“I used my experience to improve life for others”

From an autistic Police Constable to Police Sergeant – how one officer successfully challenged the system and improved career prospects for neurodivergent colleagues

Sergeant Suzanne Burke

Back in April we published a blog by Suzanne Burke, a Constable with the Metropolitan Police Service, in which she spoke candidly about her experiences as an autistic police officer. For several years, Suzanne had tried unsuccessfully to achieve promotion, having passed the exams but finding the final interview stage to be an insurmountable obstacle.

Suzanne volunteered as a Police Federation representative in order to help colleagues who are neurodivergent themselves or need advice and support in managing neurodivergent colleagues. With the help of the Federation, Suzanne obtained funding for a National Autistic Society workplace assessment and secured the reasonable adjustments she needed. Since writing her blog, and with this additional support in place, Suzanne was successful in achieving promotion to the rank of Sergeant.

Suzanne said: “I’m now in a Metropolitan Police Service that is getting better all the time and there’s a willingness to change, even right up at the top.”

Read more about Suzanne’s personal journey in the Summer 2021 issue of the MPS Federation London Beat Magazine (click on the links for the online magazine and a PDF download of the article). ∎

Equality vs Equity

As a support network for neurodivergent police officers and staff, one of our most frequently-asked questions concerns reasonable adjustments. A reasonable adjustment is defined as a change in the workplace to remove or reduce the effect of an employee or job applicant’s disability, when carrying out or applying for a job. Disabled employees and applicants, including* those with neurodivergent conditions such as autism and dyslexia, are entitled to reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act to help them overcome the limitations of their disability or condition at work or in seeking employment.

An important concept in the reasonable adjustment process is that it is sometimes necessary to treat people differently in order to provide everyone with an equal opportunity to succeed. This is best illustrated by the following graphic, created by the Canadian City for All Women Initiative:

The first image shows what can happen when everyone is treated equally – some people will lose out due to the effect of their disability or other protected characteristic. The second image shows equity, or fairness, and how this differs from equality – by giving some people additional support, everyone has an equal chance of success.

Reasonable adjustments in selection and promotion processes are sometimes misunderstood as ‘special treatment’ that gives some people an unfair advantage (and therefore disadvantages others). It’s important to understand that adjustments are there to ensure that disabled and neurodivergent applicants have the same chance of success as everyone else – the second image in the graphic. A typical example is wording the interview questions for an autistic candidate to remove any ambiguity, and allowing the candidate to have each question in writing to refer to when they provide their answer. Research by the University of Bath has shown that autistic interviewees can over-analyse or misinterpret questions and struggle to mentally organise their evidence to fit what is being asked – adjusting the style of questions, providing thinking time and written prompts allows the candidate to overcome these difficulties and present themselves as well as other applicants. (Candidates with dyslexia and other neurodivergent conditions may also benefit from these adjustments.)

Continuing the example of workplace interviews, some employers have gone a step further by providing all candidates with neurodivergent-friendly questions, preparation time and written prompts. This is an example of the third image in the graphic – removing the systemic barrier so that no one is disadvantaged or needs to ask for adjustments. With a little thought and effort, this approach can be applied to any workplace environment, process or culture – and as with the interview example, it has the potential to benefit everyone, disabled or not. ∎

*Neurodivergent conditions may meet the criteria of a disability – assessed on an individual basis

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