For someone like me, emails can pose a problem.
In 2015 I was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome (now considered to be Autism Spectrum Disorder). I can be literal; I find it easier to understand other people if eye contact is not forced, and clear options are offered. "Would you prefer a cheese or ham sandwich?" is much easier to answer than "What would you like to eat today?" Of course this is a hugely oversimplified example. But by being presented with more straightforward options, I find communication clearer and easier, otherwise the various possibilities will be going around in my head for ages. Trying to understand someone who is neurotypical – not on the spectrum – can sometimes feel like trying to break a code without a key. Email only makes things harder for me as an inbox removes any social cues, making communication more complicated.
As a freelance journalist, I spend my day largely sat at a laptop, either writing or pitching. (I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise!) Misunderstandings often occur over email because I can be very literal. I have had to learn social codes along the way, like what is appropriate to say, what not to say. I can also be persistent, and will make use of offers like "Come and chat to us" or "Meet me for coffee". Face to face, I can’t tell what someone is thinking, and worrying about not wishing to upset anyone, and putting what I think and observe about certain things causes me to feel anxious, and so I type and retype emails before sending.
In an exchange with another autistic writer, we agreed that our frustration at not being understood some days is almost tangible. Okay, great, someone new wants to meet to network; why duck out of this when I try to set up a day for it? If you promise to look at a story, why won’t you do so? Why respond with a muddle of questions, where your line of thinking is impossible to follow? Why be patronising when rejecting an idea to do with diversity that both the publication, and I, are so passionate about?
And so the idea of the email disclaimer was born, like those you often see: "Sent from my iPhone, typos likely" or, more corporate: "The views and opinions included in this email belong to their author and do not necessarily mirror the views and opinions of the company." My email signature, I decided, would have a different amendment. It would read: "Disclaimer: I am on the autistic spectrum, please be clear and direct in replies."
To see if it had any effect, I tried it out over a week.
It’s day one of using an email disclaimer, and I feel...vulnerable? Reactions to autism are not necessarily the politest or most understanding. The letters of the disclaimer are big, bold and would easily draw attention. They are impossible to miss. At first, my inbox is full of clipped, slightly brusque emails. I’m pleasantly surprised, though; "clear and direct in replies" has clearly been taken on board. While emailing round for extra freelance work, due to my inbox being suspiciously quieter than normal, an editor emails back: friendly, to-the-point and helpfully deploying a yes-or-no question rather than the open-ended questions I’ve come to expect. The email disclaimer has worked in my favour. I’ve picked up new work, too.
My concentration levels have been fried due to illness; no new pitches today!
One of the things I’m working on in the meantime is an opinion piece about Autism Awareness Month. And over the past two days, the disclaimer has clearly had an impact. My email exchange with the editor is clear, concise, to the point; we work really well together. Communication has been made far more understandable and therefore easier for me; I think I may keep this disclaimer in place.
Finally, the weekend! One email is sent today, in exchange with my mentor; she’s aware of my diagnosis already. She doesn’t care about my autism – after all, why would it take away my ability to be a journalist? Emailing her is more for my benefit.
It is clear, by this point in the week, that the disclaimer has brought out an unconscious reaction; nearly all the emails I receive are more clipped, straight to the point, offering options clearly. Without the disclaimer, emails tend to be almost flowery – the jotted thoughts of someone I may never have met can be impossible to understand at times. But I have to wonder: is anyone going to ask me about this? Have they noticed the disclaimer?
At least with no one mentioning it, the tone-deaf reactions I sometimes get haven’t made their way into the exchanges. Person to person, as soon as I say "I’m autistic", people can respond hurtfully, because they see a label and not a person. The disclaimer removes the potential for misinformed exchanges, like anti-vaxxer myths (when some people find out, every so often the response is "You are vaccine damaged!" Really). The disclaimer simply beats them to the punch; I like this way of communication.
Sunday. In other words, the day of rest; no one is going to reply to emails today, let alone ideas for pitches. Humans on the other end of the inbox can’t respond 24/7. Pandora Sykes has written a new column about how we use out-of-offices, which I read with great interest.
Emails are drafted to send promptly on Monday morning; sending emails at 9am is my tactic for getting an editor's attention. There are podcasts mentioned, interview requests for my blog, invoices…
I turn 20 today! Hello new decade…
Due to the flurry of activity today, emails are limited, written in snatched moments and borrowed time. An editor at a big newspaper is polite to me, bothering to explain why she can’t take on any new writers. Other follow-up emails are sent and promptly ignored – although I think this is due to March being a bad freelance month overall for me, not down to the disclaimer.
I feel like the disclaimer has put me on a level with someone not on the spectrum; I feel as though I am no longer patronised, derided or made to feel stupid. It also seems to work to my advantage in another way as editors – those who usually do not reply – are now explaining what I could do better. One editor I am writing a piece for was so lovely and sent me a lot of feedback, carefully and clearly worded. Another editor also responded, saying she was really sorry she couldn't accept any pitches. This has never happened before; I virtually never get replies like that.
Catch-up time! My to-do list is huge. There are a lot of deadlines approaching; prioritising my list of what to do helps. But I wish I could go and visit two friends, one who is horribly unwell.
I also get a nasty shock; my blog hosting is up for renewal. That’s expected but the price has been hiked, far outside my (tiny) budget. More emails are fired off, to track down a better and cheaper hosting company. I also send a Freedom Of Information request, to find out more about a story I’m working on. I also send off an interview request for my blog, a quote request for a piece about exams and revision. The disclaimer makes no difference that I can see.
Today is focused on writing, largely. The end of the week means a piece about swimming has to be filed early. This requires interviewing case studies via email; as they’re students, and nearer in age to me than most, I remove the disclaimer, as it feels inappropriate to run the test on them.
The piece is filed, sent off prior to the deadline. *Phew*
No one has asked about the disclaimer yet; I feel slightly defeated.
A week of trying out an email disclaimer left me somewhat surprised; as someone with autism, communication is difficult, but it can be made harder when email removes any social cue. Putting the disclaimer definitely made communication easier, and contacts were "clear and direct" as I asked.
Because no one has brought up the disclaimer directly with me, I ask my mentor for her feedback. Her response is interesting; she said she thought my choice to add a disclaimer was knee-jerk and I’d have to agree, as it was a decision made out of frustration at being misunderstood. It could also be perceived negatively, she said: we are all aware of someone on the spectrum, so why pull yourself down? (A survey conducted by the National Autistic Society suggests 99.5% of the UK public have heard of autism.) She ends on an upbeat note; to foster openness is good, as long as you are not casting yourself in an unfavourable light. Why not turn the disclaimer into a statement of positivity instead?
I think a disclaimer could be helpful for people in other situations. An author I know has a disclaimer for typos, as she has dyslexia. Book publicists who are incredibly busy have a disclaimer for the same reason, simply because they go from the office to meetings, to seeing authors, to events, often typing on the go. For other syndromes, this could also be helpful in the long run, such as if you have an invisible disability – perhaps it could foster a more accepting work environment.
That being said, I am not going to keep using the disclaimer. Although it worked to my benefit, it feels inappropriate. I am more than a label, and I feel ambivalent about being pigeonholed. I also found a correlation; the commissions I got were about autism and therefore because I have autism, not, unfortunately, because I am a trained journalist.