In this guest blog, Detective Inspector Becky Davies shares her experiences of being neurodiverse in policing and in life more generally. She expertly articulates her late discovery autism diagnosis and reflects on how this has impacted her life and police leadership career. She is incredibly open about her challenges and frustrations throughout, including how her neurodivergence intersects with being an aspiring woman in policing. There’s also great tips and good practice, including what helped her along the journey.
I commend her story to you and hope you find it an enlightening and fascinating read. Brace yourself for an emotional, impactive ride in which Becky courageously exposes her soul to inspire others. Becky has also kindly recorded her story in audio format, which I’m pleased to share with you in my Police Promotion and Leadership podcast. It’s embedded below for those who like to listen.
At 38, the Penny Finally Dropped
“The strong emotions and sometimes outbursts were the result of overstimulation in a neurotypical world.”
Imagine being in the dark for 38 years. Never fitting in, feeling like marmite to others (love it, hate it) and knowing that you are smart but often feeling really stupid. Well, that was me up until 2021 when the penny finally dropped. I’m not a jerk, a loner or stupid. I am in fact actually autistic (and ADHD).
I joined policing aged 20, but long before this I knew there was something different about me. I struggled with social groups at school, especially groups of girls. I felt some really strong, overwhelming emotions at times with absolutely no explanation. I now of course know that this is because the complex social world, especially that which the majority of the female gender operate in, is on the whole a complete mystery to me. That the strong emotions and sometimes outbursts were the result of overstimulation in a neurotypical world.
Things like small talk, eye contact and physical contact are completely alien to me. Like many autistic girls, I learnt to mimic and mask from a really early age. It is after all survival, but whilst it can get you through life in what appears from the outside world with relative success there is a huge cost. Both physical and emotional.
It’s not thriving.
From an Early Age…
“It was about control, so reframing it through an autistic lens makes total sense.”
From an early age I developed symptoms of an autoimmune disorder that was diagnosed aged 25. Research has linked autism with autoimmune disorders (see Hughes et al, 2018 for example). A significant proportion of autistic women also suffer with eating disorders (see Huke et al, 2013). During my teenage years I spent several of them starving or bingeing and purging. I knew for a long time that the eating disorder had nothing to do with skinny women in magazines. It was about control, so reframing it through an autistic lens makes total sense.
It was at a time where the social landscape in which I was operating in as a teenage girl was becoming ever more complex, and difficult to navigate. Undoubtedly the significant neurological and biological changes within all teenager’s brains and bodies only serve to amplify the affects. On top of that I was dealing with difficult family dynamics. Everything in my life felt out of control. But there was one thing I could control, what I put in and out of my body, and the worse things got, the more I controlled it. The ability of autistic people to hyperfocus on something including to the detriment of their own health is at times alarming.
Joining the Police & Early Challenges
“At 25 I was a divorcee and in a man’s world, so I had become good at mimicking to fit in and try to avoid certain unpleasant behaviours.”
Things got better when I started to incessantly exercise aged 15, but it remained one of the ways I managed the difficult stuff for 6 years until I joined the police. There’s a lot about policing that suits the neurodivergent and helps regulation. Wearing the same thing every day, the routine, a certain amount of autonomy over decision making.
There’s also things that make us vulnerable to the less desirable parts of a policing organisation. At 25 I was a divorcee and in a man’s world, so I had become good at mimicking to fit in and try to avoid certain unpleasant behaviours. But like any other mimic or masking, it’s a tactic prone to burn out and failure.
Some of these behaviours were perpetrated by women as well as men. A phenomenon that actually feels more brutal than traditional misogyny. At aged 24 I was bullied by a female Sergeant. I’m now fairly certain my autistic traits had rubbed her up the wrong way and she became determined to stunt my career and humiliate me at every opportunity. My confidence hit rock bottom, and I developed a fear of public speaking to the point I couldn’t do it for a long time because I would dissociate. I had been up until then on the promotion pathway having passed the Sergeants exam and acting up, but all that fell away with my confidence. It would be another 7 years before I stepped up again.
