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‘I was diagnosed with autism during my training contract’

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Trainee solicitor Concetta Scrimshaw on the freedom of living her truth and why dialogue is vital in breaking down stigma

Concetta Scrimshaw

Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with autism at the age of 24. In one way, it was an enormous relief. I have always felt my brain worked differently but couldn’t put my finger on why. Now I have an answer. With diagnosis came clarity, understanding, knowledge, relief — and freedom to finally live my truth.

Twenty-four is quite a late age at which to be diagnosed, but it is becoming increasingly common for women in particular to be diagnosed with autism in adulthood, because they learn to fit in and appear neurotypical throughout their lives, so they fly under the radar — this is known as “masking”. At first glance, I appear neurotypical, but those who know me very well are aware of the quirks that make me autistic.

I have written this article because I think it is really important to speak out and raise awareness of autism and neurodiversity within the legal profession. The sad fact of the matter is that I don’t know any openly autistic lawyers — maybe this is because they would rather manage their condition alone due to perceived stigma, or because they think it will hamper their career. However, statistically speaking, there will be other autistic and neurodiverse individuals in the legal profession. Giving these people a voice is critical.

Firms have a vital role to play in supporting this. At Pinsent Masons, where I am a trainee, we have a Disability Network and a specific Neurodiversity Network. Both work to support people across the business in their day-to-day working lives. It’s heartening and encouraging to see the firm make such significant strides in enabling its neurodiverse community and providing a forum for support and education.

The legal industry has come a long way. But inclusion is a journey rather than a destination and firms should always be seeking to adapt, improve and advance. Recruitment practices should facilitate the attraction of neurodiverse talent in a range of ways such as advertising an accessible assessment centre. For example, clearly setting out what to expect on the day, ensuring that any sensory needs are met (quiet room/no harsh lighting etc.), and providing equipment that might support neurodiverse candidates, such as noise-cancelling headphones.

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The use of both in-person and virtual recruitment events serve to broaden access for all students and graduates, featuring neurodiverse employees speaking about their experiences of the legal profession. Regularly inviting dynamic and engaging speakers to be a prominent feature of the training programme to help inform and educate is incredibly powerful and demonstrates a commitment to representation. Preferably these speakers would have experience with neurodiversity or be neurodiverse themselves and be far more interesting than simple tick-box online training, which can also be quite patronising.

My experience is that people are often surprised when I disclose that I am autistic and say things like, “You can’t tell!” I know that they are not trying to be offensive, but it betrays a lack of understanding of how autism can present itself (particularly in adult women) and also assumes that being autistic is inherently deficient in some way; that it is good that it is not outwardly obvious. Actually, being autistic can be amazing! Proper education and training would hopefully go some of the way to debunking common myths surrounding autism and neurodiversity.

I think it’s important that neurodiverse employees are open about any conditions that need reasonable adjustments, so that the firm knows how to support them best and help them thrive. Furthermore, it’s also key that line managers know how to signpost support to the disabled individual in the first instance. Again, if autistic and other neurodiverse individuals feel confident in sharing their story, then awareness and support will hopefully become better, as will the signposting.

The issue of adult autism diagnoses (particularly for women) has recently been discussed a bit more in the mainstream media. The Organisation for Autism Research has found that 50% of boys with autism are diagnosed before age 11, and only 20% of females with autism are diagnosed prior to this age. Scientists believe that this is because females are better at “masking” their autistic traits. The legal profession now has an opportunity to embrace this momentum around late and female diagnoses and promote an environment in which everyone feels empowered and confident to be open about their experiences at work. After all, being able to be yourself at work and access the support you need is the foundation to a fulfilling career.

I don’t want aspiring autistic lawyers to feel like I did; like there are no role models and that they cannot be themselves at work. If reading this encourages even one individual to seek a diagnosis, or be open about an existing diagnosis, then that can only be a good thing in enabling an important dialogue and breaking down the stigma.

Concetta is a trainee solicitor in the property team at Pinsent Masons.

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28 Comments

Anonymous

It’s really great that you’ve finally found your true self. I was diagnosed with ASD in 2021 at the ripe old age of 49, I have now found self acceptance. Regards Mark

(74)(6)

Sarah

I’m a 41 year old person with autism. I hope your workplace is supportive. Xx

(7)(2)

Reehan Acharya

Hi
Concetta I am 29 years old and doing my LPC and I was diagoinsed with Autism at the age of 18 and now I am gong to finish my LPC by next year , but I am very disappointed to say that I have been applying to many law firms including pinsent Masons and I have mentioned to all the firms about my Autism but I have never received any support or priority from any firm and till date I have not been successful in acquiring any vacation scheme or training contract .
I would appreciate if you could help me .

(44)(23)

Concetta Scrimshaw

Hello, it’s Concetta here – please drop me a LinkedIn message to chat further!

(10)(0)

Tahoma 9 at single spacing

Why do you want “priority”?

