CW: discussions of severe mental distress and suicidal ideation.
I know, I know, it’s been far too long. These four weeks I haven’t had an entry were due to the first few weeks of a new job. That new job is gone now. I’ve had to apply for Universal Credit. It’s ironic, that the main reason I applied for this job in the first place was because I couldn’t get work as an autistic trainer. Despite the clear need for it within the sectors I work in, I have not been getting the work. I’m not alone in that – it’s a problem most of us face. We are in a time of economic depression, a long period of political instability and a pandemic. So I thought I would do good work in the meantime, putting my teaching experience to good use. I will talk about my experiences here, without naming anyone in particular. I have considered taking legal action, but with the contract I had, I was easily gotten rid of and replaced.
From the start, I was completely open about the fact I am autistic. The staff and leadership I met were actually very excited about having me as part of their team. Yet the person in direct leadership over me – the head of languages – was not happy to see me there. Somehow, something changed between my interview and me starting at the new school. I don’t know what caused it – maybe she’d seen this blog and gotten offended by something she read? But it triggered my anxiety. I was really nervous to upset or offend her, so I went out of my way not to do so. I should have known that this makes people who are already harbouring negative feelings towards me even less likely to change their minds. Whatever I did or said, it didn’t make it better. This particular teacher was also the person I would be replacing, the head of languages at this school. I spent the first week shadowing her. Her style, when faced with a loud class, is to raise her voice. This hurt. Quite a few other teachers also did. My ears were buzzing. Not from the students’ noise, from the staff’s.
Luckily, this was only the case with a few teachers. Most were really happy to support me and treated me as an equal. The teacher I was supporting, though, one day, was teaching a loud year 7. Her continued shouting at the class hurt my ears. As we walked away, I jokily commented that “this class gave me a headache.” She said: “Well, welcome to teaching.” I just nodded. This was awful. I had been very clear about my sensitivity to noise. I felt utterly unwelcome. I raised this with our mutual head of department, as she would be going on maternity leave the week after. I pressed him to not escalate this, as I was frightened me raising the issue would be used against me, as much as he promised me that it would not.
On Monday the next week, I heard that my sister-in-law was going to give birth. Five months early. I was frightened for her health, for my brother and for my family. It really upset me. I was already walking on my tiptoes from what had happened the week before. I felt that I couldn’t make any more mistakes. I was right.
After my lessons, I was helping out with a tutorial session, where the students get to ask general questions and the form tutor provides necessary information (mostly pandemic-related at the moment). I was not needed, though I saw a student who I’d seen on the SEN list be mocked by other students. Because of the regulations, teachers are not allowed to move beyond the line of the first tables in the room. I needed to, to stop the students being verbally abusive to that student. A member of the leadership team saw that and called me back to let me know that I should not have done that. I tried to explain, he didn’t consider anything I’d said. I was annoyed. I showed I was by saying: “No, of course. I’m sorry, I’ll just do what you want.” The moment he left I went into meltdown. Not now. Not again. I got very angry with myself. After already starting on such a bad footing with the person training me, I couldn’t afford to let the mask slip. I had. I needed a while to de-escalate. I was rushing with shame.
Afterwards, on the train, I heard my nephew had been born and died moments later. I knew his name now. The grief came pouring out. I called my partner, I just wept. In the evening, I had to prepare lessons for the next day, since most of my prepared lessons were wrong – I hadn’t been given the appropriate and up-to-date information. When I had requested this, I was simply told the information I had been given was correct and up-to-date. I didn’t want to upset anyone – especially the head of languages – so I kept schtumm. I told her in an email that I was confused as to what to actually prepare for. She sent me the lessons she had just taught and I needed to plan for the following. However, my brain was foggy due to the loss of my nephew. I repurposed and added to the lessons. When I went in the next morning, the head of languages told me I had prepared the wrong lessons. I was crying now, I spoke to her face to face. I made the mistake of telling her about the complaint I raised with our line manager and that the sound that was hurting me had been her shouting at the class. She said: “I don’t know what you want me to do about this.” I said that I just wanted her to listen. I told her again that if I was going to struggle at this school, it was going to be because of these exact conversations between me and another member of staff. She repeated: “I don’t know what you want me to do about this.” I just said I wanted her to hear. She didn’t.
