Imagine it is your first week at secondary school. There are 150 other students in the playground and you are sat alone, watching them. They are all laughing, smiling and moving around in ready-made packs. You struggle to connect with people and are overwhelmed by the crowd, so you sit waiting for break to be over.
Over the years, people remain a mystery and you remain on the outside. You wish you could be more sociable and keep trying to fit in, but you never feel like you belong. You find solace in learning, special interests (stamp collecting, history of forensic science, photography) and anything that involves puzzle solving. Your love of puzzle solving leads to a career in programming, and eventually, to life as a consultant.
You enjoy your work but often struggle in team situations, you know that colleagues can view you as “hard work”, and you seldom connect with them on a personal level. Over the years, you progress but then your career stumbles. It’s the people thing. You read every book you can, try multiple strategies and even develop checklists for improving your social skills. Despite your efforts, you seem destined to keep making the same mistakes and you feel stuck. The effort is exhausting, and your anxiety levels increase. You reach out for help but can’t explain why you are struggling or what help you need.
This is my story. Actually, this was my story.
Three years ago, my son was diagnosed as autistic. As I learnt more about autism, things started to make sense. Not just for my son, but for me as well. Last July, I was also diagnosed, and this has helped me view my life through a different lens. With this insight came a sense of empowerment and self-acceptance. Gone are the days of feeling frustrated by my inability to change, instead I am focused on trying to bring about a change in the world around me.
It’s not easy, and I don’t always get it right. There is nothing easy about telling your managers, team mates and clients that you are autistic, or talking honestly about the social situations that you struggle with.
I struggle in socially demanding situations, I need to remind myself to engage socially with people and can quickly become drained by these interactions. It takes a lot for me to connect with new people. I struggle to be collaborative in group discussions and there are many moments when I can be incredibly difficult to work with, especially when faced with unexpected change or unclear expectations. These can often be explained by the way my brain processes information.
Understanding this enables me to focus on trying different approaches. This includes partnering with trusted people who can be my social bridge when needed and being open with colleagues about how best to engage with me. Interestingly, talking about my own challenges helps me to connect with people. This is bringing about a new sense of belonging – something I find quite ironic. As I focus less on trying to be someone I am not, I am putting more energy into the things I do well.
My ability to connect the dots and my years of trying to decode human behaviour means that I am good at identifying what my clients want before they ask for it. To them I am a strategic thinker. To me, I have just listened to what they and others have said, before feeding it back to them in a way which takes the bigger picture into account. My unique way of looking at the world means that I will often see things that others don’t. This is my advantage.
The insights from my own journey and the many years researching collaboration, team dynamics and social engagement also means that I can advise others on how best to overcome their own challenges. I can help them think about how they can achieve success in a way that works for them.
After seven years as a principal consultant, I credit my newfound insights for being the catalyst which resulted in my promotion to managing principal last year. I was able to overcome my career blockers and progress. Even though I wanted the change, it has been unsettling, I now have additional expectations and need to find new ways to overcome these. That said, I am determined to make a success of it.
After a lifetime of feeling out of step, it is empowering to say: ‘this is me’ and acknowledge that I am different. Different, not less.
Helen Needham is the leader and founder of Capco's Neurodiversity network.