Dear future employers,
Oops. I don’t think I was supposed to tell you that.
Let me start over.
A not so surprising diagnosis
I recently started “the hunt” for a new role and it forced me to think a lot about how others perceive me. This may initially seem like a vain pursuit, and I'll admit it can be, but it’s turned out to be an unexpected journey of self-discovery. A journey that has pushed me so far outside my comfort zone that I don’t really remember my way back. Rather than try I’ve decided to lean into it.
Last year I became one of the many adults who received a late diagnosis of ADHD and autism. It was something I had wondered about for a long time but never really followed through on (thank you ADHD). What I knew before then was I had never really been myself around others - not with friends or family and especially not with colleagues. Turns out this is quite common (especially amongst AFAB individuals) because peer pressure is real, and kids can be mean, it pays off to learn quickly.
Learning I was autistic was an experience. Everything I knew about myself turned out to be a patchwork of identities based on trial and error, embarrassing social encounters, and a lifetime of mistakes. Nearly a year later and I’ve got most of it sussed and I am gradually getting more comfortable with being myself around others. The timing of my unmasking has been less than ideal as word on the street is I shouldn't tell any future employers.
"Neurodiverse people are a valuable asset on any team but..."
A few weeks ago, I put up a poll on LinkedIn that asked people in my network when they thought the right time to disclose a disability during the hiring process was. While LinkedIn polls aren't exactly scientific data, I did find it interesting that the overwhelming majority advised me to play it safe. Their message was clear, neurodiverse people are an asset to any team BUT if you disclose before or during the interview you may experience discrimination. They are of course right; people are discriminated against every day. Sometimes consciously and other times subconsciously so why take the chance.
There is a lot to be said for the conservative approach, and I respect people who play the game, either because they want to, or they must. It’s a logical argument that comes from a good place and I appreciate the sentiment behind it. Yes, in an ideal world we should be able to disclose freely and have it be a non-issue, but we aren’t there yet.
Am I ready to take up space?
A few weeks ago, I had a coffee chat with a manager in tech who is also autistic, and I asked him for his perspective on disclosing, masking, and the interview process. We both recognised and acknowledged the privilege of being able to make this choice and I want to state it here too. I am incredibly privileged to be able to take the risk of disclosing during an interview and the consequences that may have. It goes without saying that both options are totally valid and only you can know what is right in your situation.
After that conversation, I was left wondering what the tangible difference disclosing would make. They had asked me two questions "what would it be like for you to take up space instead of making yourself small?" and "how would that impact your work if you felt comfortable and safe bringing your whole self to work?".
What those two questions allowed me to do was put words to a feeling that I have had for some time. I don't want to mask anymore. I don't want to try to fit into a mould that was never made for me. I don't want to make myself small to make others feel comfortable. More than anything I don't want to be rewarded and praised for fitting into that mould.
For me, this idea of taking up space begins at the interview. I firmly believe interviews should be a two-way process so if they have a checklist, we should too. When I go for an interview, I want to know if that company is the right fit for me. Do their values align with mine? Are their teams diverse and inclusive? As of today, I am adding a new metric to the list. Do I feel comfortable being myself?
Time to drop the mask
Yes, I could do what I have done for years - force eye contact, not fidget or stim, and ultimately make it through an interview. I could mask, but I don’t want to. That's why I'm here, miles outside my comfort zone and minutes away from pressing publish. I want to take up space. I want to bring my whole self to work. I want to be unapologetically me. So here it goes -
Dear future employers,
My name is Paige and I’m autistic.
Please don't ask me to work in an office but other than that we're all good.