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
I’m very open about the personal challenges I face when it comes to my neurodivergence. My message is however a positive one, in that being neurodivergent does give me different abilities and indeed a different outlook on life that can if nothing else makes me laugh at the oddities I perceive. Additionally, networking with others who are neurodivergent has opened friendships that I haven’t had before, with people who understand where I am coming from without me having to explain myself or the way I think.
So, to me. I have a diagnosis of dyslexia and am currently going through the formal process of being assessed for being autistic and having ADHD.
I say this because I believe I am one of hundreds within the police workforce living with these conditions, but unfortunately, I am probably one of the few that feels able to share this. Not enough people have a medical diagnosis to help understand why life can feel harder than it should, and as a profession I don’t believe we ask enough questions to better understand and support our people. If we don’t understand our people, how can we begin to understand the needs of our communities?
To start, we have a huge untapped resource out there – in the people we haven’t proactively recruited into policing, and in the potential within our own people which is not being harnessed because we are not utilising the best of their abilities. Now, knowing who I am, I can look at my work and my life differently, which has been a real positive for both me and all those around me, I like to think.
Before I became a police officer, much of my career focus was around disability and inclusion. From volunteering to working for charities and a local council, I found a passion for creating opportunities for those with disabilities.
Because of this, I was 30 before I joined the police – a ‘late’ joiner compared to many.
My belief is that policing is a career to which many people who are neurodivergent are attracted, as research suggests conditions like dyslexia align with a strong sense of empathy. There is also a perception that policing will attract those who are autistic, because of the way our brains work as problem-solvers.
For me, each day at work is utterly exhausting, but probably for different reasons than you’d expect. Yes, I’m extremely busy as we all are, but I also find that throughout the day, I ‘act’. I am not being my true self. I am incredibly uncomfortable in busy social situations, I dislike physical contact so I hate shaking people’s hands, I find making conversation with people I don’t know difficult, and long meetings are impossibly difficult for me. I therefore must be someone I’m not, to engage in all these ‘normal’ parts of working life that are expected in our workplaces.
I am lucky to have a number of adjustments to my working life that support my specific needs. My office is purposely dim in lighting with no distractions whatsoever on the walls, I have software on my computer to help me with typing, and I have started to tell my colleagues when I’ve reached ‘burnout’ in meetings. Let’s face it – who wouldn’t want shorter meetings?
I cannot imagine what it would be like to have none of this understanding and to carry on with my work hiding or not even being aware of all of this. However, that is the reality for many of our colleagues, and it should not be.
Within Nottinghamshire Police, my own Force, we screen all new starters for dyslexia. We are finding indicatively about 20% have scores that are suggestive of dyslexia. This is a significant percentage and something which must be key to our understanding of our workforce and our responsibility to support them.
I believe that the work we have already done and the results we have achieved in-Force, have made the working environment for neurodivergent people better – and in some cases, much better – enabling them to flourish. There are real positives in doing this work and continuing to do it.
Thankfully, we are talking more and more about neurodivergent conditions such as these, and when I carry out training within my Force, I regularly hear and see people ‘reverse diagnosing’ themselves because they can relate so closely to the challenges of autism, ADHD or dyslexia they hear about in others. In my view we should be screening for autism and ADHD as standard in the same way we screen for dyslexia – however, post-screening support if there were a positive indication is a thorny issue we are trying to resolve.
Our workforce has undergone the biggest wholesale change in its history in the last two years, as we’ve recruited 20,000 new officers into the service at one time. It’s critical that we work to understand the protected characteristics of these colleagues, how we support those who have a visible or invisible disability, and how we support those who are going through a diagnosis, or are in need of one.
Currently, many of our fundamental processes are not geared up to be inclusive for those who are neurodivergent. I am a Superintendent and have only ever passed one interview in my entire policing career.
I was very lucky to be selected on what was the accelerated promotion scheme after my first few months of work, which took me up to Chief Inspector rank. I passed my interview for Superintendent, but know I was nowhere near the ‘top’ of the applicants who passed in terms of interview scoring, and I’m in no doubt that if standard interviews had been the key to my career progression, I would have failed. That’s because interviews are virtually impossible for me. For me, the format of the questions and the pressurised environment cause mental overload, and would get the worst reflection of me as a police officer and as an individual, not the best.
In our Force, we allow all interviewees to have sight of the questions 10 minutes before they will be asked. Senior officers have said that when this first happened, it prompted the most successful interview cohort they had ever had. This doesn’t only need to be for colleagues with disabilities or neurodivergence – it should be for all. Surely our goal is to allow people to show us their best.
This is also the case with exams. Every person will interpret a question differently, but this is even more stark in those with dyslexia. Many would also be aware that very basic things such as the layout of the sentences on a page, or the format a question is presented in, can pose massive problems for people with dyslexia. The ’justified’ sentence structure is terrible for someone who is dyslexic because if you’re skipping lines unconsciously, it’s almost impossible to find your place in the text again. Exams should be a test of knowledge, not of interpretation, so I’m pleased that these are now being reviewed to be far more inclusive to all.
We should also not forget the mental health and wellbeing impact of living with a neurodivergence. If you are autistic, you are seven times more likely to commit or attempt suicide – a shocking statistic. Anyone who is diagnosed – and this is happening in adulthood far more often today – is at the start of a long journey. For me, the realisation of my autism and ADHD made all the battles I have faced over the years make sense. Now, despite my career in policing nearing its end, I am resolutely focused on making sure that the service is more accommodating of people who are neurodivergent and who have disabilities, and that it proactively seeks to employ more people with these conditions, who have so much to offer. We should ask questions of our recruits – current and potential – and offer them roles that suit their unique needs and abilities.
So, my call to everyone reading this would be to consider your colleagues:
Consider the officer who continually stays to work late as they’re trying to get things done – are they battling an impossible workload, or are they actually struggling to complete administrative tasks at the speed of others and trying to hide this?
Consider the colleague who is constantly doodling in a meeting – are they being rude, or are they using a tactic to help them concentrate?
Consider the colleague who does not want to attend the leaving ‘do’, despite being a friend of the department – are they ‘anti-social’ because they’re no fun, or because large social occasions are incredibly difficult for them?
If we understand, we can support. If we can support, we become an environment that really is welcoming for all. ∎
This blog was originally published on the PSA website – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author