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

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

OK, so 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 (like spending a whole weekend pretending I was in the Dukes of Hazzard and jumping in and out of the car window), that phase when I carried a Matchbox DeLorean car everywhere with me on a string like a pet, 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.

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

My brother and I. Style icons

I had a good memory and soaked up information like a sponge, and could hyper-focus in exams, so despite the lack of coursework I managed to scrape the A-level grades I needed get into Lancaster University, selected largely due to the girl on the cover of the prospectus riding her bike through the dales without a care in the world.

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, but frequently screwed up. 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 even more mischief than in sixth form. I had no concept of self-directed study, nor coursework. I hung out with local bikers, rockers and goths, and got drunk or stoned every day to help me bury my head in the sand about how far behind I was falling.  

One Monday I was puzzled about why nobody had turned up to my first seminar. I just waited an hour and went to the next, but again nobody was there.  My next seminar had people there, but not first year students.  Eventually I looked up at the clock tower in the square, and it slowly dawned on me that the clocks had gone back on Saturday night while I was hammered at a Hallowe’en party and my watch was still set to British summertime.

I failed my first year at university, 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, not even a single word, 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 there was in an insurance brokers office. I’m now sure I only got that job due to my appearance (thin and pretty with platinum blonde hair down to my waist and motorbike leathers). Constantly seeking validation from others in the only ways I knew how, I was still 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 had known nothing about. Initially they had 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. I was then asked to help with a review of salary scales for their technical grades, and I quickly learned to use Excel. Suddenly 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 job in generalist HR, and eventually moved away with him to the North-East. There I got a job as an HR Systems Analyst. Even better! Now I could work in HR with the people systems, 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 as I so 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).

Luckily, I landed on my feet again, as I managed to secure a role “HR systems and admin support specialist” for a regulatory authority. 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, and 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. Imposter syndrome set in, and I felt like a little girl swinging my legs under the chair in meetings with HR Business Partners. I also didn’t have a clue how to motivate my team during quieter periods, despite of the CIPD management qualification I had breezed.

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 actually 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. I was not trying to criticise the competency framework, just genuinely wanting to know how to get ahead. Once again, that autistic disconnect between my intent 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 (I presume) he was trying to teach me how to pass for normal. This was not helpful to me, as I then really 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 and, to cut a long story short, 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 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 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 seen this now, including importantly the recruitment team.

I also went through the process of introspection regarding my periods of autistic burn-out, and I recognised and documented 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 recover from autistic burn-out would help me so much I would come back with a renewed vigour and have a hyper-productive phase. Seriously 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, and talk to my husband or my manager to hopefully nip them in the bud before I erupt at any 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.

Keen to spread the message about autism inclusion and acceptance in the workplace, I now have a social media following on my Facebook page, www.facebook.com/AusomeCharlie

My local autism parents support group also value my contributions and view me as a positive role model for their children. I am inspired by the idea of role-modelling autism, showing autistic teenagers that with the right support we can have families, own homes, hold down jobs that we enjoy, drive cars etc. We don’t have to give up when things get tough.  

I always encourage people to be open about their autism, because openness leads to understanding and acceptance, which leads to support and inclusion. When people come to me and say “guess what, I’ve been diagnosed autistic too” my response is “welcome to Club Ausome”.

Author: Charlie Hart

Late-diagnosed autistic working mum, attempting to write an amusing semi-autobiographical novel with a twist.

2 thoughts on “How I struggled through education and work, oblivious to my autism”

  1. Oh, so beautifully written. Thank you for a privileged insight. My ability to relate, so heavily, took my breath away and made me quite emotional.
    To see you stand in such wonderful capability as an advocate and educator is glorious.

    Liked by 1 person

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