In government autistic honesty can be a really solid basis for work. It has its pitfalls because there are certainly times when autistic honesty can go too far – sometimes you need to tell a white lie or a gentle half truth in order to help someone come round to your point of view. We all know that the right answer to “does my bum look big in this?” is unlikely to be “yes – enormous – what were you thinking?” and there is always a risk that an autistic colleague will come out with the work equivalent of that. But on the whole, autistic honesty is a really good thing in a civil servant. If there is a painful truth that needs to be faced, an autistic person may be better able to do it than someone neurotypical. If there is a difficult truth that needs to be communicated, an autistic person will be able to do it – not because they’re brave so much as because they find it impossible to not to tell the truth. There’s skill in telling truth to power in a way that makes it most likely to be heard, but as regards the instinct to tell the truth, rather than dodge the issue and hope someone else takes responsibility for doing it, an autistic colleague can be a great ally.
A few days a go I wrote about people saying “you don’t look autistic”. That led to some discussion on LinkedIn about what people say when you come out as autistic and how much of it isn’t particularly helpful. So I thought I’d attempt a post on how to respond when your friend, colleague or family member comes out as autistic to you. As always, please note the caveat that what I think has no particular authority, I may be wrong, your mileage may vary, and if in doubt ignore me and do what the person you’re talking to would like you to do.
In government autistic integrity can be a huge benefit if it’s channelled well. In administrative-type jobs, autistic civil servants will take care and trouble to follow processes and to make sure everything is done correctly. They will take trouble whatever the task is and they won’t stop until things are right. In leadership roles, autistics will be driven by the need for justice and fairness in how we treat staff, colleagues, and the public. We autistics feel comfortable when we are doing what’s right – and that includes making sure the electoral mandate of the public is carried out rather than doing what we’d choose ourselves. It’s my observation that there are a lot of autistic civil servants, and I would like to be able to celebrate those qualities and strengths we have which fit us particularly well for civil service work.
Every autistic person is different but we do tend to have some traits in common, some of which can be extremely useful. Along with many autistic people, I have good attention to detail, particularly when it’s something I’m interested in, or when I can process the detail visually. In a previous role I led the team that answered public correspondence in a major government department. My attention to detail was really useful (=maddening to colleagues) in that I could spot grammatical errors, typos, and inconsistent formatting very easily.
I’m fairly open about the fact that I’m autistic – as witness the fact that I’m writing this blog. But it still comes as a surprise to some people that I’m autistic because I don’t fit the stereotype. When I’ve mentioned my autism I’ve been told “I would never have known” (meant as a compliment) or “you don’t look autistic”. Those are well-intentioned things to say but they’re not really helpful. Quick explainer…
It’s widely understood in the civil service that senior leaders need to be able to deal with ambiguity. During an election campaign the civil service needs to be prepared to deal with any possible incoming government – that’s just part of our job. But there’s also a widespread stereotype that autistic people can’t deal with ambiguity, which leads to a damaging assumption that we can’t be civil service leaders. I would argue that we can but there are things we might need to help.
I can certainly get bogged down in branching decisions – frequently about trivial things because there’s not a clear right or wrong answer. I’m also pretty bad at knowing what I want because I’ve got used to overruling what I want having grown up undiagnosed autistic. So “what do you want?” is a question liable to initiate several minutes of agonised mental fug. But at work, I’ve learned how not to get bogged down, because the people I’m leading need me not to get bogged down. That can be by using their judgement as well as mine, or by using clear criteria to eliminate options.
It’s perfectly possible, then, that an autistic leader can take a difficult strategic decision about multiple competing policy areas but also get into a total stagnating loop about which coffee to buy. It’s weird, but we really do have spiky ability profiles. Being aware of that will hopefully prevent society underestimating that really weird bewildered person in the coffee queue…
I got my autism diagnosis when I was already well on in my career but throughout my life from age 8 or so, I knew I was different and a bit weird. I wasn’t naturally all that likeable to other children, I was picked on and excluded and it was an enormous effort for me to take part in the sort of activities other children seemed to enjoy like parties and going out. I’ve written about getting my own diagnosis here and how much it helped me, but while I was a child I was just a weird kid failing to fit in. I wanted to start with my own experience as context because I am definitely not an expert on how to help and support an autistic child.
So, why am I writing about it?
When I talk to groups of civil servants about autism there are some questions that usually come up. “How can I help autistic colleagues?” is one, and I used that as a prompt to construct my list of possible reasonable adjustments for autism. Another, though, is the question at the head of this blog, that comes from concerned parents. They want to do everything they can for their child and hope that the perspective of an autistic adult might add insights. So in that spirit, here is what I think… (As always with this blog, my thoughts have no particular insight or authority beyond my own experience and if in any doubt please consult someone who knows what they’re talking about.)
For me, like many autistic people, precise language is important. But that doesn’t remove the problematic bits of language that have built up over the years, one of which is the differentiation between “Asperger’s Syndrome” and autism. Society has found it useful to have a way to distinguish between autistic people who are able to function without much help, and those who need residential or full-time care. The first have been described as “high functioning” – a term which implies they don’t really have any problems, and the second as “low functioning” – which sounds rather insulting. Historically “Asperger’s” has been used to describe “high functioning” people and “autism” “low functioning” ones. That is now viewed by many autistic people as rather problematic, but there are no hard and fast rules so, as always, if you’re talking about autism to an autistic person, ask what language that person uses, or pick up the language that you hear them using.
You say something. The person you’re talking to’s face changes. They go very silent and walk away. Much MUCH later, you find out what they took your words to mean, which wasn’t what you meant at all. In the mean time you’ve been at cross purposes with them, and probably everything you’ve said has made the situation worse. Sound bad? Well that is the reality of life for autistic people when we get over-interpreted.
I’ve had it happen at work a number of times and it can cause so much harm. Once someone reads a message into your tone, words or body language that you didn’t mean to be there, it’s almost impossible to unpick the misunderstanding even if you’re neurotypical, and if you’re autistic it’s harder still. Everything you say makes the situation worse, and ultimately if it happens with your manager they can conclude you’re a poor performer and it can even end your career.