“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

Guest Blog: Life in the slow lane

Musings of a police officer on a diagnosis of ME/CFS

Colin Paine is a Detective Chief Superintendent in Thames Valley Police. He is currently working on the Police Spending Review with the NPCC. Here he reflects on his diagnosis of Myalgic Encephalopathy (ME)/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).

Police work feels inherently fast paced. It is in the nature of our work that we are often ruled by the tyranny of the immediate. The demands are endless and our resources are finite. It is no surprise that many of us, particularly those in leadership, end up working long hours at a frantic pace. This is a necessity of our environment, but perhaps the time has come to ask whether working this way is sustainable, healthy or always adds as much value as we might think.

I had pause to consider this when I fell ill with ME/CFS. Many in the police service will relate to the sense of feeling ‘tired all the time’, particularly with shift work, high workloads and on call. However, most will not have ME/CFS – which takes this sense of fatigue to an entirely different level. Many of those with ME/CFS are housebound and a significant proportion are unable to work altogether. I experienced this extreme weariness in the first months of illness. I struggled to walk short distances, slept 14 hours a day and then eventually work became impossible. Like an old smartphone, I needed to be recharged several times a day just to keep the most basic functions going.

Giving up the fight
The recovery rate from ME/CFS is dishearteningly low, with just 5% making a full recovery . There is no cure available, and the treatments available have mixed results. To begin with I believed that by sheer force of will and determination I would be able to fight and defeat this dark malevolent fatigue; how wrong I was! I read the research extensively and tried numerous treatments without success. As time passed I began to realise that the metaphor of a fight was just wrong – to suggest it is a battle suggests that those who remain long-term housebound are just not fighting hard enough – which is manifestly unfair. Instead of seeing it as a fight I began to realise that this is a journey; a journey I had not chosen to go on, and indeed a journey I would rather not travel – but one that would provide me with opportunities to learn and develop along the way.

Value added horizontal leadership
After months off work and dozens of visits to the doctor I was eventually diagnosed with ME/CFS. With the kind support of my Assistant Chief Constable I returned to work, initially on reduced hours. I lacked the energy to get into work – so I worked lying down at home. It felt like I was travelling in a canal boat watching my colleagues hurtle along a busy motorway. I was asked to tackle some of the perennial thorny and insoluble issues that had troubled our Force, such as ethical decision making in non-recent child abuse cases and more recently to work with the Home Office on the Police Spending Review. I couldn’t work for eight continuous hours so I worked for an hour or so and then rested before getting back to it again. What I learned was that although I could not manage the normal duties of a Chief Superintendent I was nevertheless able to add real value – but in a completely different way. Normally my diary would be packed and my phone ringing constantly. Instead my condition enabled me to undertake deep work; thinking about some issues at a level that had not previously been done. With colleagues and academics we identified new ways of thinking about traditional problems; new thinking that could save millions and potentially be adopted nationally. In the normal fray of policing, this would never have been possible.

The modern working environment, aided by technology, has blurred the boundaries between work and home life. This blurring depletes us all; taking calls at home, checking emails in the evenings and being contactable when on leave is not healthy. However, my experience of illness is that technology has been an enabler. Being able to work remotely on a laptop and undertake meetings through conference calls has preserved energy that would otherwise have been wasted on commuting. Research shows that those who work remotely are frequently more productive than those office based; this is surely no surprise, as the lack of distractions enhances focus. The Service needs to focus on the benefits of remote working for both productivity and for the wellbeing of our people.

Marginal gains
My health has improved significantly over the last 18 months. I am now able to walk significant distances and work full hours; albeit with a number of rest breaks throughout the day. The marginal gains approach, made famous by the British Cycling Team, has been essential in making progress. I have re-examined each element of my life and sought to make small, but meaningful improvements in each area. I have adopted a pacing approach; pacing is striking the balance between activity and rest, doing something for a while then deliberately resting, whether I feel fatigued or not. My wife got us a little dog early on in my illness, which was been a blessing as he needs short walks each day. I have learned the value of good sleep hygiene as Matthew Walker outlines in his excellent book “Why We Sleep”. I have learned to place the utmost value on dietary nutrition and have recognised how convenient processed food further depletes energy reserves. These are all lessons I wish I had learned long before falling ill – lessons the Service is only now waking up to.