Over the next few days, I was observing her less. I did not have a problem with that. She had been saying some problematic things about certain – to me – clearly SEN students. She just thought they were “EAL” (as in: they had English as an Additional Language”) or just badly behaved. Worse epiphets were used by her. I kept quiet. On Thursday, I was exhausted after a long week. I’d had meetings every day and was working very well with the rest of the languages department. One stolen moment when I tried to discuss a student’s clear SEN requirements, the head of languages told me “you shouldn’t try to save everyone.” I said: “I’m sorry, but if anything, I’m saving time by creating a more productive working environment for them, and not having us spend entire lessons doing behaviour management rather than teaching.” She just responded by: “Ok, I’m just saying.” I said I appreciated it and thanked her. I walked away.
In my lessons with the other members of the languages department, I did really well. In fact, I was praised for my behaviour management skill. The students appreciated that I struggled with loud noises and kept their voices down. I even met a member of staff who had a support dog to help with her PTSD. If they would hire someone who needed an actual dog – then surely, I’d be welcome! I spoke to the heads of music, English, SEN, behaviour management and the deputy head. I spoke to the form tutors of classes with behaviour management problems due to the presence of several students with undiagnosed SEN. These staff members were all very kind and let me know that they really valued having me around as a member of staff. The deputy head was even more complimentary, saying our conversation had been incredibly special. I would be settled here, hopefully I would be able to find a permanent position here, despite the head of languages saying expressly that I would absolutely not be required at all when she returned from maternity leave. Again, I just needed to survive until she did. I met a newly qualified German teacher who would become part of the languages team as well. She was a brilliant person and I looked forward to working with her.
The lesson that did it for me was on a Thursday, the last day before my weekend would start, the last day before the head of department went on maternity leave. It went very well in the first half. I’d come in, their teacher screamed at them to be quiet. It was deafening. I taught well, despite the ringing in my ears. The students seemed to enjoy it. Then there was a half-hour break. I was nervous about technology going south, which had happened before. Half of the class was in detention, so they did not have a chance to get their excess energy out of their system. Afterwards, they were even louder and less willing to work. I tried to get them quiet, to no avail. I shouted at them. Spit flew out of my mouth, which is something that happens when I raise my voice. The students’ disgust at what came out of my mouth was mirrored by my own disgust with myself. I was very angry. I called out for help. An assistant head came to support. She asked which students I wanted her to take out. I told her three names. She said she thought I knew I could only have one taken out. I did not. The students were still not listening. I tried to get them quiet for her. I said: “I get why you don’t respect me, but surely you should respect [the assistant head]”. She pretended nothing had happened and tried to point the attention back to the lesson, while the majority of the class still wasn’t engaged. She then just left.
The head of behaviour management came in and together we just had the students try and be quiet for 30 seconds. That was a strategy that had stood me in very good stead before and I had gotten praise for from other staff. However, this time, it took them half an hour. It went straight into the next lesson. The students couldn’t stop complaining about it, which made things even worse. After the lesson, I profusely apologised to the head of behaviour, to the science teacher who came after me, to my colleagues and to their form tutor – all of whom were fine with it and (in the case of their form tutor) not surprised this had happened. I was told consistently everything was fine and I shouldn’t worry by every member of staff I spoke to, including my line manager.
On my way out, after the school day was over, I went to visit the assistant head. She was in her office on the ground floor. I apologised to her as well. But her recollection of events was very different. She had come to take one student out with her, but I asked for three. She had contacted the head of languages – who would have her last day tomorrow. Her memory was that I was ignoring her when she came in. The truth was that the students were being disrespectful to her and I was trying to fix that. By now, though, I was terrified. I explained the complaint I had lodged with my line manager about the head of languages and her comments against me and against students with SEN. I also told her I was fired 7 times in a year after finishing my MA due to being autistic. She told me not to be silly, it was all fine. I asked what my punishment would be if I weren’t to be fired – a warning? “No! Don’t be silly. This happens with permanent teachers all the time! We just discuss the issue and we move on. Now, I’ve got to go.”
That didn’t make me feel better at all. I had a meltdown, hidden away from anyone who might see me. The cover manager – who was brilliant all the way – was there with me. I told her my fear of being fired. She said she got it – she was a British Asian women, born in this country yet she did not receive equal treatment in the workplace. Exactly the problem. I cried, then went home. I spoke to my partner and my best friend over the phone. They both said I wouldn’t be fired. It would not be in the school’s interest and besides, I didn’t do anything wrong – according to them, at least.
