Why I’m not just a little bit autistic: the wonders of neurodiversity
I was pleased to dispel a few myths about autism at a recent GCS Comms Exchange on neurodiversity. In doing so, I shared some personal experiences and emphasised how communication plays a vital role in helping everyone feel included.
Inspired by the excellent different minds Scotland, I took 3 myths and explained how it is for me. First caveat is that if you’ve met one autistic person… you’ve met one autistic person – we have different needs and strengths. This blog aims to help you empathise with how I think and feel, so that you can re-examine your attitude towards autism, neurodiversity and disability.
What’s in a name?
The simplest definition of ‘neurodiversity’ is the broad range of how everyone’s brains work differently. ‘Neurodivergent’ describes people who don’t think like the majority (aka neurotypical people). Neurodivergent conditions include dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), there are many more and they can co-exist.
The word ‘autism’ originally described a state of being (within) one’s self and has evolved to sit somewhat uncomfortably between a medical and social label.
Definitions aside, you might be asking: why is this important?
I’m a proud autistic person – it’s the lens through which I see the world, and it’s my identity. Like celebrating LGBT+ pride, I’ve accepted my differences, which I can celebrate.
There’s nothing wrong with me but I do have some support needs – it’s an invisible disability. Under the social model of disability, the physical or social environment can be disabling. However, getting an official diagnosis requires a medical professional to say I have a ‘disorder’.
So are we all just a little bit autistic? No – many people have some autistic traits but just as you can’t be a little bit pregnant, to be autistic you need to have differences in:
- social and communication
- flexibility, logic and cognition
- sensory sensitivity.
Disorder is such an inappropriate descriptor for someone who revels in systematising and excels in pattern recognition. Part of the reason for seeking a diagnosis was to avoid a disabling work environment, for me this resulted in burnout and deep depression.
Autism itself is not a mental health issue but often co-exists with anxiety and depression. Neurodivergent conditions also commonly co-exist and traits overlap. So looking more broadly at neurodiversity is useful because the strengths and challenges of being neurodivergent are interwoven.
We talk a lot about empathy, particularly in a leadership context, and it’s all important to communication – understanding your audience. So how could I have been a communications professional for over 17 years without empathy? Because that’s the final myth we’ll bust today!
I am highly affected by emotions (others and my own), but I can’t necessarily make sense of them – they overwhelm me, just like my hypersensitivity to odour, light, touch and sound. I need help managing and controlling my environment to avoid this overwhelm but in many ways these are superpowers – I sense things others don’t notice (or perhaps don’t attach the same importance to).
My attention to detail and perfectionism are a real mixed blessing – it’s all or nothing, gold standard or not finished.
Double empathy problem
Another highly useful but dangerous trait in a work context is my perseveration – my hyperfocus and tenaciousness. I can get lost in the detail and in circular thoughts that lodge in my mind, waking me throughout the night until I have fully processed them. They sometimes oscillate from micro to macro, like the universe expanding then collapsing in on itself.
No wonder I can struggle to explain things satisfactorily to neurotypical people – this is the double empathy problem. I need opportunities to ask questions and clarify a woolly brief, I can struggle with linear thought processes. The onus is put on neurodivergent people to understand neurotypical thinking – metaphoric turns of phrase, irony and politics.
I’m an open book – what you see is what you get. Don’t look for sub-text and second guess my motivations – I’ve probably told you everything in my head (an infodump)!
More in common than you think
It’s useful to revisit our neurodiversity definition here, because in common with other conditions, my autistic brain comes up with ideas, and thinks in 3-dimensions, literally laterally. I’ve developed coping strategies that have enabled me to thrive in many roles, adapt quickly to change and help others do the same: connect with me on LinkedIn.
I’m a non-conformist, challenging the status quo, and speaking truth to power – all strong characteristics, just be careful where you direct my attention…
The slides from my presentation (PowerPoint, 2.1 MB, 9 pages) include my playbook or hierarchy of needs – this is what I need at a basic level, to connect with others and to thrive.
Call to action: accessibility good practice
- Accessibility standards – not optional
- Government Digital Service persona – user-centred design considerations
Blogs and videos
- David’s shielding story: Civil Service blog from August 2020
- Apolitical blogs from Helen Jeffries: I want to communicate and be understood, but it’s a struggle | A letter from the autistic colleague you didn’t know you had
- UN autism awareness day celebration (YouTube), with 2 panel discussions on inclusive workplaces for autistic people:
- MHCLG neurodiversity celebration (Vimeo)
- Image credit:
- David Hopkins (1)