“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