Short story: The Diagnosis – by Ned Alexander
©2016, Ned Alexander, all rights reserved
Kevin lifted his head up to look across the partitions at his colleagues who were all working diligently in their cubicles. He glanced up at the oppressively dim light above and squinted with impatient discomfort. He had already asked his line manager on four separate occasions if the light could be replaced with a brighter one but each time an excuse was found as to how it would disrupt other members of staff or why it was not fair on clients who might be visiting the building. He exhaled a long agitated huff as he looked back down at his desk, rubbing his weary eyes. He thought for a moment, peered over his partition again then reached behind himself to remove his phone from the jacket which hung lazily on the rear of his chair. With a few swift selections from menus he chose a piece of music and placed his phone down onto the desk in front of him. As the music started he instinctively lurched forward to turn the phone’s volume down until it was barely audible. Almost immediately an email pinged up on his screen in front of him. It was from Carl in the next partition. “Please could you turn off your music – as per agreed office regulations? Thankyou, Carl, Workstation seven.” Upon reading the brief correspondence Kevin’s shoulders immediately deflated as he swore silently to himself through gritted teeth. “Of course. Sorry.” he replied electronically to Carl. That was the only time he would exchange words with anybody for the rest of the morning. Just before the close of business that day he had needed to deliver some items to the R&D department up on the fourteenth floor so he took advantage of the brief respite from the silent office and hummed loudly to himself as he rode the elevator all the way up and then all the way back down to his own floor. The wry rebellious smile he now wore on his face was quickly wiped from him as he sat back down at his desk and noticed the email waiting for him on his desktop. “Matthews, please meet with me as soon as possible, William Ryan, manager.” Kevin rolled his eyes upwards and tightened them as he fought, successfully, to supress an expletive then he stood and trudged his way along to the end of the cubicles and knocked on Mr Ryan’s door. “Come in.”
Kevin stood beside a chair and waited for Mr Ryan to offer it to him which he did by simply pointing at it. Mr Ryan, a spindly balding man, middle aged and sporting an immaculately pressed tweed three piece suit, did not look up from his paperwork but merely read from the script in front of him. “Mr Matthews, you have been with this company how long now?”
“Erm, fifteen years now Sir, I think. Yes, fifteen years.” Kevin fidgeted in the seat that he suddenly felt to be a lot less comfortable. “Is everything alright, Sir?”
Mr Ryan glanced up at Kevin for the briefest of moments, not quite into his eye but just to one side, he paused and then looked back down at his paperwork. “Mr Matthews, are you happy in your work?”
“Erm…yes, Sir. I mean…I like the work very much. Why, is there a problem?”
Mr Ryan again looked up from his desk but this time he was visibly displeased and so further flattened his already stoic expression. Supressing disappointment, he shook his head gently before continuing. “Mr Matthews, I have been receiving several complaints about your…um…conduct.”
“Right, oh, my…oh. From who, Sir?”
“Not your performance mind, although that does leave a little to be desired if I am honest.”
“I’m sorry, Sir. I do mean to work as the others do, I just find myself becoming…well…distracted, Sir.”
“Well we are not here to talk about your performance, Mr Matthews but since you brought it up please continue.”
“Well, I find myself wanting to hum a lot, Sir or whistle, things like that. And that light above me, Sir really…” Realising that he was disclosing reasons for his poor performance rather than addressing the complaints about his conduct, Kevin suddenly coughed politely to signal the end of his superfluous monologue.
“This brings me onto your conduct then, Mr Matthews. You have been heard humming loudly in the elevators again. I believe we have discussed this in the past?”
“I’m sorry Sir, I…I find I can’t help myself.”
Mr Ryan continued to avoid eye contact but did soften his tone slightly. “Why do you think this might be then? Why do you think it is that you cannot refrain from such outbursts when everybody else in the office is able to curtail such frivolous behaviour?”
Kevin rubbed his head in his hands. “I’m sorry, Sir. I just find it hard sometimes. I feel as though no one talks to me and I just find the silence almost deafening or overpowering sometimes.”
“The silence? How is that overpowering?”
Kevin leaned forward, rested his hands onto his knees shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Sir. I can’t explain it. I just feel like I don’t fit in sometimes…and I’ve not been sleeping very well lately…”
“Is this anything to do with why your sickness record has been worsening over the past several months, Mr Matthews?” Mr Ryan leaned back into his chair having slackened his stiffened shoulders and having further softened his tone of voice in order to appear more concerned.
A tear began to run down Kevin’s face as recent darkly existential thoughts flooded back into him. “I just find it so hard sometimes. I just feel like an outsider all the time. I’m sorry. I’ve been feeling so down about it lately…”
“Would you say depressed?”
“Yes…I suppose so…”
“I do not wish to put words into your mouth that are not your own Mr Matthews. I just want to make sure I know what you are feeling…for the paperwork.”
Kevin nodded silently.
Mr Ryan gently screwed the lid back onto the pen he had been using, leaned forward and rested his elbows onto the desk. He paused for a moment while he gathered his thoughts and stared at the paperwork that laid before him. “Mr Matthews…I have concerns regarding your sickness record. I feel that perhaps a medical examination might be in order.”
“A medical, Sir? But I’m fine. I’m actually as fit as a fiddle.”
“I do not mean…um…a physical examination.”
Kevin juggled the implications of Mr Ryan’s response in his head for a moment as he shuffled in his seat. “Oh.”
“I shall request an appointment.” Mr Ryan smiled phlegmatically at Kevin then leaned forward and opened the medical application on his laptop.