Time management vs energy management
Much has been written in recent years on the value of time management, but this has taught me that it is energy management that is paramount. Energy is the most precious resource we have; it is the petrol in the engine – without it we are going nowhere. We all have a finite amount of energy available (although I have less than most), so learning to optimise it is critical. With ME/CFS my energy levels fluctuate and are often unpredictable. However, I have learned that there are predictable peaks and troughs throughout the day and week. I do the most challenging work during my times of peak energy and administrative work during troughs. Learning which activities (and people) energise and deplete us is essential to maintaining energy levels. Being intentional in planning activities to prioritise and those to bin is critical to our health and our productivity. I have also learned that breaks are not a deviation from performance, but they are a critical part of performance; those people who take regular breaks perform better than those who don’t, as Daniel Pink explains in his book “When”.

Being intentional in planning activities to prioritise and those to bin is critical to our health and our productivity. It can be difficult for those in leadership positions to say “no”; most leaders have got where they are by seeking to be positive and obliging, but saying “no” is critical to our success at work. The culture of policing is ‘can do’, but it is only by saying “no” to lower priority activities that we can ensure delivery on the most critical work. A positive and supportive “no” is always more productive than a weak and resentful “yes”. I am increasingly minded that we should focus our limited energies on those areas in which we can add unique value.

The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) estimates the incidence of ME/CFS to be between 0.2-0.4% of the population, which would put the numbers in the UK at up to 250,000. ME/CFS occurs more frequently in women than men (ratio of 2 to 1) and the peak age for onset is between 20 and 40. There is no data on the incidence of ME/CFS within the police service. However, based on the prevalence within the general population, potentially between 400 and 800 people within the police service suffer with ME/CFS – the size of a small Force.

Mental health
The physical health challenges posed by ME/CFS come with associated psychological challenges. I felt acutely guilty, embarrassed and anxious after falling ill; which ironically further depleted my reserves. Learning to accept these feelings and manage the ceaseless and brutal voice of the ‘inner critic’ has been as big a challenge as managing the physical symptoms. I have learned to just make friends with the constant low level sense of guilt for having fallen ill, and an unrelenting anxiety that if my health deteriorates I might not be able to work. When I first fell ill my daughter said, “Dad, you are always here – but you are never here”. Learning to meditate (thanks to the Headspace app) and spot the cognitive distortions associated with anxiety (grateful to David Burn’s excellent book “Feeling Good”) has been transformational. Taking the long view and seeing my current health as just a stage in my career has been helpful. I am tremendously grateful for the handful of great colleagues who have stood by me. Ultimately I’ve had to learn the paradox of simultaneously developing a Zen acceptance of my limitations, and concurrently keeping the determination to keep moving forward in whatever small ways I can.

I’ve been fortunate in having the best of line managers throughout. Even if they have not always understood the condition, they have always listened and cared. Line management is often a lottery – on this occasion it has been a lottery I have won. Leadership is not required in the good times; it is when things get difficult that leadership is critical. Without the kindness and support of my chief officers I would not have made it this far. It has caused me to reflect on my own leadership journey and realised that I haven’t always been as compassionate towards others’ health challenges as I now wish I had. This experience of poor health has transformed my outlook in ways that I could never have expected. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the health challenges others are going through – whether physical or mental – what matters is that you listen, empathise and care.

My health has improved immeasurably over the last 18 months. However, my experience of ME/CFS has been transformational and has unquestionably made me a better leader. It has been a difficult and occasionally bitter journey – but one that has taught me more than I could ever have learned on a leadership course. I’ve learned that even with a debilitating condition it is possible to add significant value to the Service; and even though I may fit the Equality Act definition of disability I continue see myself as being highly able. I hope that by speaking out about my experiences of illness I can offer some encouragement to others who may be similarly suffering. Travelling this journey can sometimes feel lonely and isolating, but I hope that by writing this I am able to offer solidarity to those who are also going this way. ∎

Colin Paine welcomes correspondence from others in the service with ME/CFS – email colin.paine@thamesvalley.pnn.police.uk. Follow Colin on Twitter at @Colin_Paine