Cath Leggett 

Job title: Employment consultant

Where do you work: the National Autistic Society

I’ve always been aware, since a very young child, that I thought and acted very differently from most other children and adults I met. I chose a technical/engineering career which I really enjoyed and thinking back with what I know about autism, I’m sure that there were many other undiagnosed colleagues and managers that I worked with. Also the working environment tended to be autism-friendly for the most part.

I began to understand that I was autistic back in 2005 from researching the condition because of my daughter, although I didn’t start to pursue a formal diagnosis until I really experienced difficulties at work after being made redundant in 2009. I found that contracting in larger and more social open plan offices, as well as being in a new environment often was something that I didn’t cope well with, and I’d need some formal adjustments and understanding from managers who have a more ambiguous way of supporting and communicating with their staff – if I was going to be able to sustain a position and do well.

I was referred quite quickly through my GP to my local adult mental health service and then really experienced a stressful time having to attend pre-diagnostic assessment appointments with a general psychiatrist who was exploring alternative explanations for my presentation such as borderline personality disorder. Having spent many years in a mental health system that worked against me, due to my undiagnosed status, I found the long waiting time and appointments at the mental health unit unbearable, and I was assessed and diagnosed privately by Dr Judith Gould at the NAS’ Lorna Wing Centre.

A lot of autistic adults that are diagnosed later in life describe receiving their formal diagnosis as a “light-bulb” moment or a huge relief. My light-bulb moment and the sense of relief in knowing I was autistic had come around 10 years before my diagnosis so my experience was quite different.

I can’t find adequate words to describe the actual day I was diagnosed, but I felt like I was reborn, it felt like a clean-slate to me and a chance to finally be myself and to be supported as such.

I felt like I really had been given a second, brilliant and positive, chance at my life and approached it in that way from that day onwards.

On returning with my diagnostic report to my general psychiatrist to update them of my private diagnosis, I was told there was nothing more that Adult Mental Health Services could do for me, in a way this was good news! ….as traditional mental health services such as counselling, therapies and drug treatment have never worked particularly well for me and have always left me feeling more frustrated and confused about my identity and how I relate to others and the world around me. I think many adults like me experience the same kind of lack of follow-up services, as all services tend to be “front-end” and “highest-need” led, for example children’s diagnostic services and those services for autistic people who aren’t able to live, work or travel independently tend to take priority when thinking about designing services. In addition, just as diagnostic assessments still seem to be male-biased by and large, a lot of the services and support is male-biased in my opinion, and as women I feel we have different presentations and need different approaches when supporting us.

Often, the women in my autistic community are left wondering whether there is any kind of support for us.

This is a part of the reason why I felt that women like me needed a tailored course, and with the support of my manager and team I developed the NAS’ course for autistic women who are working. Alongside developing that course, we have in the last few years transformed the content and material that we use to support adults like myself and I think that this has been in response to the increasing numbers of professionals and managers that are now being diagnosed.