Lawyers with disabilities

The need for different minds

Julie Jaggin, a senior associate at Kingsley Napley LLP, discusses autism in women and harnessing the strengths of autistic people within the legal profession.

two women problem solving

The wiring of an autistic brain is different. And probably not in the way you think.

Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) describes a distinctive profile of brain wiring: its pattern formed in an intense genesis of early brain overgrowth and an above-average level of synaptic connections that makes it clearly distinguishable from the 'neurotypical' profile.

Autistic wiring can produce super-powerful pathways in certain areas of the brain, such as visual thinking, verbal thinking, pattern thinking and problem-solving. This has created the super-human brilliance of 'aspies' all over the world.

It's speculated that Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs were on the autistic spectrum, along with huge swathes of the current NASA and Silicon Valley workforces.

All have the same diagnosis on the truly gargantuan spectrum of ASD. All present differently and utterly uniquely.

Autism in women

If you form any mental picture of an autistic adult, the chances are they're male, unbelievably good at maths, obsessive about trains or dinosaurs and look something between Rain Man or your favourite from The Undateables. They probably don't look like Daryl Hannah, Greta Thunberg or Courtney Love.

With diagnosis, autistic females are empowered to take off the mask and become all they want to be in line with their true selves, both in their personal and professional lives.

Sadly, there are considerable hurdles for an individual ever getting to know this fundamental aspect of themselves, let alone their teachers and employers. Clinical psychology has been slow to recognise how autism can present very differently in females from the presentation generated by the formative studies of Hans Asperger.

These studies were based on test subjects he referred to as his 'little professors'. They were all boys.

Subsequent diagnostic criteria were built on this male presentation, which is one of several reasons why the girls have been missed. Another reason is the more typical ability of girls to be better than boys at 'masking' their autistic traits to fit into the patterns of observed neurotypical behaviour expected of their gender.

Being a girl or women is a cultural construction that often runs counter to what enables all women – whether aspie or neurotypical – to live as their authentic selves. Girls are taught to be 'ladylike', passive, polite and they quickly learn that following the rules: masking, chatting, apologising, being in a group and blending in equals everything is okay.

Presenting otherwise attracts bullies like blood attracts sharks. The external spotlight then goes away at the cost of internalised anxiety about how unacceptable they are as themselves.

When these girls grow up, this anxiety grows with them. Research has shown that where woman have sought professional help, this often results in several misdiagnoses because clinicians simply do not expect autism in women; particularly independent career women.

They have learned and demonstrated through intellect rather than intuition the cultural expectations of them, such as the neurotypical need for the correct level of eye contact and the correct answer to 'How are you?'.

Aspie girls are often excellent and effortless mimics, which is the reason Susan Boyle sings in perfect pitch.

Gestures and patterns of behaviour are studied by these 'little psychologists': they don't get why a group of girls feel the need to post pictures of their lunch on Instagram or why it is appropriate to draw inferences if a 'like' is not provided within certain time limits, but the regularity of said need and expected response time is noted and copied. And it's exhausting!

Patterns and intense emotional and sensory experience come as effortlessly as breathing. These qualities produced the mathematical patterns and beauty of the chilling, wrenching, heart-breaking performances of Anthony Hopkins.

It can also mean a non-productive day in the office because of an overload of sensory input, including but not limited to the exhausting, painful tangle of noise in an open plan office and relentless, over-bright lighting. These sensory and cognitive differences are as real as any physical difference. Not worse or better, just different.

Harnessing the strengths of autism

The world – including the legal profession – needs all kinds of different minds and the ability to recognise them and harness their strengths.

Companies such as Google and Microsoft have implemented recruitment processes and workplaces that allow for the aspie strengths of intense, prolonged focus, accuracy, associative thinking, breadth and depth of knowledge in specialist areas and attention to detail to be harnessed in full.

When these needs are met, aspies are a loyal, hard-working resource for any employer - and not just because they don't like change.

Looking back over my own career, I have seen aspie lawyers deduce, with their non-linear thinking, the right way for their team to adapt to the Legal Services Act with a prescience only realised several years later.

They have untangled the most bewildering, disclosure bundles, estate and trust accounts and solved the most long-running disputes with their ability to hold and retain vast amounts of information, weigh it objectively and logically alongside incredible breadth and depth of legal knowledge to find paths to resolution that no one else saw.

Right now, the legal profession – like many others – has taken a weak, hesitant step in acknowledging general neurodiversity as a tick-box concept. However, the practical support and understanding in the field is far below the level of more manifest physical disabilities, but it is in everyone's interest to change this.

Dyslexia forms part of the wiring for Richard Branson, Duncan Bannatyne and Eddie Izzard – all acknowledged as highly successful people according to neurotypical criteria. Generations of aspie kids now in their thirties upwards were missed.

Knowing this, and knowing how to recognise and make the simple changes that harness the uniqueness of aspies or other neurodivergent minds, equips the legal profession with a fresh, new superpower.

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