“My life has been lived behind an unseen screen”

Detective Constable Tony Ashcroft is based within the Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire & Cambridgeshire Tri-Force ICT Department – here he shares his experience of living with autism and dyslexia

My life has been lived behind an unseen screen. This screen is the world’s perception of what is normal. Behind this screen of perception is me, the person.

What is wrong with people? They don’t understand I’m right, my way is obviously the best. No knowledge of having a condition, no understanding of why I was different, but I was, I am, and I always will be. That for me is a gift, and an ability that makes my skills something that others just aren’t blessed with.

To give you an idea of me I have compiled a quick history below.

Early years
My mother told me I didn’t speak until I was three years old. Then I spoke a sentence: “Why did Granddad have to die?” I suppose in hindsight the reason was clear. I was the first born child, well looked after and needed for nothing. The death of my grandfather was the first time I had need to get an answer that wasn’t provided by my mother’s care.

As a child I had few friends. Primarily my only interaction with others of my age was through sporting activities. My only constant friend lived a few doors away and was two years younger and, I suppose to a certain extent, followed what I did which made it an easy friendship for me.

I was often disruptive as I struggled to comprehend subjects. I was regularly bullied and didn’t have any real friends. Although I achieved some qualifications to get me to an apprenticeship, I hated being in the school environment.

I was great at doing the practical side, but again struggled with theory input. I hated college days and again was disruptive. I would spend a lot of time on projects in my lunch time such as making car parts.

Police career
Probation saw me often in trouble for saying the wrong thing. I had a sergeant get very frustrated with me one day because he said I asked too many questions! I was always reported as being keen because I would do things that others didn’t.

I enjoyed patrolling on my own and would find ways to observe from a distance whenever I could, such as accessing the station roof at Lime Street Liverpool. Why, you may ask would I want to do that? Why not is my answer.

Although I worked with a team I would always take on roles on my own where possible. If there was a vehicle to drive I volunteered as I always felt happier on my own and my driving skills were acknowledged by instructors on various courses in several Forces.

When the Force surveillance motorcycle role became available it seemed obvious to me that I had to go for it. I can now put this decision down to my self-focus through ASC (Autism Spectrum Condition). I was leaving behind my children although never for more than two weeks at a time and moving 200 miles away because this was the only motorcycle job in BTP (British Transport Police).

Having become the first nationally trained motorcyclist BTP had ever had, I was very proud of myself. I had found another place to be where, although part of a team, I was very much the individual. I developed ideas for sat-navs on the bike and made a control unit so that I could listen to music whilst travelling to jobs. I always did the stuff no one else did.

I was offered a role in the City of London Police at a perfect time. BTP were doing more investigations and I didn’t feel comfortable with that as an option to surveillance work. The City had a dedicated team and so I knew I could find a place. They often worked single-crewed and so straight away I was out on my own again. I was happy to volunteer to go in the observation van for hours on end as I was alone in my world. This was not day dreaming but being incredibly vigilant and observant as I excelled in this. Recognising people and vehicles at a moment’s glance was an ability that I now realise didn’t belong to everyone. Once I had seen someone I could recognise them at a great distance due to their walking gate and stature.

After a motorcycle accident I was moved to the Force Intelligence Bureau where I took on the role of Briefing Officer. Again I found myself in a place where I could act independently and make changes. I changed the Force briefing system from an antiquated text-box system to the PowerPoint model that most Forces were then using. This change resulted in a much wider circulation of images to partner Forces in the Met and BTP, and identity-sought hits improved. The role provided me with a platform to excel, and the benefits were noted.

Following on from this I was given the task of ensuring Force intelligence met the standards of Management of Police Information. Yet again I had autonomy and my need to fix and make things perfect drove me forward making huge changes within the Force. I took on the task of providing input to officers on intelligence content and supervising a small team of officers who would process all Force intelligence to the national standards. My work received a nomination at the Force awards for Ingenuity and Innovation.

Having taken the Sergeant’s exam in my early career and not passing it, I had tagged myself as just not capable. My supervisor now some 20 years later suggested that as I seemed more than capable of carrying out the role of a sergeant I should take the exam again. Another disappointing result – 54 percent – was very frustrating as I had spent a lot of time studying. My supervisor again stepped up and suggested that I may have dyslexia. One large assessment later and this was confirmed.

