[Author’s comment: Some names have been changed for privacy reasons]
“He put his head in his hands and said: ’For f ***’s sake! Callum. This is bad. This is BAD!’ Then he sat up and really stared at me. It just went through me. I started to feel all sick and dizzy. He complained: ‘We’ve lost half a day’s work here, and now I have to sort it out!’. By now, all the other developers in the room also stared at me.”
I’m talking to Callum, an autistic web developer who’s got quite a story to tell. He’s recalling the events leading to his public humiliation and dismissal only three weeks into his new job at a local website development agency. His story is sadly a typical case of how neurodivergent people are quickly labelled as incompetent and dismissed from their jobs. Often due to situations that could’ve been easily avoided if the employers had made an effort to understand the different needs of their disabled employees and acted on them.
Callum explains why his manager Tim humiliated him in front of his colleagues on that day. “Yes, I had made a mistake, but only because the Jira automated time tracker that was monitoring my work had put me under so much pressure. I just saw the tracker acting as a stopwatch at the bottom of my computer screen. I couldn’t think straight and had forgotten to add some lines of code. A very simple and stupid mistake.”
How did it all start?
“I only just finished uni in May, and I’m on track to graduate with either a first or 2.1 degree in July. I had started sending out applications in early April and decided to disclose my autism on my CV and the application letters. I just wanted to make sure that the companies knew that I’m a bit different.” Callum smiles. “I attended a few interviews and was really excited when I got this job offer more or less on the spot.”
“I knew of but had never worked with the Magento platform this company was using. But, I’ve never had any problems learning other platforms at uni, at home and during my placement year at another agency. I was looking forward to learning something new. When I mentioned this to Tim (the development team manager) at the interview, he’d said that it didn’t matter. They would give me extensive training as part of the job. I also passed the technical test at the second stage of the interview process, and Tim offered me a job as a Junior Frontend Developer.”
Had the company made a plan to help him settle in?
“Tim said that he had ‘read a lot about autism’ and wouldn’t treat me any differently to the others working there. I actually thought that was great. I wanted to fit into the team and not stand out like a sore thumb.” Callum shrugs.
Obviously, Tim’s superficial research had not told him that autistic employees indeed have to be treated differently to ensure that they can integrate without much disruption. Companies often think that just knowing about the condition is enough. They are not aware that they have to be compliant with the Equalities Act 2010 and make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees.
Callum continues: “Tim was great in the first week. He sat with me and made sure that I understood the new platform. He gave me some proper training, and I was really pleased. I came home every night telling my family that Tim had been happy with the progress I had made each day, as he’d told me so. I felt comfortable.”
Where did it all go wrong so quickly?
“Tim was away on holiday in the second week. I thought that he would’ve left some instructions for me to get on with my training. But that wasn’t the case. When I got into the office on the first day of the second week, John, one of the other developers, told me that he was in charge for that week. He would tell me what to do. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that but was happy to wait for him to start up the training again. I’d only had one week’s training, and it’s a complex system. But, John just put me on the ‘live’ system, dealing with client submission tickets (where clients report problems with their websites and expect them to be fixed quickly). He also put me on Jira, the system tracking the time available for a developer to fix a ticket. You see the time ticking away on your computer screen once you’ve started working on a job. I was really confused by all of this and told John that, according to Tim, I should still be working within the training system. He didn’t believe me.”
“So, I was expected to perform as well as the rest of the team even though the training wasn’t complete. This made me feel really stressed and uncomfortable. I started to have anxiety attacks and often disappeared to the toilets. I didn’t want the others to see me panicking. Jira soon flagged up my bad performance, and John called Tim on holiday to speak to him about me and to complain. He’d also become impatient and started taking tasks off me. That week was just horrible. I had one anxiety attack after another, and there was no one to talk to. I felt that the other developers just saw me as an idiot who couldn’t do his job, and I avoided them.”
I can see how emotional Callum gets on telling me about this traumatic week.
“Talks with my family over the weekend calmed me down. After all, Tim would be back on Monday and surely would continue the training.”
Callum shakes his head. “As soon as I came through the door on Monday, Tim ‘pulled’ me into the meeting room. He said I was ‘in deep water’. He didn’t like it at all that he had received John’s phone call on holiday. He told me that he was giving me a ‘red strike’, and ‘three strikes meant instant dismissal’. I was so shocked that I was speechless at first. But, then I remembered the awful week I had just had and became angry. I told him how unfair he was treating me and that I couldn’t believe that they expected a new employee with no Magento experience to work like all the others. Tim suddenly apologised, said that he was impressed with how I had defended myself and invited me to lunch. Although this initially calmed me down, it also made me feel a bit uneasy. One minute he’d been telling me how useless I was and then he wanted to have lunch with me to ‘get to know each other better’.”
“I just couldn’t trust the guy any longer and decided to get help from somebody my mum knew. We rang Caroline Turner who runs Creased Puddle, a neurodiversity consultancy. She was great and promised to give Tim some advice over the phone if he contacted her. She said she could do a workplace assessment and put a reasonable adjustment plan in place. She asked for the HR contact at the company, but I didn’t know who that was, as Tim had been my only contact point up to then.”
