late-diagnosed autism

  • I have had a very mixed experience with the world of employment. I often feel like I haven't really achieved the things I'm capable of, haven't got where I want to be in my career. Where I'm capable of. I don't quite mean that I haven't reached the pinnacle of my career yet, I mean that I, as I am today, right now, ought to be doing better than I am.

    I'm pretty sure this is not a uniquely autistic thing, but there are a few things I need to unpack about why I've struggled in work, so that I can move on and do better. I also really want to do this in a balanced way, so I can work out what I do well, as well as what I struggle with.

    To the outside world, I think I look quite successful. People are often saying nice things about 'amazing' things I've done, but I have come to the conclusion that they are using completely different measures of success to me. It's quite difficult for me to marry up these positive comments with how I feel inside - again, not exclusively an autistic thing, I know, but I think there's an additional element in that I find it really difficult to understand how other people see me. (I have an awful lot to say on theory of mind, but that will have to wait for another day!)

    I'm thinking about all of this a lot at the moment because I've been approached by an organisation who would like me to come and work for them. I'm currently self-employed and the idea of working for someone else terrifies me - I've had some pretty bad experiences in the past. However, this job, and this organisation, are both amazing, and I would really like to see if I can give it a go. I have already mentioned my autism to them, and they are very open to working with me on accommodations but the trouble is, I don't really know what I need. I'm still at such an early stage of exploring it all myself that I have no idea of what to ask for. I've been talking it over with my husband and decided to try and work my way through some of my previous experiences to see if I can pinpoint why things went wrong previously, and also when they went well, and what was different.

    One of the things I love most about being freelance is the ability to have total control over how I spend my days. I once worked as a teaching assistant in a secondary school where I had absolutely no say in how my day was spent. Requests for assistance would come in to my line manager and she would assign me to various departments at particular times. I would turn up and be told what they wanted me to do. I didn't mind the work, as such, and I enjoyed the variety in my day, but I hated being sent here there and everywhere with no idea of how I was going to spend the day until I got there. The music teacher got really territorial over me, and used to insist that I be sent over to the music department because she thought it was demeaning that I should be pumping up basketballs in PE when I was such a talented musician. And then she would have me sorting out her sheet music and really didn't see the irony in that. I felt dehumanised, like a useful tool to be passed around, and I hated it. The stress of it made me ill, and I left.

    Shortly after that, I ended up working as an administrator for the Police, and I LOVED it. My dad told me afterwards that he'd thought I had a problem with authority, so was quite relieved when I managed to stick it out at the Police. At the time I was a bit affronted by that, but looking back now I can see why he thought it. I have no problem with authority when my values are aligned with theirs, I am clear about what their job is and what mine is (by their actions as well as in theory) and I feel respected and valued as a member of the team. When those things aren't in place, then yeah I guess I do have a problem with that sort of authority, and I also have a problem keeping that to myself!

    I loved it at the Police. There was a very clear hierarchy, and I may have been right at the bottom of it but my role was valued by the others in the team. I was clear on what my tasks were. Some of them needed to be done first thing in the morning, the rest I could manage as I pleased. On the whole I was trusted to get on with things, but some of the tasks would link in with what the Sergeant was doing so I always knew that she was keeping an eye on things, and she would come and tell me if she wanted something done slightly differently.

    So how can I summarise the differences between these two jobs and how they made me feel? Working with the Police there was a mixture of regular, daily tasks, and stuff that was different every day. Expectations were clear, and I understood my place within the team, and felt valued as a member. I had some control over how my day was spent, and trusted that my boss would be clear about whether a task was time-limited, and if it wasn't, would leave it up to me to manage.

    I think one of the key things I struggled with as a TA was not having any autonomy over my own time, but also not having any structure or predictability. I later became a teacher, so whereas my time was still arranged for me at least I knew in advance what I would be doing day to day.

    I absolutely loved teaching, but the strain of 'being a teacher' was too much for me. In addition to all of the social contact, which would leave me exhausted but not really understanding why, there was so much in the culture that I couldn't handle. The thing I probably struggled most with was that the things that thought were important about what I did at school really didn't seem to tally up with the things that the senior management thought were important. I worked really hard to make my classroom a safe and supportive space for the pupils to be creative, to try things out and take risks, and to learn how to support each other constructively, because these are the things I thought were important. It seemed to me that the senior managers considered the clothes I chose to wear were more important, along with ticking all the right boxes, attending all the right meetings, and making sure children lined up silently outside the classroom at the start of the lesson. (I was a music teacher for heavens sake, I actively encouraged them to make noise!)