A feeling of need and duty drove me to the North West in 2013. I believe that my want in life to be a good person became an overriding factor as my father had succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease and I needed to help him.

I now recognise this as a point in my life where my need to fix and for things to be perfect was extremely challenged. As a Force, I found Merseyside were very institutionalised. I regularly heard the comment ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it’. I was faced with a huge wall which I was unable to climb. Despite challenging the system in every way I could I was left two years later feeling angry and very frustrated. I’m sure most people would have just accepted the way it was and got on with it, but for me it was very disturbing and in hindsight I recognise the signs of stress. Again in my life a move was the only answer I could find and a transfer into the Eastern Region Special Operations Unit seemed like a challenge I could take on.

The initial months were easy as I could carry out all the surveillance work without a second thought and I found other ways to use my skills such as creating bespoke equipment for the team to use. I then had the challenge of the National Investigators’ Examination. Knowing about my dyslexia I studied in a completely different way and my results amazed me. I scored 87 per cent and came 62nd in the country. I was truly shocked at my own achievement. It also saddened me to realise that had I had this diagnosis years before then I would likely have been able to achieve my goal of promotion. Without an astute supervisor I may have never had this diagnosis.

In November 2017, I was struggling to complete some telephone analysis work. When I repeatedly asked for help, only to be told ‘here’s a guide but everyone does it their own way’, I finally melted. Not understanding the full reason for my inability to complete the task, I had become stressed as dyslexia held me back and my ASC (which was still undiagnosed) made me angry and anxious that I could not fix it or do it perfectly.

My wife had worked for an autism charity and had been fully trained to support people with autism, which meant she spotted the signs and suggested I see a doctor. Again after a lengthy assessment a diagnosis was forthcoming in 2018: I have Autism Spectrum Condition, previously known as Asperger syndrome. This has made a huge difference to my life: being able to recognise reasons why I made choices and said certain things at certain times has made me feel much more grounded. I am now far more focused on the things I can do well and know in my future what challenges will be realistic for me.

Whilst it has been a difficult time since returning to work due to being removed from my role and not being able to do things that I am trained to do, I don’t feel surprised by this. I feel policing is not fully equipped to support people like me at present. There is a fear due to the lack of knowledge. My hope for the future is that we can ensure that the things that have happened to me don’t happen again, and that officers and staff with skills due to ASC are helped to achieve their potential and not forced to accept that they have to be like everyone else to be a police officer.

What I feel the Force can do better
Bedfordshire Police has already been at the forefront of modern policing ideas, and as a small Force is best placed to make changes. We need to step away from the regimented ideas around role profiles and promotion. We need to find a process where we can utilise individual skills better in the organisation. A police officer is never just that. There are so many aspects of a person’s life that can be brought into roles within the organisation for the benefit of the organisation, but we are too focused on the neurotypical pattern of life that always tries to push square pegs into round holes.

We need to develop better acceptance of hidden disabilities so that comments such as ‘oh we’ve got another one’ that I have personally received will no longer be made, or if made would only be a positive as someone who has been identified as being especially capable. I would suggest that all first line managers receive mandatory training that enables them to deal with potential unidentified hidden disabilities. Whilst not everyone will want to know if they have a hidden disability, for those such as myself only due to others intuitiveness have my conditions been identified.

To some extent I see those with neurodiversity as superheros! We have a skillset that is only available in 25 percent of the population. I believe that rather than continuing to force those who don’t perform well in a particular area to still produce in that area, we should now be identifying the best people for a role in a better way.

There is also the fear of the unknown. Due to ASC being a spectrum disorder and everyone in a place on the spectrum being different, it appears that neurotypicals are likely to have the rational fear of the unknown. A physical disability can be seen and it is easier to offer help or assist with things that are obvious. With ASC and other hidden disabilities identifying needs is more difficult. This is where we need to focus on acceptance in our police community and the community we serve. Since my diagnosis I have been open about my condition and sadly have felt that the people I had worked with have distanced themselves from me. Again it does not surprise me – having spent 29 years in the police service, a common attitude still prevails where we are reluctant to accept difference or change. I hope that for those with many years of service left that this can be overcome.

As with all people who are on the autistic spectrum, I know I have individual attributes that will both enhance or affect my ability to work effectively depending on the role. In addition to ASC I am dyslexic, and I find that this can lead to clashes within myself where my dyslexia prevents me completing a task and my ASC then causes anxiety due to the task not being completed.

