Asperger’s and me

Simon Dobinson is a Commander in the Metropolitan Police Service – here he talks about his diagnosis with Asperger syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum, and how it affects his approach to work and personal life

I have Asperger syndrome. There you go, that is the first real tell as I can be direct and to the point.

Simon Dobinson on his appointment to the Greenwich, Bexley and Lewisham police command, 2018

There is no such thing as a typical autistic person, there is extraordinarily little that can be said to be true or valid when pertaining to the whole of the population described as autistic. There is no one-size fits all approach nor any description of an autistic person that will be true for all individuals.

Asperger’s is just one form of autism and a Google search of Asperger’s will throw up a whole range of different traits, which can significantly vary from person to person. So, traits that I show? Repetitive behaviours (sometimes I subconsciously trace letters with my finger when I notice words on signs, notice boards or even if I have just heard them), sensitivity to changes in heat, touch and smell (I cannot bear the feeling of clothing labels!), social difficulties, clumsiness and a tendency to become focused on certain interests which can become all-consuming (I challenge anyone to beat me on a zoom quiz on music intros of all genres!)

I remember the moment when I first began noticing that maybe there was something different in the way I think, feel and behave to other people. Last year during lockdown I was listening to a radio programme which featured an interview with the singer Gary Numan, who talked about his own experiences as someone with Asperger’s. I remember being struck at how ‘normal’ he sounded when speaking, how lucid and conversational he was in response to questions. This was a turning point for me as I suddenly questioned everything I had ever thought about Asperger’s and autism. I began reading about Asperger’s and discovered many character traits, ways of thinking and behaviours which I displayed. As a result, I was tested and diagnosed with Asperger’s. I was shocked, but at the same time relieved. Suddenly things made sense to me, and many things made sense to those who knew me.

I sat there and began questioning why I had not recognised this before and why I didn’t feel different to other people. The reason was simple: I didn’t feel different to others because everything I had ever known was what I believed to be normal. No one else had ever commented on it as I had managed to develop what I now know to be coping strategies since childhood. Throughout my adult life, I have picked up on small things that have given me a clue as to how I am different. I remember listening to someone describe themselves as ‘not a natural empath’ even though they led and championed the importance of wellbeing and the benefit of feeling the emotions of others. This is something I am committed to yet I sometimes struggle to feel the emotions of others. This does not mean I am uncaring or insensitive to others – it just isn’t always that obvious nor as easy to recognise for me.

Gary Numan at the 2017 Ivor Novello Awards (link to full interview)

Being a senior leader in an organisation which is all about people requires us to be emotionally intelligent. For me, this means having to dedicate my full attention to actively listen and pick up on things like social cues and body language which may be much easier for others to see. I have learnt that multi-tasking is something that I can only aspire to do. I can get very focused on issues, sometimes to the detriment of other things – the times I have walked into objects or banged my head on something just inside my peripheral vision is shocking and painful! Whilst the ability to focus and work through complex tasks is a blessing, I have had to learn to take a step back which helps rebalance my perspective and give me that more important broader awareness.

I remember an occasion at a leaving do where the room was full of people, many of whom I knew. I remember feeling nervous and completely ill at ease and a friend of mine came up to me and simply said, “relax”. I think back now and wonder whether they thought I had Asperger’s or just recognised my anxiety. What still baffles me though is that I have no inhibition in standing up in front of hundreds of people, talking with confidence and ease. However, I do know that I have had to learn this skill and often the confidence I have comes from my belief in what I have to say. Why it is different socially I don’t know, but there’s still more I need to learn about Asperger’s and me.

The job has given me a career full of challenge, excitement and reward. Previously I have actively sought out roles that suited the way I thought and felt, managing risks, using decision-making frameworks, clear rules, governance and structure. But to make the difference I wanted, I had to work hard to become more comfortable with navigating the grey and intangible space where things can be less clear-cut and far more ambiguous. I now dedicate time to think, reflect and become more self-aware by asking for advice and really listening to others, which helps me grow as a person and as a leader. Most importantly though, I am able to be myself, be individual and continue to thrive in an organisation that values and celebrates difference.

So thank you and well done for reading thus far… My advice to those of you who may have any form of autism is that we have nothing to fear from being different and we have a tremendous amount to offer this job and the public. For those of you who aren’t autistic, be curious and value the difference everyone in this organisation brings. Am I anxious about it and fear what people may think? – Yes. Was I nervous about writing this blog? – Yes. But I wrote this because I feel a huge responsibility, as someone whose professional and personal purpose is to make a difference and help others, to stand up and cry out that it’s ok to be different.

