From a young age, I was determined to study at Cambridge. As a northern lass from a working-class family and state-school education, I was aware this might be difficult. I’m incredibly driven, which is one of the qualities I associate with being autistic, and which helped me to achieve that goal. I studied law because I thought it would be a challenging subject. I didn’t qualify into pensions law initially: I started in family and decided that wasn’t for me. I wanted something a bit more intellectual and cerebral but still felt like I was doing meaningful work. Autistic people often have a reputation as having a strong moral compass, and that is definitely something that factored into my decision to practise law in the specialism that I did.

Charlotte Clewes-Boyne

I have known I was different since I was a child and suspected I was autistic from about 16. My early years in law were very challenging, in part due to being undiagnosed, but I can also see the ways being autistic (even though I didn’t know it) helped me to succeed. I feel more sanguine now about past interactions, which at the time had no explanation and were upsetting, but I now understand were due to me being autistic in a mainly neurotypical workplace. I am kinder to myself through knowing that, and also have a different perspective on those interacting with me at the time, who didn’t know either. I also remember the glowing feedback I would get as a trainee for my attention to detail, my keen research and analysis skills, and my work ethic, all of which are attributes that I think are linked to me being autistic.

'Neurodivergent people have so many unique skills and perspectives which are so valuable in a dynamic industry like law'

I self-diagnosed as autistic in April 2021 and was formally diagnosed in January 2022. Diagnosis made me more confident and more open. I tried wearing my ‘Hidden Disabilities’ sunflower lanyard just before my diagnosis, but I felt safer wearing it afterwards. I started advocating for my needs more and using stim toys at work to reduce anxiety. I began to share my experiences on social media, personally and in professional circles. I also recently set up a law-focused Instagram account where I share hints and tips about being neurodivergent in the legal industry. I moved firms at the start of 2022, and in interviews I made a point of telling people I was seeking an autism diagnosis. At work, I now talk openly about being autistic, and the positives and challenges that presents in my everyday life. I’m lucky to have a supportive team that is keen to help me raise awareness.

That said, there is a lot more work to be done in our sector. Many of the old-fashioned stereotypes about certain neurotypes still persist, and I think this prevents people who don’t exhibit those criteria seeking help and support. By developing our understanding of what each neurotype actually looks like from neurodivergent people, we can create safer and more inclusive workspaces.

Many of the flexible working options introduced by the pandemic were especially beneficial for neurodivergent people. As an autistic person, I’m not one for small talk, crowded and loud trains, uncomfortable clothing, and long commutes. Being able to completely control my own routine, use work time efficiently and effectively, and surround myself with comforting and safe things, was a huge breakthrough and my productivity was higher because of it. Of course, there are challenges with the hybrid model, such as supervision and the absence of ‘learning by osmosis’. However, there is a bit of a push in the industry as a whole to return to the status quo, which could be a missed opportunity for real change.

We also need to lose the ‘you should have known’ mentality. Assuming a neurodivergent person ‘should have known’ something and they just haven’t bothered to try is confusing and distressing, especially when it could have easily been explained to them. This will probably help neurotypical colleagues too!

Finally, we need to encourage unmasking. Let your neurodivergent colleagues stim and fidget, and share their personal stories and special interests with you. We spend most of our working days hiding most of our character because many neurodivergent behaviours are seen as unprofessional. However, masking leads to burnout (which presents differently for neurodivergent people) and ‘meltdowns’. This doesn’t allow us to work at our best. If we are serious about promoting diversity and inclusion, we need to allow everyone to bring their whole selves to work, which means getting comfortable with what that actually looks like. Neurodivergent people have so many unique skills and perspectives which are so valuable in a dynamic industry like law. We just need to make sure that we are making enough space to allow that to shine through.