I very rarely talk about this because it is a part of my life I firmly have tried to forget and put behind me but when I was 16 I was fired from my first job.
I was actually quite a confident teenager despite being bullied and teased at school for being different, having ambition and getting good grades. I was a teacher's pet with a lot of goals and ambition. Despite not having many friends at school I was well known in the school for both my academic and sporting achievements. School was a place I thrived because there were boundaries, structure and incentives. I love getting praise. It is a big motivator for me so I would do all the right things and was well liked by most teachers.
What school did not do was prepare me for actual working life. School taught me that if you work hard and get good grades you will get a good job. Not knowing I was autistic that was literally for me my thought process. At school it did not matter if you were not popular because if you kept focussed and concentrated on your work you would still get good grades so being popular or good at navigating social rules was not something I viewed as important.
However, work is all about navigating these unwritten rules, being social and not upsetting people. So when I left school I was predicted 11 A*-Cs which, considering my school only offered 9.5 GCSEs as standard, was an achievement. I took extra lessons after school and got a Music GCSE and upgraded French from short to full course with extra lessons after school. My schedule was hectic being in the school band and representing the county, school and club in running events. I loved it.
Due to my success at school I thought I would have no problem with employment. I thought I would be quite successful and had a lot of hope and ambitions so when I secured a job with a well known retailer in 2004 after just 1 interview it was exactly what I expected. I almost felt entitled to have this job knowing it was not my career but I had worked hard at school so this was deserved.
The job was as a retail assistant for a well known UK retailer for a new store that was opening in the town. I was very excited and eager to start full of energy. We had 3 weeks of training before the store opened which included working in another store which I had to get the bus to as it was out of town.
I remember at this point in my life I was probably my most authentic self because I was held in high regard by my teachers and was successful at anything I tried hard at. The training was good and we did a lot of exercises but I did not have a lot in common with the other people who were employed. Some smoked and I did look down on people who smoked as the kids at school who smoked tended to be naughty and so I associated people who smoked as people I did not want to associate with. It was very hard to integrate with the team.
We were given a mentor when working at an open store to show us the ropes and I thought I was doing quite well at learning the ropes. I thought my interaction with customers was what the company wanted but I did not feel comfortable pushing people to sign up for their store card. How we were told to sell it did not feel right to me so I didn't do it. It was a scam. The interest rate on that thing was massive. I remember telling them at the time sports were important to me and asked if I could be rostered on days that did not conflict with them or college and they said it was fine.
When we had our performance review I was expecting it to be positive like everyone else's and so when I walked in and was told I had scored 2/5 1/5 for most things by my mentor I was extremely confused. I asked for further explanation but none was given. They said not to worry and were sure I would be fine in the coming weeks at the new store once I settled in; however, I was not given further training or help.
Once my manager asked me to do something and I made a suggestion he replied 'you have an answer for everything don't you' and I said 'I get told that often' he said it was interesting that.
I watched other colleagues who did not do as well as me at school thrive. They were not experiencing the same problems as me and I was not getting any guidance on how to improve this situation I found myself in.
I came in one day after my review. I was very deflated and panicked and was trying to keep my head down and out of the spotlight. I was rotored in for shifts that clashed with both college and sports. I asked the manager if they could be changed because I had requested an interview not to be rotored in those days. I was told not to worry and they will sort it.
The next day I came in for my shift as normal and checked the rota to see if it had been altered to see my name had been removed. I asked some colleagues why that might be and they said it was because the rota was being altered. The manager then asked to see me in his office. I was not concerned and when I sat down they advised me it wasn't working out and they were terminating my employment. It was based on the performance review which I was told not to worry about and the fact I could not do these shifts I was not flexible enough.
I was distraught and just wanted to get as far away from there as possible. It is only since I was diagnosed I looked back on that experience and realise now why I was fired. It was because I was completely inexperienced at navigating work life not realising that being able to adapt and fit in with people you would not choose to hang around with outside of work is a big part of worklife.
The experience taught me:
- Your face fitting does matter
- No one cares how intelligent you are
- Agree with everything your manager says when they are talking in an open forum
- Be flexible (I quit sport in my late teens in favour of working not because I wanted to but ultimately felt I had to, to keep my job)
- Trust no one, you never truly know people's intentions
- If you have a good idea keep it to yourself
- Don't be negative
That experience has had a lasting negative impact on me. I hate being unexpectedly called into meeting rooms by a manager.
However since I have been diagnosed and am now able to advocate for myself in the workplace I am starting to see a glimmer of hope where my career is concerned. It is only my new employer now where being called into a meeting room does not bother me as much because the line of communication is so open I tend to know in advance what will be said in meetings and I am often forewarned with a 'we will have a catch up soon'.
My new employer and the work I do is a good fit for my personality because there are KPIS and incentives and that gives me structure and boundaries. There is also support there for me and I feel very much listened to. They like the advocacy work I do and there are a few ideas floating around about where I can next take my career there.
The result of a diagnosis for me has meant:
- I can advocate for myself
- The company being a good fit for me is more important than what I can offer them
- I get reasonable adjustments now to assist me in the job I do.
- I have a support system
- I have excellent coping strategies
- I can be adaptable with the experience I have learned
Yes there were a lot of things my first employer and manager could have done differently in way of offering more support or just being patient and seeing my potential. Ultimately that experience just made me more determined and I bounced back from it. I have not been sacked from a job since I put it that way.
I think if you are a parent reading this and are worried about getting a label for your child, ultimately you are doing your child a disservice. There is nothing wrong with having a neurodiverse condition. It is what you do with the information that is important. By not seeking help for your child you are taking away their choice and right to advocate and learn more about themselves.
I am not for one second saying being autistic and navigating a workplace is easy. I am saying that since I got my diagnosis I have been able to make better choices in the type of work I do and know I will like. Knowledge is power.