    It was this mismatch of values that meant I couldn't stay in teaching, but there were other aspects I found difficult which I think could be useful to reflect on for future work, and these were all do to with my difficulty with executive functioning, or in other words, my ability to mentally organise tasks so that I could complete them. At the time, I'd never heard the phrase 'executive function', but what I did know was that I often felt scatty, lazy, or disorganised. My desk was always a complete mess (and yet I could find whatever I needed on there, so 'disorganised' isn't quite accurate), and I got in to trouble for forgetting to go to meetings, or more accurately, not realising that I was supposed to go in the first place. I did have one spectacular blow up with a school that ended up with me signed off with work-related stress, and negotiating a termination my contract with a pay-off (via my union) because of the way it was all handled. It wasn't until after I was diagnosed with autism that I could completely forgive myself over that. Don't get me wrong, they handled it terribly, and if I'd had enough emotional energy I should have taken them to tribunal over it, but I was so entrenched in this mindset that I was a terrible person because I couldn't organise myself in the way that they expected me to that I used to get panic attacks just driving through the village where the school was, and for a good year or so afterwards would feel anxious when crossing the threshold of any school.

    As I said, it's only since my diagnosis that I've been able to look back at that period of my life with self-compassion, and start to understand what I went through, and what led me to it. All of this happened around ten years ago, and I've only forgiven myself in the last two, three weeks tops. It takes a great deal of time, and emotional energy, to unpack thirty eight years of believing I was one way only to find that wasn't the case after all.

    I don't think I've got all the answers by any means, and I think I'll need to come back to this question again, but for now writing this post has definitely helped me work through some of the thoughts in my head. Moving forward in to 2019, if I do decide to take this job then here are some of the things I will need to bear in mind:

    - I like it best when I understand exactly how an organisation works, and how I fit in to it. If you want me to be a minion, I need to know that. You can't employ me as a 'specialist' if you actually want me me as a minion, because that is going to really bother me, and you won't like it when I use my specialist knowledge to tell you how things ought to be done. (That's a whole other story...!)

    - I need to know that my values align with yours, because if they don't I can't work for you. I just can't.

    - I need reassurance that everyone else in the team is doing the bits that they are supposed to be doing, otherwise I can get anxious and try to control everything, just to make sure it all gets done. If something needs doing in a certain order, I will be pretty much incapable of doing it outside of that order, so find it difficult to work around other people being late with things, for example. Equally, I like to know that someone is checking up on me and making sure I'm doing everything I'm supposed to be doing, and that they are going to tell me straight away if that's not the case.

    - I am quite capable of organising and managing my own time, but if you are expecting me to be at something that you have organised, and set the time and place for, then I may need reminding more than once.

    - I like variety, but I like it best within certain constraints.

    - I work best when I have my own bits of work that I am responsible for, and a certain amount of freedom over how they are done. However, you and I will need to make sure I completely understand what outcomes are wanted from these bits of work, because if you don't make it clear, and I do it how I think it should be done, I am not going to like it when you want me to change it all at the end.

    I'm sure there's more, but I think that's probably enough for now.

  • My autism diagnosis is still a really new thing for me, but I’ve been feeling more and more over the last couple of weeks that I wanted to tell people about it. One reason is because there are quite probably tens of thousands of people like me, who have no clue that they’re autistic, and the only way that is going to change is by amplifying autistic voices and providing an alternative to the ‘awkward geeky guy’ stereotype that most people associate with the word ‘autism’.

    The other reason though, I think, is because I feel this real need to live my new life as authentically as possible. My life since diagnosis has been a series of lightbulb moment - sudden realisations that explain so many different aspects of my past. I do feel like a different person. I feel calmer, lighter, more aware of myself. I’m enjoying getting to know the person under the many layers of masking that have built up over the last 38 years.

