17 January 2024 Blog

“You’ll need to grow a thicker skin!”


I half wondered what the senior colleague was saying at the time, my highly visual brain dragging me to a literal vision of thickening skin tissue. Eventually, I understood it to be that I needed to toughen up, not cry to the point of inconsolability, and to have some control.

It was 1995, I was 19. I had a 20-week-old baby at home, an extremely low mood, and I had started a new job 12 weeks earlier due to a lack of understanding of my maternity rights and needing to find a more local job and secure income, believing my SMP (Statutory Maternity Pay) was coming to an end when it wasn’t. My employer had also misinformed me.

I had made an admin mistake, a mistake that someone else in the workplace took the blame for, and yes, it was blame rather than any intention to ensure the error didn’t happen again and to improve systems. And it was my fault.

I was inconsolable, upset because someone else had taken the blame for my mistake, upset because I loathe getting into trouble, and now I was being told I had to report to the consultant concerned, confess my culpability, and apologise, particularly because someone else had taken the blame. I stood with the senior colleague, cried in front of the consultant (I was already in tears as I was being marched to their office), became non-verbal, and created all-round embarrassment. I don’t even remember his response other than his reference to the impact of the situation and blame being hurled across the room between the two senior colleagues.

Needless to say, I was destroyed by it all, and the following week – illustrative of an active grapevine – I was asked what had happened by another senior colleague, which resulted in them saying to me, “You’ll need to grow a thicker skin.”

Situations like this are the reasons undiagnosed neurodivergents need to know they are neurodivergent. Through a neurotypical lens, I needed to toughen up, take responsibility for an error on my part, and use effective communication to resolve the tension and conflict. Redress the harmony for all concerned.

Today, 2024, I now know I am Autistic, and a lot of what happened that day (and for which I suffered weeks of upset after, leading to my eventual resignation) could be explained by knowing I was Autistic – for everyone concerned. The most important reason I needed to know is because the event left me feeling I was faulty, to blame, that I had something wrong with me, and I was inadequate – not just because of the error, but because of how I responded – because despite how hard I tried, then and for a long time after, I could not seem to grow that damn thicker skin!

You see, I have a gift, a beautiful gift, but one that is seen as a curse in our society. One that people often want to correct. I am a highly sensitive person, to hurt – physical and emotional – yours and my own. I am also an empath – you cry, I taste your tears – an HSP empath, if you will. I carry a heavy weight for these gifts. In spite of this fact, I wouldn’t change them for the world, and what I have come to know, and really needed to know in 1995, is that…my skin will never become thicker, and what’s more, I am not faulty because of the fact that I am not ‘thicker skinned’.

I would later learn that I am not just an HSP empath but also Autistic and that many Autistic people are HSP Empaths (contrary to the pervasive myth that Autistics do not have empathy) and the situation when viewed through an Autistic lens, would have been viewed very differently.

  • Use of idioms like “You’ll have to grow a thicker skin” isn’t immediately clear for Autistic people, as we often take things literally. Literal but not stupid – I do know what most mean – but I have to process them as they are unclear forms of communication.
  • I worked in a large place with lots of people, lots of strangers, lots of authority, and lots of constant noise. My brain works more effectively with quiet. With quiet, I can concentrate and am far less likely to make mistakes and errors in my work.
  • The error I made was a failure to put one blank form in a folder. I have executive functioning challenges with my Autism that cause me a poor working memory, but my long-term memory is exceptional, another curse of why I remember this event so vividly. Lists of things to remember are difficult for me until they move into my long-term memory through sufficient repetition. I was still new to the job; this had not yet happened.
  • I was preparing folders while dealing with interruptions and liaising with the general public. Autistics, including myself, often struggle with cognitive flexibility – the ability to switch between tasks and resume where we left off immediately and effectively. Dealing with interruptions with cognitive flexibility issues is difficult.
  • I struggle to communicate when conflict arises, and this can cause me to become emotionally dysregulated (meltdown and close down) and to become non-verbal. I was totally dysregulated, and this was the reason I could not speak.
  • When I cannot cope with situations like this, I retract – the resignation – this retracting is a trauma response for my own protection.

A week or so before I left, one of the other clerks said to me, “You are the best one we have had so far.” The employer lost out too.

Situations like this, and they exist in their plenty for many Autistic people, become little and big ‘T’ traumas. They add to the already heavy weight that we carry living as neurodivergent in a neurotypical society, built by and to accommodate, the predominant neurotype. We are left with the cognitive and emotional scars.

Today, after my Autism diagnosis, and with the greater awareness that I am an HSP empath, which I had recognised well before my Autism self-identification in 2020 and diagnosis a year later, I accept that I am not flawed (not perfect either), but that I am within the realm of ‘good enough’ as a human being and as a worker. Good enough is more than okay.

Failure to recognise Autism and to be supported with adjustments and neuro-affirming workplaces, and the added failure of society to see highly sensitive empathic people as a gift rather than something to correct, means that we can often end up feeling broken and wrong rather than nurtured and supported. We either work less effectively, or organisations have all the cost and disruption of losing good staff when we can’t cope and leave.

So,what needs to change?

  • We need to find who the neurodivergents are, Autistic or otherwise. There are so many of us living not knowing we are neurodivergent, left feeling we are at fault, rather than learning we are ‘different’ and living in an unaccommodating society.
  • Workplaces need to support from the top down, declaring their support for neurodiversity and neurodivergent employees through publicised policy and their zero tolerance of ‘ableism.’
  • Policy needs to be put into practice through awareness raising of neurodiversity and neurodivergence, through training which includes recognition and understanding of the part that ‘ableism’ plays in neurodivergence, and ‘lived experience’ sharing. Training is not enough without the ‘lived experiences’ of neurodivergent people, because they are the experts.
  • Flexible working as standard.
  • Flexible and supportive management practices.
  • Reasonable adjustments to support neurodivergent people.
  • Co-operation and empathy across all neurotypes – neurotypicals (approx. 80%), and neurodivergents (approx. 20%). Currently the neurodivergents are forced to do the majority of the adapting and bending. Everyone needs to work together so the whole of neurodiversity benefits.
  • Personal wellbeing support plans for ALL employees, regardless of neurotype.
  • Have recognised and trained Neurodiversity Champions.
  • Encourage allyship from everyone towards their neurodivergent colleagues – those who will support their neurodivergent voices and lived experiences of neurodivergence, challenge ableism, and create positive change.
  • Person-centred approach – always ask, never assume – everyone is different, every neurodivergent is different through their unique ‘spiky profile’ – what benefits one neurodivergent person, may not benefit another.

Mind Matters is currently developing training that will support the development of Neurodiversity Champions. Watch this space for further details…

17 January 2024 Blog