"A good MI6 Intelligence Officer wants to learn what makes people tick. An Intelligence Officer on the autistic spectrum however, doesn't just want to know what makes a person tick, they want to know how to build the key that winds them up."
It is estimated that over 30%, and indeed maybe even as high as 53% of individuals working at GCHQ could legitimately have a place on the Autistic Spectrum (ASD).
- Article published by GCHQ - 29 Mar 2017
To mark World Autism Awareness Week, we hear from James*, a GCHQ member of staff with Asperger syndrome.
I think that it was down to GCHQ that I ever got diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, as my school, university and other jobs had serially failed to spot it for many years.
I just got labelled as "doesn’t suffer fools gladly", "can be a little blunt, especially in emails", "isn’t very sociable and rubs folk up the wrong way" and so on.
Interestingly, while people may have in hindsight attributed bad things to Asperger syndrome, it is very rare that anyone seems to make that connection with more positive behaviours.
The positive aspects are often things like:
Very good attention to detail, can spot patterns, anomalies and trends easily.
Very good focus on a task and determination to complete it, perhaps even explore wider context to it and innovate.
Very good, logical, science-based decision making without the often distracting emotional baggage many people have this. So able to make independent, unbiased decisions.
As you can imagine, all these things are crucial to GCHQ's work! This could be one of the reasons why we have always attracted a high number of neurodiverse staff, stretching back to Bletchley Park and beyond.
As our Director Robert Hannigan has said: "To do our job, which is solving some of the hardest technology problems the world faces for security reasons, we need all talents and we need people who dare to think differently and be different."
I was encouraged to seek diagnosis by GCHQ's Neurodiversity Adviser, which turned out to be quite easy and painless. GCHQ has had a specialised neurodiversity support service for 20 years and has training and detailed guidance available for all staff.
One of the things it offers are awareness sessions for managers. Good management makes a big difference to how well you cope.
A good manager will help you to put in place coping mechanisms and make reasonable adjustments while you get these working.
A good manager will recognise what work you will do well and what work would be really challenging.
A good manager will make other workplace adjustments to minimise aspects of work that make an 'Aspie' anxious, such as business travel in my case.
A good manager will recognise that Asperger syndrome isn't curable but that you can employ coping mechanisms and practise the hard things in graded steps.
A bad manager can ruin your confidence, career and make you totally unproductive.
My experience could have been a different story if I hadn't have found myself working for an employer who not only helped me diagnose my syndrome but also saw the positives. I’ve experienced how we are consistently striving to be even better at supporting neurodiverse staff. It is great to see the department leading the way with education and looking for more opportunities to deploy neurodiverse staff in a way that ensures their skills are best employed.
GCHQ is a 'Disability Confident' Level 3 employer committed to supporting all our staff with disabilities, including those with neurodiverse conditions. We are actively ensuring our recruitment campaigns are accessible and that there are no barriers to the recruitment and continued professional development of neurodiverse staff.
*Name changed to protect his identity