Autism Acceptance Week
In this blog for Autism Acceptance Week, three NPC colleagues share their personal reflections on how autism has shaped their careers. Autism brings strengths as well as challenges, and everyone’s experience will be different. We hope these personal stories will prompt you to rethink how you view autism. Opinions are the authors’ own.
I was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, and it has undeniably affected the course of my life, including my career choices. My first job after university was a Researcher role at NPC (I’m now a Consultant), and when I look back, it makes sense that I’ve taken that career path. In some ways, I’ve always been a researcher.
A lot of autistic people have “special interests”: highly focused interests or hobbies that they see as fundamental to their wellbeing and happiness. I have a number of special interests, from the general (Disney films, Japanese manga and light novels) to the specific (Sonic the Hedgehog, The Simpsons). As well as consuming the books, films, cartoons, games, etc., I’ll browse blogs for more information about the characters and settings; admire the art made by fellow fans; and read articles analysing the key themes and life lessons. (I even wrote some Disney ‘fanfiction’ as a teenager!) My desire to find more content and learn more about the fictional worlds that captivate me is, arguably, a desire to do research.
Furthermore, I had plenty of opportunities to develop my research skills at university. I studied Philosophy and explored a wide range of topics, and I also gained experience in extracting the key findings and presenting them in essays that had a logical flow. Given my pre-existing passion for research, and the lessons I had learnt about how to do it well, it made sense to pursue a career that utilised these skills.
But why apply to be a Researcher at NPC specifically? After I became a Christian at university, I realised I wanted a career that would make a positive difference to the world, so working in the charity sector seemed like a good fit. But I wasn’t feeling a strong tug towards any particular good cause. I was therefore excited to apply for NPC, as I saw it worked with a variety of charity clients. It afforded me the opportunity to not only turn my love for research into a career, but also to get to know the charity sector better and contribute to many different causes.
It was also encouraging to read that NPC is a Disability Confident employer. The entire organisation has been very accepting of me and my autism. I declared it after sending in my CV and cover letter and before the interview stage, which meant NPC could make some reasonable adjustments during the interview process, including 25% extra time during a timed written assessment.
After hiring me, NPC has continued to make reasonable adjustments to help me with areas that I find more difficult because of my autism. To give one example, I have a strong preference for routine and need plenty of time to adjust to change, and my colleagues have been brilliant at preparing me for new experiences well in advance, such as arranging travel to externally-hosted workshops.
Additionally, I tend to be quieter in meetings because I don’t always recognise the social cues that mean I can speak. If I start talking at the same time as someone else, I will always defer to them. Fortunately, I have been growing in confidence to express myself more. I’m also working with my colleagues to see if there are alternative ways of sharing my views, such as emails and Teams messages, to ease pressure during meetings.
In sharing this segment of my life story, I wanted to demonstrate that, where there’s a willingness to make adjustments, it can work wonders for the confidence, capability and career prospects of autistic people. When I was still fresh out of university, I had been a little anxious about how my future colleagues would react to me and my autism—I wish I had known that everything would be all right!
I learnt that I’m autistic two years ago, and a brutal question continued to haunt me: why would anyone trust someone with a ‘communications disorder’ with their comms? Answering this question changed how I understand what autism is. Namely, that I am good at my job because of autistic traits, not in spite of them. I don’t consider autism a disorder for me at all, but a different way of thinking – a difference that brings considerable advantages.
So here is why I think you should be happy to hire someone with autism onto your comms team.
Corporate comms is about getting the right message to the right people to create the right result. To do this you need to break down who your audience is, your objective in relation to them, what your audience makes of your objective, and what key message will bring all this together. The autistic brain is often highly logical, and therefore well suited to a structured process like this. Common autistic traits like categorising, lining up toys in childhood, and liking to plan things thoroughly all flow from a logic-led way of thinking that tends towards order.
If, like many think tanks, your messages are nuanced and your outputs are long, then this natural tendency to categorise and structure information becomes ever-more useful.
