Guest Blog: Tim Kendall
I’m very pleased to have this chance to write a guest post here and first I’d like to thank Tom Cliffe and Track for the opportunity. My name is Tim Kendall and I am local to Northampton, although I have spent most of my time, until a few years ago, away working elsewhere in the UK and abroad doing research in astronomy. I will talk more about that later but first I want to talk Asperger’s. I got myself diagnosed eventually in late 2017 and clinical confirmation opened the door to me seeing why so many things were as bad as they had been. All aspects of what I had been feeling I now found written about at length in articles and books about other people with various kinds of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and Asperger’s in particular. So many things are explained by the diagnosis and I’m not going to tell them all here but suffice to say there were deep low points in my life which became exacerbated because I just did not understand and poor mental health repeatedly manifested itself as a result. I am writing here because diagnosis has also allowed me to see better the benefits of Asperger’s which are diverse and include the ability to do a range of detailed work. For me, the ability to carefully check and re-check all kinds of work - procedures with data, input files for computer programs, scientific papers and other documents - and truly have the ability not to believe anything until one is properly certain of it is a benefit of Asperger’s and also reflects my prior choice of profession as a scientist.
At this point though I have had to recognise that my own research career is over and I have done as much as I can. I am adrift in a job market which seldom offers suitable positions not rigidly adhering to a specific industry niche. I have a degree in physics and certain scientific and technical knowledge - or the wherewithal to know where to find it - which ought to make me employable and I would be more so, if for a few adjustments. I want to explain that Asperger’s makes me adaptable within limits and that my best chance of success in a future career lies in using what Asperger’s lets me be good at while respecting these limits. I exceeded them all the time doing research and I cannot continue to do that. So, I have become just one of 84% of those with Asperger’s/ASD who are not properly employed. I’m here because I like what Tom Cliffe and Track are trying to do in my own home town, and not only because it chimes with my personal situation but also because a real, clear need is demonstrated to improve the employment situation of lots of people with ASD. I would encourage anyone who suspects they have had a career history which has been both enabled by their abilities and also affected by problems as a result of Asperger’s to contact Tom and write their story here too. Track are trying to raise awareness of ASD among local businesses, and that there is a large pool of possibly highly qualified people who would make excellent employees if a suitable job could be found for them is something that should interest businesses as they become aware of the nature and range of skills ASD people can have.
In my own case, one of the most interesting things about being diagnosed as Asperger’s/ASD is recognising the reason why I pursued the career I did is that I was following what many writers on Asperger’s have called a special interest. This explained why I had never been able to think of a different career and why I pursued what I did with such single-mindedness. Astronomy is of course genuinely interesting, and I was able to make contributions that were my own, so in some ways I was lucky, I still love astronomy and don’t regret any of it. At first I had an exciting time and it was fun, moving from place to place as research work was possible, most importantly funded (even if I had to apply for the funding myself) and trying to think up new ideas for observations no-one had done before. But I was aware all along that I could not think of anything else I could do, for a living, apart from what I knew about and was trained to do, and that made me more precarious than I could manage. Eventually the postdoctoral jobs ran out and I tried to do a couple of IT jobs but just became really unwell trying to deal with undiagnosed Asperger’s and everything else in a strange place without any support, but now I see ASD at least in part as causing these challenging circumstances and I have been empowered by this.
In some respects Asperger’s enabled me to do astronomy - lots of detailed work on computers working out what the data were saying - but in other fields of life it took away. I have to mention also how these university careers work: doing a PhD proves you are smart enough to do original research and so it is a good grounding for anything but the fact that only a tiny percentage of those PhD’s will get to be employed doing research in universities is built in. Those I saw who made it to high levels in academia concentrated from the start on one specific research area, and I admit I tried to work on too many different problems although in a lot of respects my efforts do make a coherent body of work. I have a pretty detailed picture of what is going on in this Galaxy with stars and planets forming from interstellar matter, how physics explains what we observe, and how even in the depths of space there’s enough stuff around that chemistry starts to affect things as well. The current generation of young astronomers are exploring observational ways to do detailed studies of exoplanets, which is incredibly difficult, even with modern techniques like Python to work on the data (Disclaimer: I am not a computer programmer, but I know the value of good software). I would like to encourage anyone who is interested to read a short summary of my work here, more on my LinkedIn profile and I also have a blog which tries to keep up with the latest developments in this kind of astronomy and is therefore an ongoing experiment in scientific outreach. I have written more regarding myself, employment and Asperger’s here and here to try to suggest the sort of work I might be able to do. I don’t know enough to suggest what jobs Asperger’s people would be suitable for in general but some educated guesses may be made. What is certain is that friends of mine who are teachers recognise Asperger’s and see many who are intellectually able but have primarily social difficulties, and who if unemployed represent a great waste of thinking resources to local economies. Tom Cliffe has also seen a lot of school-leavers facing impediments to work and I agree with him that changes are needed in the workplace to make more jobs more accessible to Asperger’s employees. My own experience suggests that perhaps there is no shortage of Asperger’s people in academia and maybe they were attracted there by their own special interests. People with ASD often possess very specific talents which can only flower with that person’s unqualified attention being given to something which satisfies their requirement for interest. Special interests may be in shorter supply in the commercial world but I think it is a good bet that there are positions out there which could be filled by someone with ASD if we started looking hard enough. Suitable jobs can be created if they can be identified. Sometimes a useful job exists, but only if someone has the eye to see it. I suspect neurodiversity is an asset which could be better engaged everywhere in society.
I am looking for paid work, and I am not asking for a new career to replace astronomy. I’d like to do something which builds on my experience and knowledge; I’d like to be in work where there is some outlet for using investigative and research skills and problem-solving, perhaps also some creativity. I have some knowledge using Linux operating systems, which are useful in the commercial world as well as in science, but I’d like to cast the net wider than IT. I could do something completely different and that is why I am keen to promote myself locally. I don’t have any really very strong ASD environmental difficulties at least compared to others (which made me wary of trying to get a diagnosis for a long time). I do look for jobs countrywide including rare ones in scientific and astronomy outreach but my support networks are local and I would prefer to remain in Northampton for the time being. I am working with support towards employment in the town, and am hoping that this post will help me access those “hidden” job opportunities. I’m interested to hear from anyone who is an employer and who agrees with what I am trying to do for myself and what Track are trying to do with all kinds of people on the spectrum whether they are apparently “high-functioning” or have severe learning difficulties as can also occur, in which case different problems arise, but the social difficulties felt by both groups are the same. It is not all about work, but because everyone needs to work, including people with ASD, all employers should strive to become even more aware that the workplace has a huge impact on everyone’s mental health at all levels. It is just general mental health awareness, but I believe Asperger’s/ASD is typical of the problem, in large part because I strongly suspect it remains unsuspected and undiagnosed in adults a great deal, leading too often to difficulties like the ones I have encountered.