Autism Acceptance Week – Jayden’s Letter

This Autism Acceptance Week, one of our colleagues, Jayden, asked if he could write a letter to our people to share his experience of being on the Autism spectrum.

Dear Colleagues, 

I was really unsure how to start this letter, but I guess I’ll start with the basics. My Name is Jayden Dwyer-Read, and I work as a Building Fabric Planner in the Redditch Office. I have been at Arcus for around five years, primarily working on the night team. I could have started this letter with the obvious; which is that I have Autism, more specifically Aspergers, but I think it’s really important that you know who I am, before finding out about my condition? Quirkiness? I’m not sure how to describe Aspergers really. 

I also want to make clear that whilst I have Aspergers and have done extensive research on the subject, as well as having lots of interactions with people with the same condition, I am not an expert on it, so I can only really describe me and how it affects me, in the hopes that it resonates with some of you and you start to understand what on earth I’m talking about.  

I was diagnosed with Aspergers when I was around 15. I had an educational psychologist at the time, and she sat me down and started to explain that I was a little different from everyone else, that I was, as she put it ‘very special’, (this was a lie) and I remember sitting there and crying, thinking I was a freak, different from everyone else. It was explained that Aspergers was a fancy, dressed-up way of saying I had a different way of looking at the world than most others. When I was 15, this manifested in severe difficulty with making friends at school, and being labeled as ‘naughty’. I remember this early on feeling almost locked within myself, unable to make any real connection with anyone around me.  

The example I use most to describe this feeling is to imagine you are around a table with a bunch of football fans who you don’t recognize. You want to be part of the group, but you aren’t sure how to even begin – so you listen to what they are talking about, football, of course, and you wait, and you wait, and there, a break in the conversation, you say loudly “I hate football. It’s a stupid sport”. And they all turn and look at you, stop talking, and you feel like a total idiot. Now to you, who doesn’t like football, and thinks it’s a stupid sport, this was a perfectly reasonable thing to say and should have enabled you to take part in the conversation, but to all the football fans, you, the weird quiet kid, just announced loudly that their favorite thing in the whole world is stupid.  

You might think the above example is a little extreme, but honestly, that exact thing happened to me. I remember it distinctly – I was sat around a table at lunchtime in school, and all the lads were talking football, I wanted so desperately to fit in that I loudly announced I thought the whole thing was dumb. And then, in a moment of embarrassment, tried to save myself by saying rugby was way better. Safe to say, the next time I went out into the schoolyard, they all pelted me with footballs.  

That’s what having Aspergers is like, at least for me. I always seem to be saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong way. And no amount of research, or planning will fix it. The only thing that’s enabled me now to see where I went wrong is experience. Having Aspergers doesn’t make me any more or less intelligent, so if I see something is wrong I can analyze it and realize why it was the wrong thing to say, but it does make me totally socially inept.  

Another way Aspergers manifests strongly for me is through eye contact. Eye contact is total anathema to me, imagine a baking hot day, trying to look into the sun. Your brain is screaming at you it’s a stupid thing to do, and your head almost doesn’t obey you, but you look, and then you immediately want to look away. That sums up eye contact for me. And obviously, in a conversation, this makes you appear disinterested or rude.  

In my younger years, I remember teachers and social workers shouting at me “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” and this, of course, made everything worse. Being an adult, I have been told a few times “Can you look at me? You’re being rude” and then I have to explain myself, and it makes for a very long and embarrassing conversation, on both sides!  

So, why am I telling you all this? What’s the point? How is it relevant? Well the answer to all that is simple, I’ve not changed much from being that weird, quiet 15-year-old who struggles in social situations. The only difference now is that I’m sat in a large office, and those meetings are meetings that determine whether I get a promotion, or move down a band. After 27 years, I can now make eye contact, albeit briefly, but I still struggle with it.  

I now know that calling something someone is interested in stupid or dumb, whatever my thoughts on it, is the wrong thing to do, but I still don’t know what the right thing to say is half the time. This means that I’m often perceived as rude or grumpy. I’m not, I’m actually a pretty happy person, I just don’t know how to express that emotion outwardly.  

There have been a number of times when I’m sat at my desk, thinking about the wonderful weekend I’m about to have, in the best mood, and I’ll get a message from someone or I’ll get asked “Are you okay? You look upset or angry, what’s wrong?” and I’ve realized that I’m sat there scowling when inwardly, I’m smiling! 

In meetings, I may struggle to maintain eye contact, but that doesn’t mean I’m not listening. If someone on the helpdesk approaches me and asks me about a job, I won’t always know the right words to say to appear friendly. I may just be straight to business because that’s the only safe thing I know to default to. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to be friendly, it just means I don’t know how.  

The correct term for all of this is ‘Neurodivergent’ which means that you think differently to other people. And the thing is, there is a massive spectrum of neurodivergence. They all have different labels, Aspergers, ADHD, etc., and not everyone is diagnosed or wants to be identified as having those conditions. And that’s fine. But I want people to recognise that the person you spoke to who didn’t look you in the eye, who seemed a bit awkward or rude, may have a reason that you can’t see. 

They might not be on the autism spectrum, maybe they are having a bad day or maybe they are being rude on purpose, but It’s important to stop and think. Don’t just dismiss someone as rude because of one interaction, most of the time, if you talk to that person for more than five minutes, the reasons for the ‘rudeness’ become clear. Don’t treat people with autism any differently than you would anyone else, but try and understand everyone. Too often I’ve been dismissed as a rude person, when really I want nothing more than to be friends with everyone, I just don’t know how.  

Your colleagues are all different, and it’s really important to recognize that. It’s important to treat everyone with kindness and understanding. I have been scared and anxious to admit this to people for many long years, but Arcus has been a place of immense comfort and understanding for me, and everyone to whom I have spoken about Aspergers or about being different has been so understanding and helpful, and that’s what’s empowered me to write this letter, to come out and tell everyone. 

If you have read this far, thank you. I Have Aspergers. I’m different. And that’s okay. 

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Autism Acceptance Week – Jayden’s Letter