Graham Dunn jokes that he has clocked up more jobs at the age of 33 than most people have had by retirement age.

But until now, none of them had really worked out. He either struggled to travel to work, or the office was too noisy, or he was too blunt on the phone, or he couldn’t join in the workplace banter.

It wasn’t until Graham accepted he was autistic and disclosed it to employers that he became confident in his skills and what he could offer. He describes the change as “mind-blowing.”

“I feel like a different man - I feel so much more confident. I’m learning how to do a job my way and making autism work to my advantage,” says Graham, from Gateshead.

He is now on a mission to help other autistic people into the workplace, as well as promote greater understanding and acceptance amongst employers. That’s why he has joined the North East Autism Society’s Employment Futures service and why he is telling his own personal story now.

Graham’s story

Graham was a young child when he was diagnosed as autistic but neither he nor his parents really understood what that meant. “I never fully accepted it or learned anything about it until recently,” he says. “It was just something my parents told people when I was being weird.

"I struggled. I went to mainstream school and masked a lot. I was often told that I tried too hard, and I think people could sense it was taking me a lot of effort to appear normal.

“When I got home, I’d be so tired after a day of playing a character at school that I struggled to do homework.”

Graham left school at 16 after passing his GCSEs and immediately felt under pressure to start earning. But because he didn’t understand his autism or know about his needs, he took the first job that came along – and found himself totally unprepared for the workplace.

“It was in a warehouse and there was a lot of banter. I often felt that communication lines were blurred. If someone told me to do something I would do it.

I didn't always understand the difference between a genuine instruction and somebody having a bit of banter. Understanding the difference is something I have had to learn through experience. I wish there had been more preparation for this in school.

Since then, he has worked in bars, stores, call centres, office jobs and the NHS, as well as achieving a first-class degree in music industry management at Salford University. But he found the same problems and barriers kept cropping up.

One is transport.

I can’t drive, and I really struggle on public transport. On a bus there are a lot of smells, lights, and sensations like rocking. When buses are too crowded, I can’t see a way for me to get off,” Graham says.

"At times I’ve missed interviews or been late for jobs because a bus hasn’t shown up when I expected it to, or I’ve had sensory overload and a meltdown and haven’t been able to move, so I’ve missed my stop.

“I’d do dummy runs three or four times before an interview. But on the day, the bus might be late, there might be someone wearing too much aftershave, there could be a crying baby. There are so many variables than an autistic person can’t control.”

The second barrier is job interviews.

Particularly difficult is the emphasis on eye contact, body language and facial expressions. “These are all things that autistic people may struggle with – I know I certainly do,” Graham says.

“I can’t concentrate on what’s being said when I’m making eye contact. I look away and they think I’m not interested. So I’d put on a mask, make eye contact, look prim and proper, and I’d not understand the question.

“Or worse, sometimes I’d get the job, and then they’d say, ‘you’re nothing like you were in the interview’. I don’t want to wear a mask for the rest of my life and that’s one of the reasons I started to disclose I had autism.”

The third barrier is the workplace environment.

Bars, call centres and big offices are often busy, bright and noisy, which can be overwhelming for autistic people. Graham, who was diagnosed with ADHD when he was 29, also found it difficult to grasp verbal instructions without them being repeated several times.

He says: “If I have got noise-cancelling headphones on and the lights dimmed, I’m not skiving – it’s the opposite! I prefer instructions written down and emailed to me, so I can process them.

Because the disability isn’t visible, I don’t believe managers treat it the same as a disability they can see. This could be for many reasons; it’s easier to justify what could be deemed as ‘special treatment’ to a workforce for someone with a visible disability, or it could be seen as too much effort to change how they have worked for decades.

“The point of adjustments is that they are reasonable. All an autistic person is asking is that an employer meets them in the middle to get the best results.”

A turning point for Graham was being diagnosed with ADHD at 29 and taking medication for it. He started learning more about his autism and disclosing it to employers, though they weren’t always willing to make adjustments.

“That’s when I decided to own my autism,” he says. “It’s a massive part of who I am. I needed to accept there are things I can’t do, but many more things I can do. I wanted to help people and joined the North East Autism Society as an administration officer.

“It was the best thing I ever did. I’m working for an employer that gets it, and trusts me. If I asked for help, I wouldn’t be made to feel weird or stupid.

If I could get a message to every employer, it would be to understand. Nobody is asking them to know every little thing about autism; understanding and being approachable is more important.

Graham’s tips for young autistic people 

“This is what I would advise my younger self if I could flip a switch and do it all over again.

  • Accept your autism and find and realise the strengths autism brings you. Transferable skills are everywhere.
  • Normalise talking about autism with family, friends and colleagues. People create positive culture.
  • Research job roles fully before going in for interviews. There may be secondary tasks that you may struggle with. When I went for a job as a pricing analyst, I was great at numbers and analysis side of the job but really struggled with the negotiating side of the job.
  • Don’t be scared to disclose your disabilities to your manager. If they can make adjustments, they should. You spend most of your day in your workplace so try and make it a comfortable environment for you to work in.
  • Handle big overwhelming tasks by breaking them down into smaller individual tasks, work out what your strengths are and what aspects you may need help with (and ask if you do!) and consider the consequences if you make a mistake. Might not work for everyone but it stops me getting overwhelmed. 
  • Make plans for travel. Have an option B and even C if required. Travel can be overwhelming and very unreliable, so keep a ‘taxi fund’ pot in your savings and speak to Access to Work about support available.”

Find out more about Employment Futures