Angus Baskerville was diagnosed with Asperger’s and ADHD at the age of 15. He told the audience at last year’s Ruth Alston Memorial Lecture about growing up with these conditions, his experiences of the workplace as an adult and how discovering a talent for magic has transformed his life. This is an abridged version of his presentation.
My story begins in Africa, where I lived in Cape Town for 12 years from the age of three to 15 with my parents and my younger sister. My parents sought out numerous services to work with my sensory system, determined to tackle the root rather than the symptoms; as I had showed signs of autism from a very young age.
I had all sorts of interventions and specialised physio. However, the South African education system was behind in terms of its knowledge of autism and I was seen by my peers as the “naughty” child and by various clinical psychologists as simply a child with ADHD.
Of course, this gap between my peers and I grew even wider when I hit secondary school. I had by now notched up a total of 15 schools, some of which I left just before I was pushed and others I was pulled out of because I was so desperately unhappy and falling behind; the bullying I suffered was absolutely horrendous.
When we relocated back to the UK in 2011, I was finally formally diagnosed at a huge cost of £2,500 by a private clinical psychologist. My parents had little option but to opt for this route, as no school was prepared to take me into Year 10 otherwise.
Autism and employment
Let’s now fast-forward to 2018. In the UK, only 16% of autistic adults are in full-time work, and this has not changed in 10 years. Compare this to the 47% of disabled people and 80% of non-disabled people in full-time employment.
Why is this? I’m as “Aspie” and, while it may on the surface look like I am one of the successes in the workplace, it is really not as simple as that. Every day I have to put my “mask” on and draw on the social skills that have been drilled into me since I was a little boy, none of which come naturally to me.
I applied to numerous pubs and restaurants in my local area. On the CV it did state I was autistic, and I never heard a word back from any of them. I then updated my CV, this time not stating I was autistic. And I did get a few interviews. But then, when it came up in the interview, I didn’t get the job.
Like most Aspies I struggle to read people’s expressions, and this has had a huge impact when it comes to work. For example, a lot of autistic people can easily suffer in an interview from being over-honest. I once had an interview at Waitrose. I told the manager: “I don’t want to work with the customers.” What I meant was that I preferred to do a job behind the scenes until I grew in confidence. But of course by then it was too late.
So what can employers do to accommodate people with Asperger’s syndrome? First, bear in mind that we all have different skill-sets; someone may well have a weakness, such as organisational skills, but that does not mean they are not qualified to do the job. Offer a work experience week as well as a short interview – and please be prepared to pay at least the minimum wage for this – this will be much more beneficial than missing out on a potentially good and very loyal employee just because he or she has not answered your questions fully or come across as very confident.
Buddy schemes and small adjustments
Please consider a buddy of some sort for the trial period. Better still, at interview, ask the candidate what would make a difference to help them settle in and perform at their very best. Consider flexible hours, so they can avoid stressful peak traffic commuting. Perhaps position them where you have soft lighting in the corner of the office away from the photocopier or kitchen smells. Your employee will be keen to do the very best job, and small adjustments can go a very long way to help them.
We are differently abled, not necessarily disabled. Mental health problems should not go hand in hand with Asperger’s syndrome, but it is unfortunate that mental health problems are the consequence of a lack of understanding and acceptance from those around us.
Our families and friends and siblings are a resource; they know the young person better than any professional. So please allow them to attend meetings with us, and to help to identify adjustments. Bear in mind, too, that our neurological age can often be incredibly different from our chronological age; therefore, far too much can be expected of us at times.
My passion is magic. I discovered when I was 17 that I could impress people with my tricks and my self-esteem began to improve. I realised I could be good at something. I found I had the ability to entertain a whole train carriage simply by carrying a pack of cards. A pack of cards is my comfort blanket; I am never without them.
Looking back at my chaotic childhood, my parents would never have dreamt that their highly noise-sensitive and tactile-sensitive son would be able to walk into a noisy pub full of strangers with little fear of rejection and entertain them, and come out later with a pocketful of tips.
So, a final word on what it’s like to be me. When you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person. It does not make you an authority on autism; we are all unique, just like any other neuro-typical person.
For me, to sit round a table with a group of people in a conversation is like being an English person in France where you catch the beginning and end of a sentence, but don’t quite get the middle bit. I also compare it to playing games at school in a group, but where you are given a different set of instructions to everyone else. That is what it is like to be an Aspie.
The Health and Wellbeing @ Work conference and exhibition will this year run from 05-06 March, and details can be found at http://www.healthwellbeingwork.co.uk/
Angus Baskerville Magic can be found at https://www.angusbaskerville.com/