Picture by Steve Harvey on Unsplash.comGrowing up, I didn’t reach my developmental milestones. My worried parents took me to see a psychologist. After the assessment, she told my parents I’d never be able to write my own name or tie my shoelaces – had she asked, she would have known that I could already write my name. Needless to say; my parents were put off seeking help for a while after that. I wasn’t given much help in school, as there were more 'problematic' students.

I knew that I didn’t quite fit in at school, but I didn’t know why

Due to not having guidance on socialising I was bullied and had a breakdown, I wasn’t in any fit state to concentrate so I would go to school and sometimes be there for morning and afternoon registration but skip the lessons and sit out of the way reading women’s magazines. I missed so many classes that I didn’t initially obtain the required 5 GCSEs. This brings me to an important point: secondary school is frequently when children notice people who are a little ‘different’.

Having a diagnosis and being helped to fit in could mean that that child does better in their studies

With insufficient resources available, fewer children will be given timely support and diagnoses. This leads to struggling to find work and government money spent on benefits when more people could be working and paying taxes. 

Before entering higher education, I had a diagnosis; it was for a developmental condition but not Autism. However, I had a diagnosis and this diagnosis gave me access to software to help organise my work and extra time for any assessments. The test that proved I was neurodivergent also showed that I had a high level of verbal fluency, and that I was in the top 1% for vocabulary.

I was told that I was very capable and that there was a lot I could do in terms of employment, but I never really got to discover my potential as a lot of employers weren’t willing to take me on due to my interview performance

I do feel that being diagnosed as neurodivergent in time for higher education enabled me to access adjustments which helped me to reach my full potential in terms of education. I think that education can be important to the career path of autistic people. Someone who is not autistic can for example take a job and rise up the ranks and gain promotion in a given field due to their social skills. If you are autistic, issues with social skills might mean that you’re less likely to be a line manager. However, autistic people could be promoted in fields where social skills aren’t as required, as they have a special skillset/knowledge which they’ve gained through focusing on their area of interest and that make them an asset - these jobs are often the ones which require a higher education qualification.

For the most part I’ve temped, as temp jobs are easier to get into, because the interviews are less formal

After leaving university I worked in a range of temping jobs. Fewer employers worry if you can interview well because if you’re not great they just don’t ask you back. For the most part I have been asked not to return to temp jobs which had a high reliance of social skills. I was told by these employers that I would not be getting adjustments as I didn't seem autistic, however one of them also said in the same discussion 'you have problems with rapport' which just goes to show she didn’t understand autism. 

After having issues with employment for a number of years I went to see a psychologist and went through my career history and talked about my dyspraxia diagnosis. She asked me about my family history I told her my mum has dyspraxia. She then told me that she felt that I had more than just dyspraxia as I wouldn’t have struggled quite so much with just that condition. I then mentioned my father.

When undertaking my MSc I’d gone to see guest lectures. One of them talked about autism and I saw my father in what the lecturer was saying, so I went to find books in the library about autism. The psychologist told me she thought I might also be autistic and that I should go for a diagnosis. I ended up going private for a diagnosis (at the age of 29!) as I wasn’t able to wait to be assessed by my local NHS. (I have since found out that my local NHS sent people going for a diagnosis of autism to talk to a social worker first however, I believe that the standard practise is for people to see a psychologist and then go for a more in-depth assessment.)

At the private assessment I was diagnosed with ‘mild’ autism which I personally feel is a misleading and unhelpful term. It left me with the impression that I didn’t really need too much help and thus less likely to see it out. Although some autism researchers have pointed out you can’t be mildly autistic it’s like you can’t be mildly pregnant, you’re either pregnant or you’re not!

I think Autism is better thought of like a sound mixing desk with each element going in to produce a different output

This kind of analogy is better when it comes to thinking about the challenges which each autistic individual has, and can lead to help being better tailored.

As well as not being helped to understand my condition I wasn’t really signposted anywhere after diagnosis. I think it would be very useful for diagnostic clinics to be more aligned with organisations who help autistic people into employment. After diagnosis I didn’t feel fully clued up as to how it really impacted me, and I still did very people focused jobs. For example, I worked in an NHS clinic in assistant roles, however I didn’t cope well with meeting loads of new people during the day, I suffered badly from anxiety and would shake. I had disclosed my autism before my role in the clinic however no one put any measures in place. When I talked to my supervisors, I was dismissed, they said I just wasn’t capable and wouldn’t succeed in a role which required rapport with the public. I left the NHS and tried to find more help.

I found that receiving a diagnosis after the age of 25 made it harder to access certain back to work programmes as they primarily catered for the under 25s

Rachel Melinek

December 2021