A Personal Story

A Personal Story – Alex Lincoln

A Personal Story – Alex Lincoln

Background

After completing my PhD in 2019, I secured a trainee medical writer position that I started in October 2019. Within 6 months I started to feel overwhelmed and began to struggle with the job. At the time, I put this down to being new, combined with a training approach that relied heavily on learning on the job. I persevered in the hope that with experience the job role would become easier, and even enjoyable. However, I continued to struggle and after taking time off due to mental health reasons, my counsellor suggested that I have an assessment for autism. I did not see that coming!

Fast-forward five months and I had been formally diagnosed with Level 1 Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) at the age of 30. At first it seemed ridiculous that someone with communication challenges was working in a medical communications agency – how the hell did that happen?! Since my diagnosis in 2021, I have learnt an awful lot about myself, but also that many workplaces are difficult environments for neurodivergent individuals. Nevertheless, with an increased understanding of neurodivergence, I am confident that it is possible for workplaces to be just as welcoming to neurodivergent individuals as they are to their neurotypical colleagues.

How did you feel pre-diagnosis?

Overwhelmed. Burnt out. A colossal failure. Frustrated. Depressed. I spent far too much time trying to work out why I found things so difficult and why I reacted so negatively to things when my colleagues did not. They were able to get on with the job with perceived ease. They progressed in their careers effortlessly. I came to the quick conclusion that I was the problem; I was a failure. This sense of self-loathing was reinforced by feedback from my colleagues, which stated that my negativity was having an impact on team morale. Not only was I finding the job hard, but I was also making it difficult for them.

My mental health deteriorated, with death ideation dominating my thoughts. I took time off work to recover and received regular counselling to help me manage my return to work. It was my counsellor who suggested that I should be assessed for autism. He noticed something nobody else had (including myself!). I will forever be in his debt for helping to set my life back on track.

How did you feel post-diagnosis?

I felt a huge sense of relief following my diagnosis. Finally, I had found a reason why I struggled with my job role and why I reacted so differently to situations compared with my colleagues. I also felt vindicated about the negative feedback I had received. It was because my brain is wired differently and I interpret the world in a different way, not because I was a monster intentionally making life difficult for those around me.

Suddenly the things that had been a source of intense torment could be understood. All the past experiences and memories of feeling useless and being a problem now made sense in the context of my autism.

Did you discuss your diagnosis with your colleagues?

Initially, I only disclosed my diagnosis to my line manager and members of the HR team. With time, I made the decision to tell the whole agency. I prepared slides explaining what autism is, how it affects me personally, and then recorded myself presenting the slides. I would never have been able to present it live! Having disclosed my diagnosis to the whole agency I felt immediate relief, and I did receive support and understanding from my colleagues.

How did things change in the workplace following your diagnosis?

Reasonable adjustments were brought in to help. Given the point of crisis I had reached, I needed time away from being attached to a specific account. I left the account I had been on and worked independently, picking up jobs for a variety of accounts where extra resource was required. I was given a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and the permission to use them in the office to block out distracting background noise. Being explicit about what is and is not acceptable behaviour in the workplace is an important point here. Providing me with noise-cancelling headphones would not have been enough on its own. If I hadn’t had been directly told ‘You can use them in the office while working’, I wouldn’t have felt that it was OK to use them. I also made a request for colleagues to contact me via email rather than instant messaging on MS Teams. The unpredictability of those messages (along with the little red notification that would pop up on my taskbar) could send my stress levels rocketing and ruin a day that had otherwise got off to a good start.

Are there any further changes you would like to see in the workplace?

I still feel there is a sense of nervousness/uncertainty about discussing autism/neurodivergence directly with me. It is as though it is still a taboo despite my open disclosure. I don’t expect this change to occur tomorrow, but I would welcome a culture change within the workplace where people feel just as comfortable and willing to talk to me about my autism as they do asking about somebody’s weekend or what they had for lunch. It should not be so hard and uncomfortable. Alternatively, the lack of discussion could be due to the perception that the issue has been solved, when from my perspective it is an ongoing struggle that needs acknowledging.

Projecting this onto other workplaces, such a culture change would encourage a supportive and compassionate workplace environment where individuals feel comfortable disclosing their neurodivergence and discussing their needs with those who can provide suitable help. Diversity in the workplace is a strength. Although neurodiverse individuals may have difficulties with some skills, they excel in others (search ‘neurodivergent spiky profile’ for more info). Neurodivergent individuals have the potential to make meaningful contributions to the workplace, if they are provided a nurturing environment to work in.

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