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”.

Author: Charlie Hart

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

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