Did Tim take up the offer?
“I mentioned Caroline’s offer to Tim. He just asked me to e-mail him Caroline’s details and dropped the subject quickly. He never got in touch with Caroline. I was really disappointed.”
How did things go from then on?
“Yeah, Tim started to do some more training with me that week. But, he hardly sat with me and kept me on Jira. And, that was what did it in the end. By Wednesday, I couldn’t cope any longer. I started making really stupid and simple mistakes that I normally wouldn’t have made in a million years. That tracker did my head in. And, then Tim lost it with me in front of everybody else in the office.”
“That evening, my mum spoke to Caroline again, who said that she would be happy to contact Tim with my permission. But, I wanted to try one more time to talk to him. First thing on Thursday, I asked him for a meeting. I was sure that if I could explain the effect the working environment had on me, he would understand and help me. So, I started telling him about my anxiety over Jira. He interrupted me and suddenly became really defensive. He said: ‘You are not the only one with anxiety. I have massive problems at home and got eczema on my back from all the stress. And now, talking to you here, my back is itching badly’. I was shocked. He hadn’t even given me the chance to explain. So, I said to him could he please contact Caroline or I’d have to leave, which I wouldn’t want to do. When I tried passing over Caroline’s telephone number, he refused to take it. He said ‘I’m not getting sued over this!’ Then he marched into the director’s office, and I was asked to leave at the end of that day.”
What effect did this experience have on him?
“Well, I’m glad I don’t have to work there anymore. I didn’t like the culture, and the people in the office all kept to themselves. You could compare them to battery hens I guess.” Callum smiles sadly.
“My mum is a freelance content writer. So, we’ve now decided to get into business together, selling website design, development and content packages. I’m currently developing our company website. It’s fantastic to do this in my own time, and it’s going to be an awesome site. We’ve been to some networking events already and had a lot of interest. I guess it’s not every day that a mother and son team pitch their business. I’m worried about money, though. I need to get some freelance jobs soon. I cannot expect my mum and dad to bail me out. So, yeah, I’m happy to be free but also really worried. One thing I know for sure, I do not want to work in an office again!”
Callum is a talented web developer and a very conscientious and honest person. The environment at the agency wasn’t right for him. I struggle to see how anybody – neurodivergent or not – could thrive there. But, that is not the point here.
Employers need to realise that they are not only missing out on retaining valuable employees but are also going against the law by refusing to make adjustments.
The Equalities Act 2010 puts the duty on employers to make reasonable adjustment plans for disabled workers. Non-compliance can end in costly disability discrimination employment tribunals. The recent case T Sherbourne versus N Power Ltd is a good example of this. The autistic claimant won and is expected to receive a considerable sum of compensation after the remedy hearing on 27th June 2019.
Callum has decided against taking action. He just wants to move on and leave this traumatic experience behind.
Autism is an invisible disability, and it comes as no surprise that only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are working full time.
Callum’s story highlights the urgent need for employers to become more aware of dealing with neurodiversity in the workplace. And, there are great organisations out there willing to help, such as Creased Puddle.
If you have had a similar experience to Callum, or are an employer wanting to know more, get in touch with an organisation that can help.
Caroline at Creased Puddle runs workshops and seminars to educate employers on the inclusion of neurodiverse people in their workforces. And, she helps people in need, like Callum, to get through to their employers.
UPDATE JULY 2020:
Callum and Caren now run the neurodiverse, creative agency KreativeInc Agency, offering graphic design and bespoke WordPress websites that are made fully accessible with AI technology to people with all kinds of disabilities and impairments, such as the blind, motor-impaired, autistic, severely dyslexic, epileptic and colour blind.
At the same time, they run free workshops for employers under the name “the NeuroPool Network” to educate them on how to get the best out of their neurodivergent talent. They want to show businesses that with often simple adjustments, they can gain extraordinary employees that will benefit their business rather than hinder it.
Callum explains: “KreativeInc Agency is a neurodiverse and inclusive creative agency where we aim to combine the complementing talents of people with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD with those of neurotypical people.
We want to create a talent-nurturing environment where being different is seen as a competitive advantage to give our clients an innovative web and creative design service in the UK.
Making the UK a neurodiversity-friendly workplace and a digitally inclusive space for everyone is our vision and mission.”
Caren is a qualified and experienced digital copy & content writer with both a corporate and small business owner background. She runs KreativeInc Agency, a web design, development and content creation agency with her autistic son Callum Gamble.
She specialises in creating Inbound Marketing content for business websites and blogs. Using her expert knowledge, skills and personal experience in business development, personal improvement and autism, she crafts content that makes people take action. Her work is found in retail publications, professional websites, on her writer’s platform StoryBlog and more.
She is also an active advocate of neurodiversity in the workplace and co-founder of the NeuroPool network, neuropool.co.uk. Here, she is organising free educational workshops for employers on how to utilise the extraordinary talent found in people with autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and dyslexia within their business.
When she isn’t typing away on her keyboard or spreading her mission, you can see her having her nose buried in a book or hiking up and down the steep hills of the Yorkshire countryside with her husband, son and daughter.
More information at