Becoming a Parent with Postnatal Depression
“The inability to get any alone time to recharge and constant noise is like torture to the neurosensitive.”
At 30 I had my first child and the more acute co-morbid mental health problems continued. Just 1 week after she was born, I was in an absolute mess and another 2 weeks after that I didn’t want to be on the planet anymore. It wasn’t long after I was ill that I could describe what it was about the early days that made me so poorly. But it was another 8 years and another baby later that I finally understood that autism was the issue, and the acute anxiety and depression a comorbid condition.
I love both my children and I’d go through hell twenty times over to have them. But there’s things about the early days that can be particularly challenging for some autistic individuals. The lack of routine and predictability puts me in an absolute spin and both my children were in military precision routines by the time they were 12 weeks old. The inability to get any alone time to recharge and constant noise is like torture to the neurosensitive.
It quickly got better once I gave in to medication to cut through the acute anxiety the scenario created. Nevertheless, it was an entirely unpleasant and frightening experience for a while. I was recently asked whether knowing I was autistic would have made a difference. Whilst hard to say, I believe it would have made a big difference and made the acute periods of mental illness I have experienced entirely avoidable. However, I have no anger or bitterness about that; had I not been through those awful experiences, I may not have gone to drive improvement.
“I became deeply invested in improving the picture around perinatal, police and service user mental health, and this is where my autistic strengths came to fruition.”
Struggling with an eating disorder had ignited an interest in mental health. Postnatal depression then set it alight. Especially when I came back to work and support was all but void for those returning from maternity leave; let alone those struggling with postnatal illness. This lack of support can undoubtedly stunt many women’s careers, as they struggle to adjust.
I became deeply invested in improving the picture around perinatal, police and service user mental health, and this is where my autistic strengths came to fruition. My resilience and determination, my ability to spot patterns and gaps in service delivery, and to plug the gaps with innovation.
Between 2014 and 2021, I drove and co-delivered projects at local, strategic, and national level. These included family support, men’s health, perinatal MH support, mental health and neurodivergence in custody, and police mental health, working with NHS and third sector parties along the way. I used my own lived experience and the lived experience of others to ensure services were fit for purpose. Much of it has been adopted by other services and some of it published as national best practise.
I felt like I had proved my worth, my skills and abilities but sadly I was still misheard and misunderstood by many.
Challenges of my Neurodivergent Traits
“I am brutally honest and direct, I don’t intend to upset or annoy, I just don’t know how to flower information up.”
One of my autistic traits is a complete lack of patience in certain scenarios. If I decide something needs to happen, it needed to happen yesterday. That ability to spot gaps in service delivery and the solution at the same time.
I assumed for a long time that everyone else could see what I could see and couldn’t understand why I needed to ‘gain buy in’ when it’s really obvious. One of my bosses eventually pointed out that others can’t see what I can see, so I need to take the time to bring people along. I have to work at it and on the frustration it can bring. It has seen me get into trouble, alienate others, and ditch projects along the way.
Communication can also be difficult. I am brutally honest and direct, I don’t intend to upset or annoy, I just don’t know how to flower information up to be more palatable to certain people. I struggle with eye contact both making and breaking it. I often need more time to process information in conversation, to work out whether people are using words in a literal sense or not and to give an appropriate response. I can’t hide my emotions and in fact they can be amplified on my face. For example, mild disagreement can look like anger. A combination of all these factors can make communication difficult at times and lead people to take a really negative perspective of me, without me having a clue at all as to what I did or why it went so badly.
Going for Promotion, Identifying Gaps
“I decided that to be the change, I also now needed to get on with promotion.”
At around the same time I started taking on improvement work, I decided that to be the change I also now needed to get on with promotion. Despite the improvement work I had done, I just couldn’t get the support from my senior management teams at both Sergeant and Inspector. Eventually I worked out it was the marmite phenomenon. Half of the SMT would be saying I was the best thing since sliced bread and we needed more people like me in the organisation. Half would be saying absolutely not, and that I was a loose cannon.