Ask for understanding, support, whatever.

But priority?

(22)(4)

Daniel

Is there any reason to seek a diagnosis. I’ve known what I am for over 15 years and always knew I didn’t think or react the same way that others did. Why would I need someone to make it official?
Great article though btw

(15)(1)

Sarah

Without diagnosis there is NO support

(9)(0)

Gabby

Even with diagnosis there is little if any support. It depends on where you live.

(5)(0)

Lewis

A very well written article by an obviously very clever and intelligent young woman. However, there is just one word you used that I feel we need to avoid using if we want neuro-typical people to treat us as equal rather than inferior. That word is “disabled” of which you used in paragraph 8 of your article. As you may or may not be aware, autism isn’t a disability in itself. It’s simply a neurological difference. The word ‘disabled’ carries a huge connotation that the object (for example an old computer system) or person is useless. I’m sure you’ll agree that we certainly are not useless! Quite the opposite in fact. The problem is there’s still too many allistic (the opposite of autistic) people and organisations out there that use words like “disabled” and “disorder” to describe autistic people like us – even by people and organisations that are meant to advocating for us! We can easily fall into the trap of using these words ourselves which only demoralises us and damages our self-esteem. However, it is true that we do experience challenges as a result of our neurological condition. Why? Because the world we live in is constructed primarly for neuro-typical people and we’re not neuro-typical. It’s the environment that we’re exposed to that negatively affects our condition and not the condition itself. If we can put ourselves in or be put in the right environment then we thrive.

I was diagnosed with “High-Functioning Autism”. This is a term that I also avoid using for myself and other autistic people as it implies that I or they are ‘nearly normal’ but not quite. Therefore, in the minds of many I’m inferior to them in some way. It’s often used as a label and I don’t like it. Autism is autism. I embrace it. I love it – even with the challenges that it presents – as I’m intelligent and clever like you. I am autism, you are autism, and we are AWESOME!

Keep up the good work and all the best with your legal career!

P.s I’m a certified Life Coach who specialises in helping autistic adults and parents of autistic children. You can find me on facebook and LifeCoachMatch.com as The Autistic Life Coach. 😊

(17)(23)

Anonymous

I won’t comment on whether autistic people are disabled as that is not my place, but this comment implies that disability and being disabled are bad things. Disability is not inherently bad and there is nothing wrong with being disabled. Many disabled people are proud of their identity.

(38)(1)

Helen

Very well chosen words, especially about the implication of autism being a disability. Hopefully we will be getting nearer to proving the ignorance of many people to thinking otherwise (often from pure judgement) very soon 👍😊

(2)(6)

An autistic lawyer

As an autistic person, I am perfectly happy to refer to myself as having a disability or disorder. I don’t think they necessarily have the same connotation you suggest.
However, I do think there is space to educate neurotypical people that language needs to be used sensitively and it would be better to use other terms, like neurodivergent for example.

(12)(0)

Anonymous

We are disabled by the unsupportive structures we are forced to exist in, and the refusal of services and workplaces to offer flexibility to our needs. That applies to physical, visible, and invisible differences.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

Hi Lewis

Can I ask are you a life coach in the UK. I am ADHD diagnosed and considering being an ADHD coach but in the UK there are not as many opportunities as In the USA for instance.

(0)(0)

Lisa

That’s really neat Concetta. (Go the Italians!). I only just diagnosed myself this yr. 😥 I had the wrong label slapped on me at 22yrs, after a breakdown.
I’m 53yrs. And my kids are Spectrum kids, diverse & brilliant. And their dad is on Spectrum too. (We learned alot through watching our kids).
All the best for your future.
I hope I can rejoin the world in the New year. I’ve been hermitting a long time.
Thanks so much!
Proud of your achievements.
Lisa 🙏🏽🫂🌸

(10)(1)

Charlotte

I wonder what prompted her to seek an assessment, herself? Her firm? Or ?

(0)(10)

Beverley

Great when you’ve been given the chance to know and understand .

(1)(1)

Paul

Diagnosed at 54. Suddenly many things make more sense. We are all individuals who have our own challenges but one thing we have in common, in my opinion, is that we have some problems with elements of life that NT people don’t. Diagnosis can help understanding. Great if you are able to share with your employer and get support. I am about to find out if it is all talk, having shared with one of the partners in my firm this week.