Whilst I grew up in the 80’s and loved the music, I was never a big Gary Numan fan – but all the same, Gary, I thank you. ∎

This blog was originally published on the Metropolitan Police Service intranet – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author

“Like everyone else with autism, I was born to stand out”

Suzanne Burke is a Police Constable and a member of the Metropolitan Police Service Autism Support Network – as an autistic officer she has kindly agreed to give a personal insight into her experiences of living with the condition

So, I am autistic – and you are reading this – why? Are you looking to understand what that means? It’s difficult, because I don’t really understand what it means when they tell me, ‘You’re autistic.’ I am autistic – NOT an expert in autism.

Suzanne Burke

When you have autism, everything is harder. The simplest task, like getting up and dressed exhausts me. If I am anxious, I battle with my clothes as I struggle to put them on the right way round. If they don’t ‘feel’ right or they are in the wrong order, it will irritate me all day.

Routine – people with autism need routine. I have to get up and dressed in the morning following the same routine. It is exhausting. So, when I arrive on parade, on time, with all my uniform on, in the right order, the right way round, following all the uniform rules, this is actually a BIG achievement for me. Every day.

Savants – these are people with autism that are highly gifted. I am not a savant and I am not gifted. There are some things that I can do very well and others that completely baffle me. During the 2012 Olympics, I was posted as an Acting Sergeant. To this day, I am still baffled by the team postings. To most, it doesn’t appear difficult. I have often been told, “Post all the drivers driving and all the operators operating.” I just can’t fathom it. I would like to thank all the PCs that supported me during this time, most of whom probably never knew I was autistic. There was never a shortage of response drivers keen on ‘checking’ the postings for me and making a few discreet ‘amendments’ – I am so grateful for these moments and for the kindness and discretion of colleagues.

High-functioning autism – there are currently only 16% of autistic adults in employment. I have what I regard as high-functioning autism, but this doesn’t mean that I am less autistic. What it means is that I have worked hard to develop the necessary strategies to be able to hide my autism long enough to function in the workplace. So please don’t say to me, or anyone else with autism, ‘But I thought you were high functioning.’ That sentence is very offensive as it belittles the challenges that I am facing and tells me that you don’t think that I deserve any further consideration.

Social interaction – I know that I don’t ‘fit’. I don’t fit socially, I don’t understand your jokes or your banter, or your unwritten social rules. The whole social interaction and office culture just confuses me.

Thinking literally – I never understood why people shouted, “You’re welcome” aggressively at me when I crossed a zebra crossing. I am not rude, or self-obsessed or self-absorbed (often said about me) – I am autistic, and to me, the rules of the road state that you have to stop at a zebra crossing. There was nothing in those rules that told me that I had to say ‘thank you’. I just didn’t know. But now I know, I always do, and I have taught my children to do the same.

You offer me a cup of tea – I will always take one, thank you very much. But reciprocating is a terrifying mountain of social interaction, trying to establish how you would like it. So, I avoid it. I opt for the preferable option of the cold shoulders caused often by colleagues thinking the worst of me – maybe that I think I am too good to make the tea? Just a tip – if you would like me to make you a cup of tea, stick a post-it note on your cup with how you like it – easy, no frightening interaction needed.

Over-sensitivity – the more anxious and exhausted I get, the more visual disturbances I have, and then the over-sensitivity to the light and the sounds in the office begin to become too much – it is sometimes quickly resolved, for me by stepping outside into the natural light. I am one of the lucky ones – many people with autism cannot get any respite from the torturous visual and auditory over-sensitivity that plagues us all the time. If you have ever been in a meeting with me, you may notice that I will often turn the lights down – no one has ever objected, which I really appreciate, thank you, because those bright lights after a while really start doing my head in!

Autism Support Group – in our group, there are quite a few officers with autism, dreaming about their ideal job, all with fantastic skills. Some, like me, struggle with application forms and interview boards. So, if you are a boss, and looking for staff, maybe approach our group. Many of us have very rare and valuable skills but little confidence to push ourselves forward.

Finally – if you think by reading this you have learned something about autism, the disappointing thing is that you have only learned something about my autism. If you have met one person with autism, you have only met one person with autism. We are all different and all need different things. Sorry.

So now you know. To anyone that has ever known me in my 18 years in policing – I am autistic. I can’t hide it any longer and I no longer think I should have to.

