our morning team catch-up. I was alarmed to eventually notice I had a number of missed calls from Si just after 10am, I had left my phone on charge in another room, and eventually a voicemail just saying “thanks very f***ing much”.

I tried phoning back, but no answer. My anxious mind whirred with theories about what might have happened. Had they been unable to do the test due to Si not having PR? Was Droitwich a test site for over 18s only? The meltdown threatened to simmer over, and I stared at my laptop unable to do any work, unable to think, brain foggy.

When they finally got home, I learned that parents are expected to administer the Covid test for under-12s, but Izzy had refused to let Si anywhere near her painful throat with the swab. The missed calls were from him clutching at straws thinking if I might be able to reason with her over the phone.

When Si did eventually manage to swab Izzy’s throat, he could see her uvula was inflamed and had a little white spot. That was enough to assume that this was a throat infection, but the whole family were obliged to self-isolate.

Meanwhile from one short phone call with the GP, Izzy was prescribed antibiotics for her throat infection, and by the time her Covid-19 test results came through negative she was already feeling much better.

Back to the new normal, for now, juggling act resumed… until those normal winter bugs inevitably go around the school wreaking further havoc…

World Mental Health Day 2020

“It’s OK not to be OK”… It’s not OK to not be OK, not for a prolonged period anyway. What that phase actually means is, it is good to be open about not being OK.

Yes we all have bad days and low moods, but if you are often full of dread, you have a low mood more often than not, you’re plagued with intrusive thoughts, experiencing anxiety attacks…

Listen to and notice your feelings and thoughts.

Listen to your own physical symptoms of anxiety (for me, this is like a writhing bag of snakes in the pit of my belly, my cheeks redden, heart racing, sometimes palpitations, sometimes breathless panic attacks strike when I am just walking down the street).

Do not listen to “this too shall pass”.

Do try to express your feelings to people who care about you, and they will listen. Be open with your line manager.

Go to your GP. Take medication if you need it, there is no shame in that, it can really clear the fog and help you function.

Refer yourself to your nearest Healthy Minds service, and don’t put that off – the waiting lists are long and growing and you’re nowhere in the waiting list until you take that first step.

Phone the Samaritans.

Text Shout.

Do not listen to people telling you (or you telling yourself) that it is normal to feel low, that everybody has bad days. You are likely to need a leg-up to climb out of this pit.

The Double Rainbow

Intersectional Diversity: The ‘Double Rainbow’ of Autism and LGBTQIA+

For Bi-Visibility Day 2020, here are my answers to questions I was recently asked about my lived experiences of the ‘double rainbow’.

Can you explain what the term ‘double rainbow’ means?

Studies show that autistic people are far more likely identify as a sexuality minority and/or a gender minority, compared with the general population.

Both the autistic community and the LGBTQIA+ community often use rainbow imagery, for example in the gay pride flag and the autism acceptance rainbow infinity symbol.

I came across the term ‘double rainbow’ on the website of the US charity Twainbow who support people who are on the autistic spectrum and the LGBTQIA spectrum.

Here in the UK, we have the charity AIM for the Rainbow.

What is the difference between Autism and Asperger’s syndrome?

Do they both sit under the umbrella of neurodiversity?

Human brains are collectively neurodiverse, not just people with neurological conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia. We are all wired differently, and neurodiversity is about celebrating and accepting all the different ways of thinking and cognitive processing, even ‘neurotypical’ brains. Diversity, including neurodiversity, is advantageous to us as a species.

An autistic person may be considered ‘neurodivergent’, which means our brains are wired a little differently from the typical brain.

Asperger’s Syndrome is a rather outdated diagnosis given to autistic people who do not have learning disabilities or language development delays. More recently, the diagnostic terms are usually Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC).

My diagnostic report says I have ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’, but I usually just call it autism, simply because I do not think I am any more important than autistic people who are non-verbal or who have learning disabilities.

Not all autistic people are gifted or have a ‘super power’. One of my talents is my highly detailed visual and auditory long-term memory, which is both a blessing and a curse. It is tremendously helpful to me in my role as HR systems analyst, and wonderful for remembering dearly departed relatives and reflecting on happy memories, but I have seen and heard traumatic things that I would rather not recall so vividly.

