West Midlands Police Assistant Chief Constable Matt Welsted believes he owes his successful career to his dyslexic thinking. He’s telling his story to inspire others that being neurodivergent (ND) doesn’t need to hold you back.
I always hated reading and found the process frustrating, but I didn’t get myself tested for dyslexia until I was nearly 43 years old.
I only got tested then when I finally hit an obstacle that my ways of working couldn’t overcome, but I’m so glad I did.
As a child I didn’t know I was dyslexic, but looking back it was obvious. I saw things differently from my peers, and I found reading and writing hateful and exhausting activities – I just didn’t know why.
My education was a mixed bag. I did well in maths and science, all things physical and was confident at speaking and solving problems, but underachieved at English or anything based on reading or writing.
It affected my confidence because others seemed to find this easy, even enjoyable, and I didn’t – so of course, at times I doubted my intelligence and abilities.
I worried about my written work as this was the obvious ‘issue’ for people who criticised it over the years. I learned to hide this away from others or did a lot of redrafting to make sure it was right.
I’ve developed ways of working that help me deal with being dyslexic. These include:
I ask for reasonable adjustments for standardised tests – usually extra time and a private room
I listen to books and have an app that reads documents
I plan where I work so I don’t set myself up to fail – the downside is that I usually spend my working days speaking to people and doing my reading or writing away from others
I play to my strengths – I’ve built a career out of doing what I’m good at
I manage my focus to make sure I get done what’s important
People with dyslexia or other ND conditions have strengths that are often what policing needs. My innovation, positivity, passionate communication and ability to ‘see’ solutions that others can’t, have helped me serve the public for over 27 years and become a chief officer in England’s second-biggest police force.
It’s true that for dyslexic people to thrive in a police environment, the individual needs to get over some of the obvious challenges – such as statement taking, report writing, handwriting and spelling. Too many colleagues have been criticised or labelled ‘stupid’ because they’ve struggled with these activities.
In 2023, there’s no reason this should be the case. Most of the time, a little support, understanding and some simple adjustments that are free or cheaply available is all that’s needed.
I know how hard it is to face up to your challenges and ask for support, but it’s worth it. It gave me answers, insights and the ability to understand myself.
I believe that tolerating or even accepting difference is not enough: we should seek out difference for the value it adds. ∎
I’ve decided to start a regular blog that will outline my journey though diagnosis – or at least assessment and treatment – for being autistic and having ADHD.
I feel it is important to outline this journey, to illustrate the trials and tribulations, but also the challenges faced by colleagues and individuals in society more broadly.
I’m one of the fortunate ones as I can afford to pay £600 to £1,000 for a private assessment. Others can face anywhere from two to five years to access the NHS assessment process. Imagine starting your career as a police officer or police staff member and needing support, but having to wait five years for it. If you broke your leg and waited five years to have it put in a cast, imagine what shape it would be in.
So why am I at this juncture in my life, seeking to be diagnosed? As a 58-year-old father of two, I have reverse-diagnosed the likelihood of me being autistic. This is not uncommon.
Having gone through the assessment journey as a family, relating to one of my children, it became apparent that the traits and behaviours being focused on during this process were traits and behaviours I also demonstrated.
Initially this caused me to be diagnosed as dyslexic, but then the epiphany: I am autistic as well. I undertook the AQ50 self-assessment and scored well into the 40s. It is worth saying at this point that the AQ50 is seen as being very good at diagnosing white men. Autism is however ‘skin and gender colour-blind’ and there is significant under-diagnosis amongst females and in other communities. So please don’t think only white men are autistic – nothing could be further from the truth.
I did however decide a couple of years ago, that at my age and length of service, there was no huge benefit in getting a formal diagnosis. Well, I’m also a skinflint and I didn’t want to spend the money. However, on learning more about ADHD and it occurring to me that I probably have that as well, the need for a diagnosis was confirmed. At first, my reaction was “How could I have ADHD? I’m not a naughty person, I wasn’t naughty at school.” The worst I ever got on my school report was that “Paul is prone to distracting others” – a direct quote that has stayed with me. This shows the strange associations we can have with these terms.
It never occurred to me that this condition could apply to me. It also never occurred to me that my ‘average’ academic capability might have been caused by something deeper. After all, I wasn’t in the ‘remedial class’, as it was called then.