I have spent my life trying to fit in without much success – but I’m not going to try so hard to fit in anymore, because, like everyone else with autism, I was born to stand out. ∎

This blog was originally published on the MPS intranet – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author and the MPS Disability Staff Association

Bouncing back: how ADHD nearly wrecked an officer’s career and home life

Police Federation Rep Kaj Bartlett is raising awareness of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) after a lifelong struggle with the condition which almost destroyed her life

Kathryn ‘Kaj’ Bartlett, an Inspector with Sussex Police, came close to losing her family and career during a particularly difficult time last year – but has since bounced back and is now sharing her story to encourage police forces to learn about ADHD and provide the right support.

Kaj, now an Equality and Diversity Lead for the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW), explained she was always a “stereotypical naughty kid” at school, getting into fights and being disruptive in class. “I wasn’t living up to my potential, despite being described as ‘very bright.’ When I said I wanted to join the police my teachers told me to forget it, saying I didn’t have the right temperament – and to be fair they were right.”

The brain of someone with ADHD doesn’t process the ‘reward chemical’ dopamine in the ‘normal’ way. Someone with the condition constantly seeks interactions and activities which secure the dopamine needed. This can lead to increased risk-taking, impulsiveness, violence and even promiscuity. However, people with ADHD can also thrive in environments which fulfil their dopamine need.

“Operational Policing provides this for me – yet I find it impossible to focus and concentrate on routine tasks, such as report writing and project work,” explained Kaj. “Prior to last year, I had no realisation that I was living with this condition or the significant, overwhelming impact it was having on me.”

Innovative thinking
Despite her troubled start, which she used to think was due to her upbringing, Kaj did become a police officer and quickly impressed her superiors with her creative, innovative thinking, operational focus and drive. “Though I would sometimes get pulled up for not following guidance and policy, I could always justify it and was often commended for doing the right thing overall,” she said.

Kaj Bartlett

Kaj was promoted to Inspector within seven years, but things started to fall apart when her teenage daughter began to get into trouble at school and was at risk of exclusion. Her daughter was exhibiting the same behavioural traits as Kaj at the same age, yet without the same adverse background influences. A physical confrontation with her daughter found Kaj facing an allegation of assault, investigations for gross misconduct and child abuse. By this time, Kaj had formed the belief that she lived with ADHD after concerns were raised about her behaviour in the workplace, and felt unsupported. She knows her employers were trying their best, but due to a lack of awareness of how ADHD affects an individual, the support given was wholly counter-productive.

There was no action taken in relation to the investigations, yet she was deemed to be a ‘danger to the public and colleagues’ and was switched from operational policing to a largely administrative role, where she descended into a spiral of depression and poor mental health. “There were days when I thought I might resign due to the lack of understanding from my employers,” she said.

Reasonable adjustments
Kaj paid for a comprehensive private psychiatric assessment which diagnosed ADHD; armed with a formal diagnosis and a wealth of researched knowledge about ADHD, she was able to fight her way back to an operational role and secure easy reasonable adjustments which work for her and her force. “Society and policing has made great strides with gender, race and age discrimination, but not so much with disability and particularly hidden disability, such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia,” she said. “I went looking for somebody who understood ADHD and policing – there was no-one, so I realised I needed to become that person and to raise that awareness.

“The emergency services offer good careers for people with ADHD who need that ongoing stimulus. They need managers who are understanding and employees who know themselves enough to be able to say ‘yes I can do this – I might need extra help doing that’.”

Through Access to Work, Kaj secured coaching on coping mechanisms for her ADHD and says she can prove how chief constables can save themselves a lot of money in lost staff and sick days by a more progressive approach to neurodiversity.

Zac Mader is a PFEW Board member who chairs the Police Association Strategic Leads (PASL) group, which brings together police support groups and the Federation. He welcomes efforts to raise awareness of the effects of ADHD. “It is essential we are better able to understand ADHD and how it affects our members, as only then can we provide the support and understanding that is required to make a difference to our colleagues,” he said. “I am really grateful to Kaj for her bravery and honesty in sharing her story, and for her part in the ongoing work to ensure that ADHD and other conditions do not hold officers back from achieving their full potential.”

John Nelson, Chair of the National Police Autism Association, added: “Officers and staff with ADHD, autism and other neurodivergent conditions process information differently compared to the majority of the population – they often excel at particular disciplines but can struggle in certain roles and environments.

“The private sector has realised the benefits of matching neurodiverse staff to roles for which they are suited, and the police service should do likewise; our ‘one size fits all’ culture is outdated and doesn’t tap into the potential of our most valuable resource.” ∎

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2019 edition of “Police” magazine published by the Police Federation of England & Wales