‘On the spectrum’: how autism has affected my career

A social worker reflects on spending 30 years in the profession with undiagnosed autism

Photo by deeaf/AdobeStock

In December 2022, I received the formal diagnosis of something that I had suspected for years.

There it was, in black and white, a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the information, but it did prompt a period of reflection. How had autism affected my career and those around me?

I qualified as a childcare social worker in the 1990s and soon learned that social work required honesty, but not too much honesty.

Out of necessity and watching others, I learned how to be honest in a socially acceptable way and became reasonably good at it. Sometimes, particularly when my guard was down, my mask would slip, and I would say something which I learned was socially not acceptable, confusing people. But, usually, I was quite ‘normal’.

Neurodivergent in the workplace

I was probably a joy to supervise.

My autism meant that I was also very good at things like organisation and making sure tasks were done on time – my reviews, medical documents, visits and case notes were always in perfect order. I was also incapable of making stuff up. So, if I’d done something, I’d admit it, and if not, I would say so too.

Occasionally, I would get overwhelmed and need to find somewhere quiet to self-regulate. But usually, as long as I was asked to do something rather than told, everything was good.

The need to be social and aware of others at work also meant that I spent evenings intensely absorbed in my own interests as a way of restoring my equilibrium.

I was lucky that I was a social worker in the days before hot desking – the neurodiverse nightmare! As an autistic person, I like things to be the same and not to share, so having my own phone, desk and chair was perfect. And essential.  I struggled with noise in a busy office and usually looked for a quiet space to make calls. I couldn’t focus on my phone call at all with other noises going on around me.

Empathy comes in different forms

I wonder how neurodiverse social workers manage now. If they have a diagnosis then allowances can be made, but NHS waiting lists are long and who can afford over £1,000 for a private assessment?

According to the National Autistic Society, there are around  700,000 autistic people in the UK, many of whom are undiagnosed. Women are also far less likely to be diagnosed and more likely to mask their autism.

I’m quite anxious about sharing my diagnosis and the impact it might have on my employability. Despite affirmative statements from organisations, autistic people are still less likely to be employed than neurotypical people. According to the Office of National Statistics, the employment rate for autistic people in the UK was 29% in 2021, compared with 53.5% of disabled people generally and 81.6% of non-disabled people.

People are often concerned about us lacking emotional intelligence and empathy – I do get embarrassingly low scores on empathy tests. And isn’t empathy essential for social workers?

Well, I learned through my assessment that there are different types of empathy. I do have logical empathy, so I understand on a cognitive level why people might feel the way they do. I can’t feel it. In social work, this can be quite helpful. Not taking home everyone’s feelings has probably helped me do the job for as long as I have.

I recall being very understanding of family members who struggled, whereas some social workers could be quite judgmental because they were so emotionally connected to one person.

Being a neurodivergent manager

As time went on, I was promoted to middle management, where my organisational skills served me and my employer well.

The service to children and families was rated good by Ofsted; everyone had supervision on time and written up, there were spreadsheets and data, and the team stats were great. I was always on top of things and could be relied on to get on with the job.

By and large I was liked by my teams. A few used to joke about me being ‘on the spectrum’ and some people found it difficult to ‘read’ me. I can understand why. Most people make eye contact and are expressive with their faces. I don’t look at people’s eyes at all but always at their mouths, I’m not very expressive – even when I try – and I find it easier when people tell me what they are thinking because I have to work hard to guess.

Meetings were also a challenge. Most managers instinctively know that when the director asks for honesty, they don’t actually mean it. I can remember being shot down in more than one managers’ meeting for expressing my opinion. Also, being put on the spot was challenging. I could give a very competent account of anything but, if asked unexpectedly, I was lost for words.

The challenge of change

Unfortunately, no one can escape the endless restructures in children’s services, and nothing affects autistic people quite as badly as change.

One of the things I have learned since my diagnosis is that autistic people should be prepared for change in advance. I learned that the service I had built from scratch was being disbanded while in a large conference hall surrounded by a couple of hundred people. Not surprisingly I didn’t take it well and it precipitated an autistic burnout.

I managed to return to work after a period of sick leave and undertook a senior role for a year before leaving. Whilst I loved the role and could perform it well, my autistic self struggled with the politics of such a position. In time I would learn that, in meetings with politicians, spin rather than honesty was what was required. By then though, I’d had enough. I was exhausted, tired of masking and also menopausal.

I have also since learned that menopausal autistic women struggle far more than neurotypical women. Menopause is a time of change, so it’s not surprising that it has such an impact.

It’s heartening to hear that, in the last couple of years, women are receiving much more support and understanding about menopause. But we must remember that menopause can be particularly exacerbated by neurodiversity and disability.

Key lessons

So what would I like people to take away?

  • Not every autistic person in your workforce will have a diagnosis, and not everyone who does will tell you.
  • Women are far less likely to have a formal diagnosis.
  • Rather than single people out and treat them differently, make workplace environments inclusive for all.
  • Consider everyone when managing change.
  • Ensure there are quiet spaces for people to escape, think and make calls.
  • Consider the extra support neurodivergent people need when going through menopause.
  • Be mindful when you’re interviewing that the person facing you may be neurodiverse.
  • Value the contributions of all autistic people and not just the ones who are good at masking and don’t challenge you.
  • Take the free courses available on understanding autism.


One Response to ‘On the spectrum’: how autism has affected my career

  1. Kallim Yafai April 2, 2023 at 2:48 am #

    Thank you for sharing this and wish you all the best for the future.