Words like combative, arrogant, and rude were assigned to me linked to the aforementioned communication differences (that I have very little control over). But those in the other camp would frame those traits using adjectives like direct, passionate and driven, maybe appreciating the need for more of this approach in policing; more honesty, more openness, more transparency.
It took me four years to achieve substantive promotion to Sergeant. Not because I couldn’t pass a CVF board, I passed the first one I got to, but because I couldn’t get SMT support as I didn’t fit the right mould. The negative impact on my well-being and family life was significant.
I had hoped that when I went for Inspector, things would be easier. I’d had coaching and mentoring by then, I’d worked really hard to mask and dial down the parts of my personality that weren’t palatable or desirable to certain people. But at the first temporary inspectors panel it was the same thing.
I then completed another round of 360 feedback, which told me that despite the attempts to fit the mould, I was still perceived in certain negative ways. During this time, I had been supporting several women as a police federation representative with disabilities and late diagnosed neurodivergence, often recognising my own struggles in their experiences. I was also based in police custody and designing several mental health training packs for staff, including for autism and ADHD.
Eventually the penny dropped.
Getting Assessed for Neurodivergence as a Police Officer
“Being a police officer adds a whole other identity dimension to being a woman and being neurodivergent.”
I did an online assessment and it came back highly autistic traits. I then did many more, with the same result. Even when I went for the autism assessment, I thought the consultant psychiatrist might just say “no”, leaving me with a cold reality that I might just be a jerk. Thankfully that wasn’t the case! She said I’d done incredibly well to get to where I had with the challenges I faced. It’s hard to believe though that for 38 years, feeling out of place and abnormal becomes the uncomfortable norm. The confusion and the frustration just a really uncomfortable part of life.
I paid for the assessment having been told I could wait 7 years for one with the local service. Not all late discovered women have this option. Neither do late discovered men, but because of the way autism assessments are set up there are many more late discovered women than men. At one time it was thought to be a predominantly male ‘condition’ (I hate that word).
When looking at accessing an autism assessment, I got in contact with someone from our Neurodiversity Support Network to discuss the options. Every policing area needs such a network, and if your police force or other organisation doesn’t yet have one, it needs one. They were really helpful and directed me towards someone who had assessed police officers previously. A helpful angle, because being a police officer adds a whole other identity dimension to being a woman and being neurodivergent. This person also suggested I might want to get assessed for ADHD from what he knew about me.
I hadn’t even considered ADHD, due to my own misconceptions.
The people with ADHD I saw coming through custody were, on the whole, dysregulated. Bouncing off the walls, agitated, highly disorganised individuals. I slowly came to realise I would be more like that if I didn’t have coping mechanisms in place. That a lot of the memory problems, double booking myself and need to always be busy were in fact ADHD symptoms. I had just learnt to manage them reasonably well from an early age. Through the exercise and having one place for all appointments and commitments, as well as lists as reminders of what I needed to do daily, I’d made my own adaptions without even knowing.
I perhaps naively thought that diagnosis would be a revelation. To some extent it has been; I am much kinder to myself and able to laugh when I take things literally, don’t get people’s jokes or misunderstand, and that’s been so important. But with other people it has been very inconsistent. At the time I was diagnosed, I was in the completely wrong environment. I had passed the police Sergeant to Detective Sergeant process and was on the PIP2 pathway.
Not everyone agrees with bypassing being a Detective Constable. To make matters worse, I passed the Inspectors board part way through the aide. Suddenly, Detective Inspector was in my line of sight and the passion, drive and brutal honesty were on show for all to see. I was back in 2007, except this time it was two female DIs and they knew I was autistic.
It ended up with my confidence smashing rock bottom again, a spectacular meltdown at work and me leaving the department.
Working in a Supportive Department
“I was treated with dignity and respect.”
