Sarah McHarg 

Job title: CEO and Holistic Therapist

Where do you work: Super Calming and Holistic

1. How long have you been in work?

My employment career lasted four years. The actual timeframe that I was employed for within those four years was one year. I was an entertainment host, an aerial acrobat, a mural technician/artist and a holistic therapist. Currently, I am a self-employed holistic therapist for my company Super Calming and Holistic (as in the Mary Poppins song Super-cala-fragalistic).

2. When did you receive your diagnosis?

I was nine years old when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

3. How has disclosing empowered you or your employers?

In my employment career, I had only ever disclosed my Asperger’s syndrome once and that was my first ever job. I understood the barriers that Asperger’s syndrome gave me.

However, when I was asked what they could do to help me, my mind was not able to think laterally enough at that time to put strategies in place to overcome those barriers. I had never been asked a question like this before, in fact, I never even realised that was even a concept.

4. Do you have any advice about how someone should disclose and how colleagues can support this?

I cannot really say much on advising an autistic person disclosing their condition, but I can answer the second part of the question more articulately:

If you are an employer who is going to interview an autistic person, if you ask them the question "how can we help you overcome your barriers?", they will probably be stuck for an answer because this kind of question can be taken as quite an abstract concept. Any employer should have an employment specialist come into their place of work and do a presentation on autism. I am aware that this is being done but it needs to be utilised so much more.

I would have found it extremely helpful having a middle man (such as a life coach) to translate between both worlds (autistic and non-autistic). Furthermore, if a problem did arise from the employer’s perspective; you could explain to the life coach the situation and they can help you explain it to the autistic individual in a way where you are graciously challenging them instead of going in guns blazing. For the autistic individual, they could discuss strategies and develop coping mechanisms in a non-abstract way.

5. What do you think the different challenges are that autistic women face in the workplace versus autistic men?

The challenges are the same for both men and women but the way we respond to those challenges are different. When I have spoken to the women, they tend to be better at hiding their autism, whereas the men are less inclined to do that. I also believe that it is industry specific; if very little interaction with co-workers was a part of the job then you would be less inclined to see the faults in us socially.

6. What have you found useful or helpful in overcoming the challenges?

I would say that one of my strongest characteristics is having self-awareness, which is absolutely key. As a self-employed individual, I am in charge of everything, not just making money from the business; that includes taking the time to study social navigation and certain tasks at work and how they relate to my condition. I really struggle with multi- tasking, so I have to make sure that I am extremely organised so that a potential meltdown is prevented.

7. What strengths do you bring to the workplace?

In the employment world, I was never around long enough to prove that to them. However, my achievements as a self-employed individual are as follows:

At the beginning of 2017, I was nominated for and won the Cardiff Business Club Award 2017.

I was interviewed by ITV News for National Autism Week. On the first day of releasing that interview there were over 12K views. By the end of the week, over 40K views. (The reason why this is relevant is because if I was employed, I would not have been able to schedule this in).

I was shortlisted for the Great British Entrepreneur Awards for the Young Entrepreneur Category 2017, which made me top 40 in the country.

I was interviewed by Virgin Media Business when the Voom Tour was on the road. They promoted my business on their Twitter page. (This is part of the Pitch to Rich competition ran by Richard Branson).

In 2018, I was nominated for The Regional Awards - Cardiff.

8. Why should organisations employ more autistic talent?

When it comes to the actual work itself, by hiring us, we could be the very piece of the puzzle that solves that very issue that needs to be dealt with.

There is a very good chance that they will have a strong moral/ethical compass that can be perceived as abrasive. However, if there is injustice in the workplace, they will pounce on it like a lion on a gazelle. In addition, with this strong sense of right and wrong, you will also have gained yourself a very loyal employee.

In terms of social navigation in the workplace, sometimes when you miss certain social cues such as sarcasm, jokes and quips it can make you a nicer person because those kinds of response do not immediately come to mind.

9. What should organisations be doing to be more inclusive?

If you are holding an event or party, if you could perhaps soften the lighting as we will probably hear it. Yes, hear it. What we are hearing is the electricity going through the bulb or the flickering of the lights. If there is background music, turn the music down or even switch it off because it can very difficult to separate a person speaking to us while there is background noise. These are specific to me but if an autistic has any other sensory overload, find out what that is and adjust accordingly.

If we decline an invite to an event or party, do not be offended or take it personally. We just need time to ourselves to decompress from all the sensory and social navigation issues of the day. Always remind us that we are welcome.

If an autistic person says or does something in a way that you find puzzling, confusing or annoying; do not presume that they are doing this intentionally, because there is a very good chance that they have absolutely no idea what they have done.

The only way I can explain how I understood sarcasm was that I once read a script in a play where certain words were in italics and from there, I had to listen for the italics in the voice when they were being sarcastic. The normal tone and a sarcastic tone do not sound different to us unless we have learned about it and put a strategy in place to deal with it.

If employers and co-workers understood the absolute exhaustion that having these strategies for every variable probability of social interaction and social improvisation, then you would realise that there is a very decent human being just trying to socially navigate themselves in the hopes of being perceived correctly; which non-autistic people take for granted.