Warning: This article contains references to suicidal ideation which readers may find upsetting. If you need a listening ear, support and advice for yourself, a friend, colleague or family member, sources of help are listed at the foot of this article.

Neurodiversity’s a hot topic in our profession. Increasingly, barristers proclaim themselves supporters, even champions, of it. All too often, though, the support and the championship disappear as soon as neurodivergence manifests itself in an inconvenient way.

Here’s an example. I’m autistic. I was only diagnosed when I was already a practising barrister. Finally, my experiences made sense. Finally, I understood that I wasn’t defective, just different. My natural way of thinking and being was as legitimate, as valid, as worthy of respect, as any other.

Amid this new-found self-esteem, though, I was being bullied by a member of chambers. When I was bullied at school, I thought it was just my lot and no more than I deserved for being ‘weird’. Now I had an explanation for the difference, though, I was clear I didn’t deserve it after all. What was more, others would agree with me now because they understood neurodiversity.

So, I approached my chambers. I opened up about how hurt this person’s conduct – including a comment that mentioning my autism constituted ‘playing the victim’ – made me feel. I explained that, because I’m autistic, I can’t help ruminating on negative experiences, so his words were going round and round in my head daily. I admitted that I struggle to make friends and that my self-exclusion from our team WhatsApp group – because I was worried I’d encounter more harsh words from him – had put an end to just about the only social contact I had. It was deeply personal, but I thought it was worth it to get the support I needed.

It didn’t work out that way. The head of wellbeing organised a meeting which I thought was for the bully to be told the impact of his conduct. In fact, much of it was criticism of me – for my reaction to his words, and for sharing his horrible messages with someone outside chambers (my psychotherapist). When I shook my head, accidentally interrupted, or sighed – all involuntary actions arising from my autism – I was admonished repeatedly. When I brought up his past behaviour, I was told not to because of how it would make him feel. When I said I was considering leaving chambers because of him, I was told ‘maybe you should’.

It didn’t end there. In December 2021, I got an email recommending that I leave chambers due to my inability to ‘move on’ from my ‘dispute’ with this person. There was no mention of my autism or of the reason I’d sought assistance in the first place. The effect was devastating. I’d asked for a bully to be spoken to, and now, somehow, I was left contemplating suicide on Boxing Day.

I complained to chambers, but that went nowhere. I was told reasonable adjustments had been made for my disability; I just hadn’t been informed or consulted about them. It wasn’t a problem that I’d been told off for my autistic traits, because sometimes non-autistic people interrupt or sigh too, and anyway the effect on me was proportionate to a legitimate aim. My suicidal feelings were, it seemed, an unavoidable side effect. Never mind that a request for help to improve my wellbeing had done the exact opposite.

My rumination went into overdrive and I had to take time off sick. I was having panic attacks at court, barely concentrating on paperwork, and avoiding chambers in case I ran into the barristers who had so utterly invalidated my experiences and damaged my self-worth. In May 2022, I went on holiday to escape. After spending most of the week considering whether to jump off the hotel balcony, I realised I needed to leave chambers or the damage to my health might be permanent.

So, I moved chambers, and it’s been a revelation. When I disclosed my autism, they actually asked me what reasonable adjustments might assist. Then they put them into action. For example, unpredictability stresses me out, so I have an allocated desk instead of hot-desking, and an arrangement always to be emailed rather than telephoned. I was invited (but not pressurised) to address chambers on my personal experiences as an autistic barrister, so that members could learn more. And when I mentioned an accessibility issue that impacted my participation in tribunal hearings, multiple members rallied round and, collectively, took action on my behalf.

In short, I feel valued. Here, my autistic traits don’t attract reprobation, but understanding. Here, when I ask for support, I receive it.

So, what are the lessons from my experience? Firstly, and unfortunately, it shows the Bar has a long way to go before it is truly inclusive of neurodivergence. Every autistic person is different; if you assume you know what they need without asking, and claim to see only their ability rather than their disability, you are ignoring the individual and reinforcing the structural disadvantages of a society built on neurotypical norms.

Secondly, and more positively, my story proves it doesn’t always have to be like that. If I’d stayed in my previous chambers, my mental health and my legal practice would have continued to suffer. Change is daunting – doubly so for many autistic people – but I needed it, and I embraced it. There has been no magic fix; I still have the occasional panic attack, I still rely on therapy, and I still sometimes get overwhelmed thinking about how I was treated. But I’m enjoying work again, my practice is thriving, and I no longer feel isolated. For someone who’s never fitted in anywhere, I feel remarkably at home.

As barristers, we may sometimes feel guilty for admitting we’re struggling. I’m acutely aware that my problems seem minor compared to the trauma recounted by my asylum-seeking clients. But my problems still matter. My autism doesn’t stop me being an effective barrister; other people’s attitude to it nearly did. If your current practice environment is holding you back, seek a new one. I am proof things can be better. 

Sources of help include:

Wellbeing at the Bar: The Bar Council’s support resources can be viewed at www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk. There is also a 24/7 confidential helpline (tel: 0800 169 2040) for self-employed barristers with a practising certificate as well as members of the IBC and LPMA.

LawCare offers peer-to-peer support for anyone in or associated with the legal community. Call: 0800 279 6888 (Mon-Fri, 9-5), chat online at www.lawcare.org.uk whenever you see the red ‘Chat Online’ button, or email: support@lawcare.org.uk. See also ‘Loneliness and the Bar’, Counsel June 2022, in which LawCare volunteer Tim Akers discusses peer-to-peer support.

The Samaritans can be contacted 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Please call tel: 116 123, visit: www.samaritans.org or email: jo@samaritans.org

International helplines can be found at: befrienders.org

Neurodiversity in Law is committed to raising awareness, providing support, and reducing the stigma associated with neurodivergence within the legal profession. 'We help build a more inclusive environment by championing neurodiversity while also encouraging individuals to embrace their own neurodivergence. Our advocacy, support, and guidance extends from qualified lawyers to law students.' Find out more at neurodiversityinlaw.co.uk

neurodiversikey is on a mission to change the way the justice system sees neurodivergence, and to empower neurodivergent people. 'We want to address neuroinclusion at all levels and from all perspectives of the justice system, from law enforcement to the Judiciary. Our goal is to educate both those working in and using the justice system to ensure fairness.' Find out more at neurodiversikey.com