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Embracing a truer sense of identity

by Andy Lane

In the end, all it took was a 15 minute intervention to start untangling a puzzle which had troubled me on and off for decades. I don’t remember exactly when it first registered, but amid the banter of the school playground a friend once helpfully revealed, “My mum says you’re abnormal,” to explain our differing grades that summer. I’ve long held onto that phrase and can’t deny being preoccupied and weighed down by it at various times in subsequent years.

Andy Lane

Fast forward to six months ago and my first psychiatric consultation barely got past the introductions – 15 minutes of personal history and a curious scan of the background notes I submitted – before a more positive theory was proposed to explain an extended period of escalating difficulties with everyday life. Another set of assessment results shortly confirmed the signs, spotted almost instantly by the consultant’s well-trained eye from the formatting of my email as well as anything I said, that I’m among the 1% of adults who are autistic.

It’s hard to sum up the experience of discovering a side to yourself you immediately recognise but never previously understood. It's been reassuring, alarming and bittersweet to learn that, as uncommon experiences go, it’s far from uncommon to experience a lightbulb moment via delayed diagnosis around this age. Mine was prompted by anxiety, depression and burnout of the sort that punctuated my teens and twenties before fading in my thirties. I’d assumed their disappearance was down to maturity; overlooking the possibility I’d simply become more practised (but still far from proficient) at masking, self-censoring and other unconscious adaptations to the neurotypical world.

Like countless other people over the last 20 months, neurodiverse or otherwise, the collision of personal and global events with home and work pressures had taken me to a point where I was struggling to the extent that something had to give. Even so, the fear of unknown consequences, judgement and losing the illusion of control meant it took a sustained effort by the people closest to me, each with their own personal pressures to deal with, to get past my fixation with keeping going no matter what.

Opening a window

Over the years I've found GPs, counsellors and therapists have all helped to alleviate the symptoms, but this lifelong sense of déjà vu prompted me to search more widely this time round, at not-insignificant cost, for another way to properly identify the root cause. It's concerning that others in a similar position might not have the opportunity, encouragement or means to do the same. As neurodiversity becomes more widely understood, there's much to be gained from earlier interventions and support that relies less on people self-diagnosing or reaching a crisis point.

The delayed discovery I’m autistic in my late 30s has quickly evolved from curveball to life affirmation, permitting a shift in perception from being somehow faulty or damaged goods to simply being wired according to a different design pattern. That’s not to say the six months since have been free from friction – far from it – but the sense of making gains has been undeniable.

What has autism awareness provided? It's been instructive to learn what being autistic really means, which I don’t recall learning before and which has so often been skewed by popular culture in the past. It’s embarrassing as well as ironic that, in a second attempt to fulfil an ambition to move to London in my late twenties (by which point I’d grown used to significant life changes, from university onwards, taking multiple attempts to test and learn) I interviewed for a communications role at the National Autistic Society and stumbled over questions about how to identify someone with autism. I never knew back then I could legitimately say “By looking in the mirror”, and my broader awareness and interview prep barely scratched the surface of classic and misleading stereotypes.

Recognition has also opened a window to a rich and growing community of people whose lives are directly or indirectly coloured by neurodiversity and are openly engaged in celebrating as well as coping with that reality. To draw strength from their stories, learn from their insights and be met with acceptance and encouragement has been hugely helpful.

Public proclamations from figures as diverse as Elon Musk and Melanie Sykes have also been inspirational and music to my ears, with echoes back to the school playground again where I could once recite a list of fellow left-handers (Jimi Hendrix, Noel Gallagher, Kurt Cobain and many more) to legitimise another point of difference from the norm. I’ve found it equally important to hear and read about routine examples of neurodiversity as reference points without the celebrity sheen: everyday people doing remarkable things in everyday jobs, where ‘remarkable’ might simply mean getting to work and getting through the day unscathed.

A fine balance

Discovering my autistic tendencies hasn't removed the downsides and challenges they bring, either in and out of work, but it has helped to appreciate the many upsides and strengths that are part of the package. When conditions are good, outside and in, they can include a capacity for visual thinking, pattern recognition, link making, logical reasoning, free-flowing ideas and deep focus, allied with a lifelong love of numbers. In bad conditions or times of neural overload and fatigue, few if any of these apply while the risks of distraction, irritation and worse become harder to avoid.

I also wonder if years of masking, camouflaging and adjusting to a world I don't always instinctively understand have been helpful training for the rigours of reputation and brand management involved in my role as a corporate communications consultant across insurance, financial services and broader sectors. There are certainly similarities when it comes to considerations of narrative, positioning and tone; sensitivity to external factors; the value of feedback to interpret others' perceptions and needs; and the trepidation that sometimes borders on paranoia, keeping you alert and ready to respond to the next issue or crisis around the corner.

Undoubtedly the experience has highlighted for me how various situations and environments seem unintentionally constructed to present extra challenges for anyone who doesn’t experience the world from a neurotypical perspective. I wonder how often neurodiverse considerations like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and more inform the design of open-plan offices or the shape of corporate cultures and roles? What of interview assessment days, where the ability to collaborate on demand with strangers, each with their own agenda, is often used as a measure of success?

That's on top of the daily routines of working life, particularly in communications, with the emphasis on clear thinking and relentless accuracy in an environment of constant deadlines and conflicting demands. There's a fine balance between firing up people's synapses – which is absolutely the case for me on the majority of days – and burning through them. Whatever workplace hurdles I've faced so far, I count myself hugely fortunate to be in a position to feel the support of colleagues and my employer; the fact just 22% of autistic adults are in any kind of employment at all is truly shocking.

There is much work still to be done to improve neuroinclusivity and much to be gained on multiple levels. Writing in Rebel Ideas, the journalist and author Matthew Syed observed: "The success of organisations, as well as societies, depends on harnessing our differences in pursuit of our vital interests." As a newcomer still finding my feet, it seems the work of organisations like GAIN and others in this field is essential for society to stand a better chance of realising that success.

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