Luckily for me, I landed in a department where my autism and ADHD were embraced with open arms and adjustments made. I was treated with dignity and respect, and the people there carefully picked me up off the floor, put me back on my feet, then supported and mentored me into a Detective Inspector role in the same department.
Misogyny in policing is an issue, there’s no denying it but whilst I can give multiple examples of male perpetrated misogyny, I can give you many more examples of men supporting, mentoring and championing women. I have also demonstrated how women can be the worst offenders for doing their own gender’s legs. Perhaps that’s what survival looks like to them.
I now have the privilege of working with some of the best detectives in the business investigating crimes against the most vulnerable members of society, many of whom don’t have a voice. I’m told I’m doing a really good job. I also love it and finally feel like I’m making the difference I’ve always wanted to. It’s a round peg, round hole scenario and the best job I have done in 20 years. That ability to spot patterns and gaps translates well into the detective world. My management style ensures my staff are conducting quality investigations where the full range of available tactics are utilised to protect children and bring offenders to justice. I can be a bit like a dog with a bone.
In terms of adjustments, in my current role I can mostly make them for myself. I have my own office where I can control the environment to a certain extent. I have the time to create briefing documents on the bigger investigations, to put down all my thoughts and details about the investigation, which impress my peers and managers, but reduce the cognitive load of briefing straight out of my head. This enables me to organise information in a way that works for me.
In a post-Covid world, I have the technology to work from home sometimes, to reduce social interaction and sensory overload. There is routine, there is flexibility, there are also lots of other neurodivergent staff.
Whilst I can’t yet prove it, I do believe there are higher numbers of neurodivergent individuals in certain roles, investigative and problem-solving roles due to our unique strengths and skills.
I’m very open with my team about my neurodivergence to secure understanding. Things like the fact I feel empathy differently, and they may have to nudge me to let me know a case is sad and upsetting them. In other ways I feel things very deeply, often physically. But this empathy difference also protects me from experiencing trauma from the horrific and harrowing cases we deal with. I am just very mindful it’s a leadership blind spot and one I need to overcome, to ensure my team know I’m listening and that I care.
I am to a certain extent open with others outside of my own team to try and gain understanding, for better communication and relationships. I cannot change, and trying to is not thriving. Whilst there is a duty on me to be open and gain understanding, this duty equally lies with others.
To be effective leaders we must both understand ourselves and be open minded enough to get to know and understand others instead of jumping to a negative conclusion that because they are different from us they are wrong, or lesser and need to change.
Overcoming Barriers to Leadership
“The neurotypical need to stop viewing the neurodivergent as wrong, or less or flawed.”
So how did I overcome the barriers to promotion to get into this privileged leadership position? To some extent I got lucky. I eventually found my name in front of an SMT, whereby more people liked marmite than hated it. This element of ‘Russian roulette’ style luck needs to change. But for it to change, the culture within policing organisations in the UK needs to fundamentally change. It literally needs to move on its axis from where it currently is. The neurotypical need to stop viewing the neurodivergent as wrong, or less, or flawed.
To see us for who we are: the highly skilled, highly intelligent individuals with the ‘other’ perspectives and ideas that might actually give policing the ability to get ahead of the curve, becoming the world class sustainable organisation it aspires to. There’s a reason why organisations like GCHQ and BAE systems have specifically advertised to recruit autistic women and this I believe is it.
It wasn’t just luck though. Earlier in the blog I said I had never failed a CVF promotion board, but I have failed lots of PPF boards for lateral moves. Boards are set up by the neurotypical, for the neurotypical. I spend an inordinate amount of time in my head. I find thinking a very enjoyable pass time and need time daily to do it to thrive. I come up with the most brilliant ideas and solutions. But translating them out of my head verbally in a sensical fashion, like in a board scenario, is problematic.
Understanding promotion board questions is also problematic, because of the tendency to read in a literal sense. Unlike in real life, there is no opportunity to check understanding or seek clarity. The public speaking issue, inability to understand the question and inability to give a coherent response from all the beautiful content in my head led to some absolute car crash experiences.