In your opinion, do you think autistic and other neurodivergent people are less concerned with social norms and so are more likely to identify as LGBTQ+?

I have never been one to conform to societal norms to fit in. For example, I deliberately chose to have my first child before getting married. I also wore a pink and purple layered chiffon dress at my first wedding. When I married Si, I wore a dress my cousin’s partner made for me, a knee-length 50s-style dress in shades of silver.

I do think neurodivergent people more often value individuality in preference to fitting in, and we can also be very honest and open.

Personally, I do not believe that non-conformity affects our sexuality or gender identity, because I think we are born this way. However, we may be more likely to be more open about our sexuality and gender identity, compared with the general population, so perhaps more of us ‘come out’ as for example bisexual or gender fluid rather than keeping it to ourselves.

Do you think it is important to state or be open about who you are e.g. neurodiverse and / or non-binary and does this help others to better understand you and your needs?

This is very much a personal choice, and depends on your personal boundaries, comfort, and safety. People are more likely to be open about who they are if we all work together to build a culture where everybody is comfortable to be our authentic selves without fear of discrimination and prejudice.

Is it OK to ask someone to explain what a specific term means if you have never heard it before?

In my view, it is good to ask for definitions of a term you do not fully understand, rather than making assumptions.

It is not okay, however, to ask inappropriate probing personal questions. For example, it is not okay to ask somebody who is trans about what gender affirmation treatments they may or may not have had, or about the contents of their underpants. Asking for preferred pronouns is okay though.

Curiosity is good, but above all we must all respect every individual’s privacy and dignity.

There seems to be a double standard where autistic people are not taken seriously about their decision to identify as LGBTQ+. Is this something you have experienced?

Not personally, but I feel if anybody does not take my sexuality seriously this is more likely to be because they dismiss bisexuality as a phase I went through before I settled down (actually, it has been constant since my teens).

I understand that some trans and gender fluid autistic people are concerned that being open about their autism may lead to people thinking that being transgender is just an autistic thing, which may not be helpful to their cause for acceptance.

There is also the “eternal child” bias, where some people assume autistic people are not capable of knowing our own minds, due to our condition. That is a misconception, and a stigma which needs to be challenged.

It may also hark back to old attitudes from times when sexuality, gender dysphoria and autism were all considered to be mental health issues that could be “cured”. We are not quite at the end of the journey to acceptance.

Sexual orientation and gender expression may fluctuate over the course of person’s lifetime. Can neurological conditions also change and fluctuate?

I have not noticed any real fluctuations to my sexuality since I first became aware of it in my mid-teens. I did not become straight when I married a man.

I have more sensory sensitivities autistic meltdowns of greater severity when I am going through autistic burn-out, a state that resembles clinical depression and happens when I am overwhelmed for extended periods of time.

Over the years the impact of some autistic features may change. Sometimes this may relate to hormonal changes, for example sensory issues can be exacerbated by puberty, pregnancy, and menopause.

What are some of the challenges that autistic and LGBTQ+ people face?

Coupled with the social differences of autism, such as coming across badly at times and having difficulties interpreting neurotypical cues and nuances, at times I have encountered difficulties forming both social friendships and working relationships with other women. Sometimes I have encountered bi-phobia, and my intentions have been misunderstood.

There are many challenges with being an autistic in the social and sensory minefield that is the workplace, but with a combination of formal reasonable adjustments and minor changes an autistic worker can thrive and add tremendous value. I do get overwhelmed when I am in lengthy or frequent meetings, due to the expectation to exhibit professional behaviours and demeanour for extended periods which does require heavy masking.

Autistic people can be tremendously loyal when we have the right support. I have worked for my employer for over fifteen years, which is testament to their supportive and inclusive culture.

What can allies do in the workplace to support colleagues who are neurodivergent and identify as LGBTQ+?

Well that is a big question, which I could talk about at length…

But in brief, we each have a role in working together to build a culture of acceptance, where it is not only okay, but encouraged even, to be open about any difficulties and support needs, an environment where each and every person belongs and can thrive as our authentic selves.