The next morning I got a phone call. It was the intermediary for whose company I worked at the school. I asked what was wrong. She said: “You know exactly what you’ve done.” I was not allowed to return to the school. Meltdown. I was fired again. I was suicidally depressed. When I get fired, I see that as a wholesale rejection of my entire being. I didn’t deserve to live. Someone, perhaps the cover manager, who’d texted me to check in; called the police. When they came in, I cried even more and held out my wrists to be arrested. If I lost my job, that must be because I’m a disgusting criminal. They disagreed. As did my best friend, as did my partner. I was treated unfairly, they said. I was fired illegally. When the police left, they were sure I wouldn’t do anything to harm myself. I spoke to my therapist later. I was now in a state of profound confusion. If I had talked to other members of staff, who were aware of the workings of the school and my partner and my best friend, who know me; and all of them told me I wouldn’t be fired – and I still got fired – then what was wrong with me? Was my capacity to understand the world around me so damaged? Could I not clearly see that I did something so criminal to get fired, yet talk about it in a way that made all these people say I wouldn’t be? Had I regressed mentally to such an extent I was no longer able to work? I had just gone from three years in the same job to two and a half weeks. Was I ok? Did I need to be sectioned? Had all the work been for nothing?
All this happened two weeks ago. In the intervening time, I had several meltdowns. I was told to leave the gym by a random woman who didn’t like the look of me and then nearly ran in to someone on the street. I was phoned out of the blue by the person who fired me from the Autistic League – though I kept my cool completely. I was still mourning the loss of my nephew. I applied for Universal Credit, which is ridiculously stressful. Especially the part where even after a successful application, you have to wait five weeks for any payment to be made at all. Luckily I saved money for this eventuality. But it still wasn’t fun. My partner and I would have to live off his income for the time being. But I’ve been signed off and I have been accepted for it.
Still, I have also had job interviews and increased my tutoring hours. It isn’t much, but I can at least use that to buy some weekly shopping while I wait for universal credit. I also had a job interview for a languages teaching position at a Further Education College. I was told on Friday that I passed this interview. Even though I have no idea for how many hours I will work – probably fewer than 6 a week – it is still a huge relief that I can pass an interview.
The truth is, I was hired out of desperation, that the school couldn’t find a qualified languages teacher. I am a qualified teacher, but I don’t have QTS (British teaching qualifications are complicated). Then, after a week, the school did manage to hire someone with QTS. I was fired by the head of languages on the last day before her maternity leave. Since they had another teacher, I wasn’t needed anymore. So they could get rid of me without affecting their teaching pool. I was difficult, I was visibly disabled. The reason given was that I had ignored the assistant head’s instructions. I had not, of course. But that doesn’t matter. The assistant head told me I wouldn’t be fired, nor even get a warning. But that never mattered. The other staff had no idea that this was going to happen – I got an email from a colleague two weeks ago, having been told by the head of languages “Jorik isn’t coming back” and nothing else. He was baffled. But that didn’t matter either.
It only took two people to dislike me, as opposed to a few dozen who were very happy with me there. It only took one mistake. Workplace discrimination doesn’t just happen at the door. For me, it is the lack of forgiveness for mistakes that, for others, wouldn’t even be recognised as mistakes. It is the cruelty of people who genuinely think that they are doing the right thing. My mental health was not even on the minds of the people who fired me. I only heard back from three people I worked with, out of two dozen who I’d worked with very positively and were really excited to work with me, particularly on SEN. None raised my dismissal as a problem, as far as I know. On top of that, I have no legal recourse to challenge the dismissal. I was on a supply teaching contract. I have zero rights.
I am not trying to say I was blameless. Far from it. I made mistakes. Two, to be exact: one, that I broke the white line to stop students bullying one of their own who was more vulnerable and two: that I said three students had to be removed instead of one. Anyone looking at this would just say: well, you made a mistake. Suck it up. You shouldn’t have started working there, you’re clearly incapable of being trusted. But I just started in a new position, I was always going to make mistakes. The issue here is one of learning and forgiveness within the leadership. If you are working with someone new, you are able to accept that they make mistakes. If you are autistic, you don’t get second chances.