Eventually I worked out if I was going to get anywhere, I was going to have to overcome it. But reasonable adjustments weren’t a thing then.
Firstly, I had to overcome the public speaking issue. One of the problems was that as I went into a public speaking scenario, there would be a negative loop in my head. A torrent of internal abuse about what an idiot I was going make of myself and how no one wanted to hear what I had to say. Simple solutions to simple problems. If you practise saying positive things to yourself in your head for long enough, the dialogue will change, and you might even believe it. I did. As well as this positive self-talk, I practised deep breathing and grounding just before I went in (both of which are scientifically proven to bring cortisol levels in the blood down and make you feel less anxious).
Then I had to overcome the cognitive challenge of coherently taking what was in my head and delivering it verbally in a 40-minute promotion board (a sustained social interaction). I was given lots of models to try, but trying to remember the model was a challenge in itself. I finally landed on Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle and the rest is history. Simple but effective and made total sense to me. I have mentored numerous other people using these techniques, many of whom are neurodivergent and/or struggle with anxiety, and so far have 100% pass rate!
Reasonable Adjustments and Removing Barriers in Policing
“It’s not ‘cheating’ or gaining an unfair advantage. It’s about putting ourselves on a level playing field with those that the test was specifically designed for.”
Feedback is still important for me, even from boards I’ve passed. Not only for my next one but for my mentees, and there is still room for improvement. I have had feedback that I didn’t seem to really understand some of the questions. Also that whilst I score top marks on the first couple of questions, I then seem to run out of steam. Well as I said it’s a social interaction but without the interaction. After the first couple of questions I’m done, I’m out!
Fortunately, now I can access reasonable adjustments to reduce the cognitive load. Things like getting the questions in advance to make sense of them and a break halfway through to recharge.
Diagnosis certainly makes access to reasonable adjustments easier, but most don’t know they are also available to those without. If you need something for whatever reason and what you’re asking for is reasonable, I implore you to do so. Others who don’t need adjustments may feel negatively towards them, but that’s their issue to deal with. It’s not ‘cheating’ or gaining an unfair advantage. It’s about putting ourselves on a level playing field with those that the test was specifically designed for. All we are doing is making the test more bespoke to our needs, so that we can showcase our skills, knowledge and experience in a way that plays to our strengths.
But how does policing ensure other barriers are removed from neurodivergent candidates? Other than by providing reasonable adjustments if they are lucky enough to get to a board. How do we encourage neurodivergent candidates to put their head above the parapet in the first place?
Well, as I already said it is going to require significant change. It isn’t going to be easy. Adjustments are very individual. What I need as an autistic woman may be different from the next autistic person. It requires professional curiosity and a problem solving approach. It requires a flexible approach to truly understand what someone needs and how this can be provided. Leaders must be willing to go outside the box. The ‘we’ve always done it that way so you must do it that way’ needs to be a thing of the past.
There is a saying ‘over trained and under educated.’ I don’t believe we are going to train our way to a kinder, more understanding, more accepting organisation. Many will turn up to training, but not actively incorporate the learning into their practise. Those who have chosen to serve in leadership positions should be displaying professional curiosity, seeking out those with diverse needs, whether diagnosed or not, and proactively supporting and mentoring them. If not, it’s a performance issue and needs to be dealt with robustly.
Ensuring more visible neurodivergence in all areas of the business (but especially in senior management positions) will also radically improve the situation. As uncomfortable as ‘coming out’ as autistic is to start with, it is exactly why I’ve written this blog and recorded the podcast. Why I recently took part in a podcast for late discovered autistic women (embedded below). To shine a light on those of us breaking barriers and making a significant positive contribution to our relevant areas of business/interest. Not despite our differences but because of them.
DI Becky Davies
Becky is a serving Detective Inspector at my local force, Devon and Cornwall Police. You can find her on Twitter as @Becky_Davie5.
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