This recent diagnosis of both dyslexia in 2013 and ASC in March of 2018 has given me a new perspective on life. I have come to understand that every day must contain a performance for me. Once I leave my comfort zone and have to engage with others who I don’t know well or have never met, I am beginning to drain my resources. It’s difficult to explain but if I likened it to a smartphone for example, most days for me I am in constant use and never on standby. My battery life is depleted quickly and at the end of a day of engagement I am flat and need to recharge.

During my police career I have subconsciously made decisions and choices to enable me to steer away from these situations. I am fully aware now that the police service has been a difficult place for me to function in due to my lack of a diagnosis. I’m sure that I could have achieved different goals had I had the knowledge I am now presented with. That aside, since diagnosis it has been a very difficult place for me to be, in part due to the lack of understanding that prevails in most areas of the Service. It has meant that whilst still able to complete a role it has been draining my ‘battery life’, and as such I will have a much better quality of life and mental wellbeing in retirement when I will be in control of my daily life rather than the organisation.

I am a practical person and I have the ability to problem-solve. I can often see solutions that I believed are obvious but when pointed out to others they had not even envisaged. Things make most sense when they are logical and I can see a clear and practical explanation. I have always struggled with paperwork due to dyslexia, and I find complex matters difficult to put together in the same time period that others would expect. That’s not to say I can’t compile an excellent report but it means that I need more time and when pressure is applied to complete things then I have become stressed. I find the need to see a tangible image of what things should be in my head.

With every perceived negative there is a positive. These are the aspects that the organisation needs to take on board and develop. I have an excellent recollection of faces and places and find that I often easily identify people by walking gait and stature. I find I work best in isolation and usually when I am carrying out a project or task with minimal supervision. I process information from written sources very slowly and struggle with its retention. In order to learn something I must re-read it several times in a suitable environment in order to recall it. Minimal distractions for neurotypicals cause me to lose focus completely. It usually means starting again from the beginning of whatever I am doing.

I have developed some social coping mechanisms through life and recognise these now more clearly. Some of them have not been the best such as getting to the pub first so I could have a few beers before others arrived. I am generally happier to limit my interactions with others. I find that I often do not read non-verbal communication at all and have a tendency to go on about topics that interest me and do not recognise when others are bored or disinterested. When receiving information I will often be distracted and find myself thinking of something completely different. It happens a lot when reading, but also when someone is talking to me – I suddenly realise I haven’t got a clue what was said or what I had read. This can complicate recording information.

Many of the things that I now recognise as needs for me I have actually been taking on as challenges and it has caused stress. I need to have a framework to my day so that I know what is happening and when. In some environments I have worked in I have found this and been able to work well. I also know that there are environments that could have been adapted to allow me to work to my best ability within them. This would also utilise the skills I have. I find changes to it at short notice are difficult and tend to make me angry as I feel as though I am not in control.

I find working to others’ timescales and deadlines difficult as I work best when I can assess a problem and set my own task time depending on what I see. I like to set my goals and achieve them especially when in doing so I then receive merit. I will often be able to find a solution that is outside of the norm but effective.

I do not like second-best options for problem-solving, and if there is a clear and obvious way to do something then it should be done that way. I visualise things as they are going to be as a 3D picture in my head. For example rearrangement of furniture in a room or the design of a garden would be a clear picture for me, but I find that others often do not see that same picture until the change is complete.

I find repetition can be a comfort and knowing things are the same is good. I find changes that are out of my control very difficult to deal with. I particularly find I am very anxious when I feel there is a better solution and I cannot make myself heard.

I am not a social person, and environments where I have to integrate and communicate regularly with others are not places I find comfortable.

Whilst writing this, I am acutely aware that those that read it may mock or laugh. You may say that’s just like me. You may say well that was 10 minutes I’ll never get back. Because of who I am, it actually doesn’t matter to me. I have done this because in the neurotypical world this is a good thing to do and it may help others. I hope that it means that people who know me can understand me better and that those that don’t know me can challenge themselves to be as open as possible to why people are different.

The word that I found recently that makes most sense is ‘Diffability’. It’s not for the Oxford English purist but it is in the Urban Dictionary, and hopefully it can be used to allow those like me to be seen as just different and not actually disabled. ∎

This blog was originally published on the Hertfordshire Constabulary intranet – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author