Katie Friedman portrait

Written by Katie Friedman

Katie Friedman is an ex-Deputy Headteacher and Future Leader who now runs https://www.goldmindneurodiversity.com/ and is an accreditation coach with the MTPT project.

I was diagnosed as Autistic with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) this year, aged 40. When I first discovered my brain was different, I felt like an imposter – like I had only been autistic for five minutes but of course, I was born this way. What is new is the unlearning of unhelpful narratives thrown together in the absence of diagnosis. It feels like this late discovery has propelled me to the core of who I really am, past the layer of who I pretend to be and the layer of who I am scared I am.

Nearly three years ago, spurred on by a national leadership programme, I felt it was time to move on from the school I had been in for 10 years. I was promoted to a school whose Executive saw my ambition and verbal skills at interview. What they and I didn’t acknowledge was the disorganisation that had been masked by admin support. I went to expand my repertoire moving from a Teaching and Learning remit to be a Deputy Headteacher with responsibility for Behaviour and Safeguarding. The conditions for successfully making the leap in expertise were not there; soon after starting, the Headteacher and Assistant Principal in charge of Safeguarding went on long term sick leave; my husband who was sharing a lot of the childcare of our three young children, landed a promotion in London.  It soon became clear I was out of my comfort zone and my support structures were dissolving at home and at school. I started to crumble much like the 1960s building I was working in. I couldn’t mask for long. I was overwhelmed, stopped sleeping and burnt out. When the decision finally became black and white: keep going and crash the car on the way to work or get well and parent my kids, I went to the doctors and got signed off. I now know that my experience of burn out was not simply the ‘glass cliff’ (where women often have to negotiate difficult roles in order to get promoted) and that my neurology also played a part.

After some mindfulness counselling and help from my union, I finally understood that walking away was wisdom and not failure and I decided to hand in my notice. I would have to do leadership differently and decided to train as a coach alongside part-time strategic leadership positions.  I realised that ease and staying with not knowing (essential to coaching) were not things I had much practice of after 15 years in teaching and school leadership.  Coach training helped me reconnect my mind and body, grounding me in the present and slowing my thinking to hold the space for others to think. 

I got great feedback on my coaching course but everyone said I needed to be kinder to myself. I realised there was a block to my self-acceptance. A psychometric test pointed to an unusual brain with all my top strengths being in one category: strategic. These milestones of self-discovery led me to read about autism. Tiana Marshall’s Asperger traits in women profile took about three reads before I realised just how much the profile described my lived experience. Suspecting autism was not helpful however as I was subscribing to all kinds of ignorant stereotypes of deficit; no empathy, no emotions, no theory of mind, black and white thinking blah blah blah….. 

I finally decided to brave a diagnosis. Just before the report was sent to me, I remember being really scared, a bit like the fear of social rejection; that I wouldn’t be autistic ‘enough’. I think I was scared that it would undermine my growing confidence in my intuition; that I was born this way and could stop trying so damned hard to do and be better. I needn’t have worried. Not only did I pass but ended up getting tested for ADHD which I had not been prepared for. 

My brain had to process all this in the middle of an intense period of home school/ work juggle when my husband had to work away for a week. I started to see everything I had masked over before and suddenly understood why the difficulties were described as a ‘disability’. It’s really frustrating when you are well above average in some areas and under average in others. It can feel like you are two people. Since the external validation of diagnosis, frustration has become empathy. I am starting to recognise my sensory needs and propensity for overwhelm and take steps to manage. I am more accepting of my challenges and find support rather than getting frustrated or believing they will go away if I just try harder. I can really appreciate my strengths having seen my test scores for the cognitive assessment and have stopped dismissing them as things that everyone must have. I can finally accept myself and take care of my unique brain and manage my energy and concentration. 

I am so glad I now know but I actually dread to think what rubbish I could have imbibed about myself if I had been labelled in the 80s and 90s. This insight is thanks to a well explained history of autism from the brilliant ally Steve Silberman in ‘Neurotribes’. Some adults from my generation have really shown their age with beauties like; 

– ‘we are all on the spectrum’. This negates my experience and misinterprets the spectrum as linear.

– ‘Alright, Rain Man’. Wow.

– ‘You’re still my friend’. Actually, not anymore. 

– ‘I always thought your dad and your aunt were weird’. Brilliant.

I am privileged to be married to someone who is well connected to his intuition, quietly confident, brilliant at admin, tidying and planning and for the most part, always up for the next adventure I instigate. I’m lucky to have many friends, educator colleagues and coaches in my life working in the self-acceptance, belonging, equality and diversity space. They are an army of people who own their labels and are willing to work hard in allyship with the intersectionality and inclusion of others. They have supported and championed me when I couldn’t. They have leant me their intuition when I couldn’t feel it, educated me, advocated for me, called me in and edited my work, applications and writing. @Clairerising, @itsaishathomas, @abitidball, @Angela_Browne, @comcoachingorg, and @DominiChoudhury I see you!

When I came out to the #actuallyautistic community on Twitter, I laughed through the tears as I realised I was expecting an outpouring of love and emotion from a tribe whose emotion comes when it comes not when someone asks for it. Integrity, challenge, drive and true kindness have been offered in abundance by people in the community and I know I am home. 

Lockdown has made me realise that my kids are neurodivergent too and we are now in the process of their diagnosis. I hated the admin but it was very empowering to say ‘I am an ex-Deputy Headteacher and I am autistic with ADHD’ to the SENDco in my children’s school. It pays to be a privileged insider. It also pays to lead, bravely.

I coach leaders in education who want to do things differently and people who think differently (diagnosed and undiagnosed). Coaching works on the premise that we are all OK and whole and do not need ‘fixing’. The truth is we all need to change, not who we are but assumptions and perceptions we have so that we can see ourselves and our leadership clearly. Coaching helps us explore safely without fear of failure. Really good coaching helps us see our gifts and access our wisdom free from sabotage. 17% of the population are neurodivergent (Autistic, ADHD, Dyslexic and Dyspraxic) whether they know or not. My intuition is that there are far more neurodivergent people who think differently in education than we realise. My guess is that many of us deeply understand the process of learning and yet we are described from a place of deficit as ‘disorders’. Whilst there are challenges to thinking differently, there is brilliance which we can’t afford to overlook. I am often taken with the creative language Neurodivergent clients use or the way they can get to the crux of something quickly and how they can generate ideas about how to move forward. I also know that there will be many creative minds who have left education as their Schools would not be flexible around their needs. 

Post-pandemic, we have proven that flexibility in work patterns and environment is possible and for some it may be desirable. People who are different and think differently are key to propelling the innovation needed to ensure education meets the changing needs of the 21st century, post-pandemic. The educational landscape has changed and neurodivergent trailblazers, liberated through understanding their neurodivergence can lead ahead of the curve if we nurture their talents.

You can find out more here: goldmindneurodiversity.com