I therefore applaud the PSA and CPOSA for recently setting up the mental health support line for members. I am happy to say that I have availed myself of their services and would strongly recommend getting in touch with JustB. It doesn’t take long to realise that asking for help is the best thing to do. I have always been too proud to ask for help. I’m a senior officer with lots of operational responsibility, a sportsman who has taken part in significant physical challenges – I’m tough. In fact I’m bloody tough. I don’t need help. But this time, I did.
So finally at breaking point, I got in touch with my GP – a man who is a true beacon for the NHS. My expectations were low. I expected to simply be prescribed some anti-depressants and be told to get some counselling. He thought differently, and I was pleasantly surprised. He gave me some self-assessment forms for autism and ADHD and recommended a formal assessment. A friend who is diagnosed with ADHD and who is medicated has applauded this decision. Indeed, this same friend has said that it is obvious that I have ADHD. At times, it is obvious who we are to everyone but ourselves.
So why the blog? Putting it out there is scary, but also – in a strange way – easy. Perhaps that’s part of my dissociative brain – it isn’t actually me writing the blog! One of my sons wants to join the job, and so I am determined to help the Service develop, so it can recruit, support, nurture and actively seek those who are neurodivergent. My story may assist with this.
There is of course the potential that my assessment will come back as being not diagnosed. I will live with that if it happens, but I know it won’t be the case. When I told a colleague a couple of years ago that I thought I was autistic he said, “Of course you are Paul, I knew that years ago”. I did think, “well why didn’t you tell me?”
I now provide neurodivergence awareness training in-Force, and explain that I used to provide sporting opportunities for those with traumatic physical disabilities, frequently ex-service people. I was constantly told that that it took seven years of ‘grieving’ to come to terms with the injury. My lived experience is that a formal or informal diagnosis of autism or ADHD has a similar life-event impact. It is my view that the earlier the diagnosis, the better. I have five decades of life to look back over, and to reflect upon how I perceive myself, which is fundamentally different to how others see me. I have been described as quirky and odd far too many times over the years – two words I have come to loathe as descriptors. I have never really been accepted for being me. At least, it doesn’t feel that I am, until people spend some significant time with me. I didn’t and don’t fit the norm. My aim is to encourage the non-neurodivergent to look at the neurodivergent as being ‘normal’, whatever that means.
I will update my blog as my assessment progresses – hopefully with humour and perhaps at times, some pathos. My plea to anyone reading this is: consider your friends and family, staff and colleagues who may be struggling, who may be being disciplined for poor performance, or who may be being ostracised for being different. It may be that person is neurodivergent but doesn’t know it, knows it but doesn’t feel able to share it, or just needs consideration for being neurodivergent. Please have this is in the back of your mind.
To end on a slightly lighter note: we are developing a programme of work to train work-based assessors to review the working environment and requirements of those who are identified as being neurodivergent. The problem we had is that a group of dyslexic officers wrote the paper. The one person involved who was not dyslexic has ADHD, and got bored after two pages of proof-reading. We therefore had to go outside for help to make sure sent copies weren’t just random letters underlined in red!
Being neurodivergent is a challenge and extremely tiring for some – it is for me. But it can be very funny at times, not least because how I/we look at the world differently. But it also means that skills exist that the police service desperately needs, to help look beyond the proverbial box. If we don’t start to do this now, other companies and industries are wising up to this and are starting direct recruitment. Neurodivergence is a challenge and a battle, but is also the door to unique and incredible skills and ways of thinking that have huge value to the police and other sectors.
To be continued! ∎
This blog was originally published on the PSA website – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author
Devon & Cornwall Police have introduced a new sensory tool to help support neurodivergent student officers
The new Sensory Library Squares were developed by Samboards and were funded from a grant allocated to the National Police Autism Association by the NPCC. They will be used primarily to support students who are suspected or diagnosed as having a neurodivergent condition.
The sensory boards are designed to help persons with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or sensory issues within the classroom environment. Side effects of ADHD and autism can make it more challenging for students to participate in study and other activities, so using a sensory board can help increase concentration and assist with focusing.
John Holland, NPAA lead coordinator and Neurodiversity Support Network Peer Support SPOC for Devon & Cornwall Police, said: “The approach the Performance & Inclusion team are utilising to support neurodiverse student officers has been recognised by the College of Policing as a supportive measure to ensure our officers are being given an equally opportunity to thrive within the learning environment, and is just one of many supportive measures we are exploring.”