(5)(0)

Hayley

I got diagnosed at the age of 39, but as having Aspergers. After reading up about the condition and seeing that is now under the umbrella of Autism, I identify as Autistic. It explained and and answered so much for me, from being bullied at school and work to how I come across to others and why. The best thing is no more masking, I certainly don’t miss that!
It came about after a very challenging placement when I was attempting to do my nurse training (didn’t finish it because of the issues and the knock on effects of it) and a documentary on BBC 1, Am I Autistic? So much of it resonated with me that I got things rolling. I also, through Occupational Health had an assessment for Dyspraxia and that came up positive as well. Although these are classed as disabilities, I only find some of my traits disabling, and the attitudes of others. I am who I am. Sure I need help with certain things, processing too much information or stuff said to me too fast is very challenging, as is interpreting every day life and communication which tends to make learning difficult for me. Now I just accept it and crack on with life. I still rely on antidepressants but now they are more to treat a trait rather than a condition.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

An autism diagnosis by a professional psychiatrist is well worth having, as is a course of ‘treatment’ to help understand how to fit in well with neurotypical people, without causing distress all round. Left untreated, lives may be destroyed due to poor social interactions, anxiety and stress, regardless of ability. Let me give three examples:

I know of a person obviously very highly autistic and exceedingly intelligent to the extent that they went through a book entitled General Degree Pure Mathematics, aged 15, doing all the exercises, and proving to others that they really did understand it. In all other areas, including languages and d.i.y., it was a similar story. Anything they put their mind to they excelled at; whether it was rebuilding a motorcycle engine, with no prior knowledge, such that it performed like new; beating graduate computer programmers when they’d never programmed before, or learning German and Italian to high standard, entirely self-taught. Where are they now? Nowhere! Doing work fit for school dropouts because others don’t feel comfortable in their presence, and vice-versa. No real understanding of how others make friends and enjoy hanging out together, or over the way human emotions such fear, anxiety and depression do sometimes prevent others from behaving logically and acting in their own best interests. A course, however, would very likely have transformed everything, both for themselves and those around them; very much for the better.

Only six years ago, as a private tutor, I met someone classified as autistic and having been on such a course; they were absolutely charming and would fit in anywhere! About a couple of months ago, I met another such person, and exactly the same applied! A course to educate such people is almost as important as the the diagnosis itself, in my opinion.

(1)(3)

Anonymous2

What course had these people done?

(0)(0)

Helen

Would you please explain why, you think a diagnosis is “well worth having”? Do you mean because of interventions that maybe available? Is this what you mean by a “course of treatment” please?

(1)(0)

An autistic lawyer

I don’t think treatment is the right term, and going through a “treatment” program is entirely inappropriate. It’s not like treating a physical sickness.

I went to an autistic school in my secondary years and it propelled me to become who I am today, an autistic lawyer. But this was as I was growing up, and it was a tough road to follow and affected my academic performance at the time. As an adult, I don’t think you can simply be treated and fix these things when you’ve grown up without the right support. It will always be difficult to manage and getting the right support is imperative to assist but no course is going to be a magic bullet.

(3)(0)

Lee Bateman

Very well written and I agree with much of what you say.

I am a nurse in my forties diagnosed with ASD in childhood, then again in my late thirties when the NHS Neurodiversity Clinic I worked for as a Specialist wouldn’t accept and believe my diagnosis.

I wonder if there is another reason the legal profession can’t disclose?

My personal experience is that I have been denied the right to appear in court for legitimate purposes on two occasions. Legal staff representing me have felt I am unable to speak in court due to being on the spectrum which somehow means I lack credibility. This is despite being a published academic and nurse of more than 20 years. They understood ASD really well but this has been the position of a number of lawyers.

In the past I have appeared in court without issue as an expert witness. Although, for much of my adulthood I didn’t identify with my childhood diagnosis and disclose it.

I think in a legal setting based on my experience it is probably best not to be so open. To do so seems to strip you of the same rights as people who don’t disclose.

This is unjust, however if we have a system which weaponises ASD against us then we have to respond accordingly. This might involve mindfully masking in order to survive. I had to leave my job of 23 years due to not having the same legal opportunities as a result of diagnosis and disclosure.

(2)(2)

Anon

I know barristers at commercial chambers who didn’t disclose their neurodivergence diagnoses on their pupillage application forms.

I praise all who come forward to dispel myths about autism, but also worry that prejudice is rife within the legal profession.

(3)(0)

Chancery

I disclosed my autism and got pupillage. But I agree that there is a lot of misconceptions regarding autistic people at the Bar, although many barristers are clearly on the spectrum.

(2)(0)

Counsel

I’m sure hidden neurodiversity is rife within the legal professions.

I have come across many people who
I am sure are on the spectrum in my 14 years doing the job.

My wife thinks that we may both be and we’ve done some informal tests that seem to indicate that it is so, but we are concerned that a formal diagnosis might be prejudicial.

We would value your opinion on that.

(3)(0)

Amanda

great reading about real people with autism. I suspect my 3 year old could be autistic as he is yet to speak and communicate verbally. He sings nursery rhymes and can imitate speech sometimes but no communication. He enjoys playing in his company and has so much energy that he doesn’t even want to stay in nursery. I come from Nigeria where mental health is not a priority so services are not even available for actual support. I’ll be glad to meet people who have walked this path as I want to support my son in all ways possible to give him the best! thanks. I’ll be chatting you lifecoach.

(3)(0)

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