But, despite all of this, I am not depressed right now. I have been able to bounce back and be relatively stable throughout. I even passed a job interview last week. I had a week of hell after my firing, but I’m not unwell. My partner told me that at the start of this year, only one of the things that happened to me between the death of my nephew and my interview would have meant I was in bed for two weeks. Not anymore.
I have specific sensitivity to bad news. That’s a combination of three things. First, I have Complex PTSD. That means I am already very sensitive to danger and have learned to deal with that by taking that anger out on myself. Second, I have rejection-sensitive dysphoria. This is a concept that comes out of research on ADHD, essentially an intensified pain and suffering at being rejected. Third, I think I am on the spectrum for mirror-touch synaesthesia. Especially when I’m tired, I can sense other people’s physical sensations, to a painful extent. Autistic people are already highly attuned to other people’s negative emotions. Psychologists talk about autistic children are hugely attuned to the sadness of their parents – as described in Neurotribes by Steve Silberman. Most of all, I can feel other people’s anger and irritation with me. That is a combination of all three sensitivities listed above, and it is like a sword to the chest. I feel sliced open. Then the rage comes. I despise myself and only seek punishment.
Tony Attwood writes about so-called Depression Attacks. This happens when autistic people are in a state of such distress that they are very vulnerable to harming themselves. When I was fired, I went into a depression attack. I felt I needed to die. The anger that the agent had towards me for being dismissed fired up the hatred I have lingering against myself. It burned for hours. But, after a few hours, that ends. Depression attacks can be responsible for autistic people actually ending their lives. It is a combination of a massive meltdown and being set on fire. My body hurts. I am raging with anxiety and angry at being anxious. I feel the need to be punished. I even thought that death was too light a punishment for what I’d done. Yes, it’s completely illogical. That’s the point. If someone is cruel to me, I have been taught to take responsibility for their cruelty and punish me more.
But after a few minutes or an hour or two, the fire inevitably goes out. Then I need rest. My partner is really good at using positive sensory stimulations to support me. He lightly touches his fingertips to my skin and extends his fingers. This makes me tingle. Sometimes this small gesture can get me out of meltdowns or shutdowns. Sometimes it has no effect, at other times it is just too much. The best thing I can do is just to sleep, curl up under a duvet, snuggle up with my tiger or my bear and be in a state of sensory deprivation. I used to binge eat or use pornography to kick myself out of these shutdown states, but I’ve since learned that the only thing that will help me recover is rest and that forcing myself to function only serves to kick the can down the road.
I have learned that the point for me is not recovery or “normality”, but resilience. I have Complex PTSD. Life will never be a cakewalk for me. I am autistic, so I will be discriminated against. I struggle with colleague-colleague interactions, so I need to have job where I work on my own such as teaching without needing to use a staff room. If not, there’s going to be trouble.
When I applied for Universal Credit, I noted the irony that I only applied for this job due to not getting enough work as a trainer. Then I was fired in exactly the way I educate organisations not to do. It’s quite cynical, too, that I’m not allowed to work because I’m disabled, then have to apply for benefits which I can’t access for five weeks. I questioned the reason why in 2017 I went on ESA and was paid immediately, but in 2020, after showing I can work at the same job for three years, I need 5 weeks on the naughty step. Of course I know why: we live in a society that doesn’t want us and actively votes to make our lives worse every couple of years. I’ve found it pretty much impossible to complain about this, too.*
I don’t have to become a stoic. In fact, my depth of feeling is one of the best things about me. But I need a job that’ll allow me to be my best, in short bursts of focus and activity. I am great in front of a class, but I need to not be in spaces where I hear a lot of shouting. I need to find a way to combine my reduced spoons with an organised life that will allow me to focus on my strengths and recover regularly. That, for me, is resilience. My partner has been pleasantly surprised by how well I’ve been doing. I’ve been surprised. Only six months ago, I was in a six-week depressive episode after being fired from the Autistic League. I can now have weeks of radioactive hail in my face and still get up and function relatively well. That’s the huge win from this otherwise depressing combination of factors.
If you have any questions, requests or your own stories to add, please leave a comment. I’ll be happy to see some that aren’t spam. If you work for an organisation that requires training on autism and neurodiversity now the pandemic is coming to a close, I look forward to hearing from you.
All my love,
*If you’re interested in making a complaint together, let’s do so. I didn’t feel I could complain about it before I had been in this position myself. Plus having been fired from the Autistic League, I didn’t feel my voice was worth listening to on this topic. But if you like, we can do this together.