Imagine you’re walking down a residential street. Where is your eye drawn to? For most people I ask, they mention flower boxes, dog walkers, or fancy cars. For me it’s the car number plates, door numbers, and street signs. In essence, it’s information. Similarly when reading, my eye is drawn to genuine information, which makes it easy to filter the content from the waffle when editing.
Holding the line
Pivoting is a key skill in comms. Consider every time you’ve heard a politician say: ‘the real issue is…’ or ‘and that is why…’. These are pivot phrases that pull the conversation back to the key message.
I’m often told that I get fixated on a point and continue to drive it home long after everyone’s lost interest. Whilst unhelpful for small talk, it’s incredibly useful for pivoting. If I have a key message to get across, then whatever the context, whether it’s a reaction quote to a government announcement or live tweeting an event, I can bring it back to our key message somehow.
Speaking the truth
Autistic people are often accused of being blunt. I think this is because a logic-led mind puts a high value on truth – hence why one of the diagnostic questions is ‘If I say something that someone else is offended by, I think that that’s their problem, not mine’. Again, unhelpful for small talk, but very useful when briefing or advising colleagues on an issue. It makes you less prone to groupthink and undaunted by seniority.
In summary, I’m not claiming we’re superheroes. I fully admit that my tendency to logic-led thinking over emotion-led thinking has drawbacks – and that’s why neurotypical people should be valued as well! The best teams have both. So why should you hire an autistic comms person? Because I believe you can rely on us to think logically, hold the line, and not hold back when you need someone to tell you the truth – just don’t ask me to hold eye contact whilst doing so.
Reading one blog about someone’s experience of autism is not going to make you an expert on autism. Will it help you reflect on how to be a better ally to autistic people? Maybe. Will it help you understand their personal experience? Absolutely. But is it enough to understand what autism actually is, and how you can support autistic people generally? Not at all.
The aim of these blogs for Autism Acceptance Week is to offer a diverse range of perspectives from autistic colleagues (or “colleagues with autism”, as some may prefer) on how autism influences the way they interact with their work at NPC. From conversations with said colleagues, while there are many ways our experiences are similar, in other ways we could not be more different. I wouldn’t consider myself as “blunt” or lacking empathy (if anything, I tend to over-caveat my thoughts – “I think maybe we could try to consider…”). I find sensory input difficult to regulate in ways that don’t resonate with other colleagues – at the time I’m writing this, I’m coming into the office every day as the smell of wet paint from my landlord’s DIY is stopping me from getting any work done at home. And though the norms of eye contact never came naturally to me, I have a handle on how to navigate it so whoever I’m speaking with is comfortable.
While this series demonstrates that autistic people are not a monolith, there are so many other experiences that aren’t showcased here. The three of us writing this series are all well-educated, all “high-functioning” (again, language not all of us like!), and all white. Consequently, try as we may to showcase the diversity of the autistic experience at NPC, our experiences cannot be taken as gospel.
I might be stating the obvious – of course three people cannot represent the approximately 700,000 autistic people in the UK – but to me it highlights the necessity in involving autistic people in conversations about autism. Too often, those who claim to advocate for us talk about us rather than with us. From concerns around the Spectrum 10K project and how it may be used to find a supposed “cure” for autism, to infantilising commentary on the bodily autonomy of autistic trans people from those who seek to restrict access to gender-affirming healthcare. In the social sector particularly, the organisation Autism Speaks has been the subject of widespread criticism for framing autism as a disease and something to be feared, as well as – something which likely explains its problematic framing – its lack of autistic representation internally.
NPC is a major advocate for the importance of user involvement. Colleagues across the organisation have published work on why user involvement matters, and how it can be done effectively, and later this year we will be publishing a guide on how to create a culture of user involvement. We lead by example in our projects, such as involving young people in My Best Life and involving panellists with both professional experience of the funding world and lived experience of financial hardship for Open Philanthropy. It is incredibly affirming – in the face of so much work that refuses to consider our perspectives as autistic people – to work for an organisation that values this lived experience, and encourages others in the sector to incorporate it into their work. And it is this lived experience, in all its diversity (however messy and contradictory our personal experiences may appear), that needs to take centre stage.
As the adage goes: “Nothing about us without us.”