    My life since diagnosis has been a series of lightbulb moment - sudden realisations that explain so many different aspects of my past. Click to Tweet

    The strange thing is, I always knew I was masking - I just didn’t call it that. I always knew there was an ‘external’ me that was presented to the outside world, and an ‘internal’ me that was reserved pretty much entirely for my family. Close friends would sometimes get a bit of the real me, but the vast majority had to make do with the carefully constructed external mask. For quite a number of years the mask even had a different name, as I continued to work under my maiden name of Cat Kelly. In my head it made a nice distinction between the me who was out and about meeting people, doing things, and generally being busy, and the me who liked nothing better than curling up under my duvet and not leaving the house. In some ways it did make it easier to go to work - I could ‘put on’ Cat Kelly, and just get on with it. Cat Kelly was good with people. However, even before I was consciously aware of the masking I was doing, I used to get frustrated that other people couldn’t tell when Cat Kelly got back in the box and I was just me again. If I was working at a festival I was quite happy to chat to people after my workshops, or after my gigs, when I still had Cat Kelly on - but then someone would spot me in the queue for potato wedges and want to chat to me about something, and, although I did my best to be polite, I would be inwardly cringing at my awkwardness, and baffled as to how they couldn’t see that I wasn’t available for talking right now, because Cat Kelly had gone away and Cat McGill does not like small talk. (I mean, obviously I do understand that we look pretty similar from the outside.)

    The penny dropped a few months ago, when I had started to suspect I was autistic. I decided that I wasn’t going to mask any more, and did a complete revamp of my professional life so that everything was in my new name. (I did have to have the conversation a few times about how, yes, I had got married, but no actually not that recently, in fact it’s been about five years now.)

    However. Taking the mask off is quite a scary thing. I wrote in my last post about how I feel that I haven’t quite done what I ought to have done in my career, and today I’ve been wondering whether part of that is down to the masking. I’ve been writing regularly for about five years now, but it’s been scattered all over the place, hidden under various pseudonyms, on three or four different blogs. I’m quite happy to stand up in front of hundreds of people and teach them a song, but if they’re just there to hear me sing - even my Cat Kelly mask isn’t quite thick enough to cope with that. My whole life was about being in the background, putting other people first, making other people feel good, or look good, achieve something. And I was in the background, safe, and yet frustrated. Both wanting to be seen, and terrified of being seen.

    My whole life was about being in the background... safe, and yet frustrated. Both wanting to be seen, and terrified of being seen. Click to Tweet

    What I have realised over the last few years, but even more so over the last few weeks, is that people do like to read my writing. I write in a way that people can relate to, and a lot of people find it helpful. I like that, because I do like to be helpful, and the process of writing it helps me too, so it’s a win-win really. Today I decided to bring all my different writing together in one place. I’ll be honest, I nearly set up a new website for it. But 2019 is my year for streamlining my work, and living more authentically, so I decided to put it all here, in one place, as me. 

    As I have taken a break from trying to please all of the people all of the time I’ve had a chance to reflect on what I actually want to spend my life doing, what I want to give my time to, and what interests and excites me, and I really want to use this knowledge to get some focus into my professional life. Bringing together all my various strands of thought in one place has given me some new insights in to what connects them all. If I had to choose one word to summarise it all, it would be relationships. (Which is a little ironic, coming from the social-phobic autistic over here.) In some ways, it’s the autism that has nurtured this fascination of what makes people tick; it’s not something I instinctively understand, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been absolutely fascinated by it. A lot of my work is about using music to connect, build relationships, and bring people together. My first full-length book is about how to build a relationship with a child who’s been traumatised by adoption. My writing on autism explores my relationship with myself.

    It is nerve-wracking, thinking of having this all together, in one place, because there’s nothing to hide behind any more. It feels a bit strange that people who sing in my choirs might read this post, and realise that the Cat McGill who stands up in front of them every week acting like a wally to make them laugh is the same Cat McGill who is sometimes so wracked with social anxiety that I’m unable to leave the house. (In fact, in a very real sense, music provides a safe and structured way for me to connect with people.) I admit, I am nervous about revealing this much of myself, but it’s not because I don’t want anyone to know, and it’s not because I think people will judge me. Maybe it’s actually because I think they’ll probably say nice things, and I never quite know how to handle that. It means so much to me when people like what I do, but I find that quite difficult to express.*

    So perhaps we should make an agreement. If you’ve read this, and you like it, and you want to tell me about it, then maybe email me? Or tweet me, leave a comment, whatever suits you best. And if you see me in person and want to tell me then maybe limit it to a couple of words and a hug. I do like hugs.


    *Having said that, if you have a specific question, then ask away, as I can talk for hours once I know what you are interested in hearing about..!

© 2019 Cat McGill