Some months later Kevin arrived and sat down at his desk in the office under the same dreary light as before. He wiped his forehead then reached down into his bag for some vitamin tablets, popped a couple into his mouth and squinted with displeasure as he began to chew them. His eyes were lack-of-sleep red, his face gaunt and pale from stress and poor dieting. As soon as he booted up his computer a notification of email receipt flashed up onto his screen and, having read it, he slowly rose and dragged himself along to Mr Ryan’s office for what was now becoming one of his regular meetings with him.
As he entered he hesitated at the sight of seeing Eryka Müller from Human Resources sitting beside Mr Ryan. Kevin stood by his chair and hovered before sitting down. “Miss Müller.”
Miss Müller said nothing but politely leaned forward in her chair as she bowed her head to him. Mr Ryan coughed his intention to speak. “Mr Matthews, I assume you are aware of why I have called you in here?”
Kevin said nothing but nodded his acknowledgement.
“Mr Matthews, I am afraid that I have had to call you in here today as, having followed all possible avenues in order to correct your sickness record, it is my responsibility to inform you that we are unable to tolerate this level of absence from work any longer. I understand your health concerns but the company simply cannot afford to pay your wages when a perfectly…”
Kevin scoffed gently as he thought to himself ‘Normal? You were going to say normal weren’t you?’
Mr Ryan shuffled uncomfortably in his chair. “Um…willing person is able to do your job instead. I am sorry, Mr Matthews, I do understand your concerns but…I am afraid you are simply not fulfilling your contractual obligations and we cannot continue your employment any longer.”
Kevin’s eyes welled up and his cheeks reddened. “I just don’t seem to fit in.”
“Here? Well then perhaps if you were to find employment elsewhere then…”
“I don’t mean here. I mean every-where. It’s like I’m living on…the wrong planet or something. People don’t understand why I like to hum, people get irritated when I whistle, people think I’m being ignorant or rude when I make eye contact with them…and that…light…that bloody light above my desk!”
Miss Müller suddenly looked up from the pad she was hurriedly jotting notes down onto and glanced sideways at Mr Ryan before looking towards Kevin. “The light? What is wrong with the light?”
“It’s so dim. It’s soooo oppressively dark! It might as well be switched off for the little good that it does.”
An expression of sudden realisation flashed across Miss Müller’s face. “Was it you who complained about the lights above your desk then?”
Kevin shrugged, not really seeing the point of the question. “Yes.”
“And was it you that complained to HR saying that you should be allowed to have a radio on at your desk?”
Miss Müller closed her eyes to prevent Kevin from being able to see that she was now rolling them up into her head as the penny finally dropped within her. “Kevin, have you ever been assessed for N.N?”
Kevin shrugged and shook his head.
Miss Müller leaned to one side and held a briefly whispered exchange with Mr Ryan after which Mr Ryan held his hand up to her to pause her mid-flow. “Mr Matthews, did you not arrange to have a mental health assessment? What was the outcome of that?”
“Erm…they said that I might have something…I can’t remember what it was to be honest, it could have even been that N.N. thing but then whatever it was she thought I had she said that it was almost impossible to get an adult diagnosis for it form the National Health Service so I just let it go. If there’s nothing I can do about it then…you know?” Kevin then waited patiently as Miss Müller and Mr Ryan again shared hushed mumblings. All he was able to pick out, with the aid of some fuzzy logic, were the words, covered, Equalities, duty of something…and E.T. He had no idea what any of this meant but he was waiting to hear the finer details regarding the termination of his employment so he wasn’t actually thinking straight anyway.
Mr Ryan sat back in his chair, removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He silently berated himself for a moment, shaking his head, and then he leaned forward and looked Kevin in the eyes for the first time that Kevin could remember. “Mr Matthews…Miss Müller informs me that you may have a condition known as N.N. She also informs me that this may be covered under the Equalities Act 2037 so we are going to refer you to our medical section in order that we may seek to arrange a formal assessment for you. The cost for this will, of course, be covered under the company’s medical insurance.”
Kevin’s face tightened. A disability? This was something he’d never considered nor had had mentioned to him by anyone else. “N.N? So I’m not…”
“Mr Matthews, in the meantime we shall arrange to have your light replaced and, until your assessment results arrive, we will permit you to listen to your music but with headphones on if you will. If you should be formally diagnosed of course then we shall consider further and more permanent reasonable adjustments for you.”
Miss Müller smiled slightly at the sight of Kevin’s visible relief.
Kevin’s face ran through a cycle of various emotions whilst he tried to quickly absorb what was being said to him. “So what…what is N.N? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Non-neurotypical. You are non-neurotypical.” Seeing Kevin’s confusion Mr Ryan elaborated. “Miss Müller here has kindly informed me that she has a cousin who is on the Non-neurotypical spectrum.”
“Oh, yes…I’ve heard of that of course but…”
“Right well, Mr Matthews I am what is known as autistic. I must be honest with you, I had never heard that phrase used before but apparently that is what I am. You on the other hand are not autistic, like the rest of us, so you therefore are considered as being non-neurotypical.”
Kevin sat up in his chair slightly empowered by the news. “So I’m not…I felt like I was living on another planet or something…well that’s…perhaps that explains…”
“Now, Mr Matthews, this is just a suggestion at this time, you will have to be formally diagnosed before any of this can be verified or can be considered official.”
Kevin stood up in his chair as if the weight of this alien world in which he lived had suddenly been lifted from him.
“Well, feel free to return to your desk, Mr Matthews. We shall get this assessment organised for you and will contact property to have your light replaced as soon as possible.”
Speechless, Kevin beamed at them both with a broad smile as he turned, stepped over to the door and began humming merrily to himself.
Mr Ryan looked over his glasses. “Just the headphones for the time being please, Mr Matthews, let us not single you out or highlight your condition unnecessarily?”
Kevin smiled flatly back at Mr Ryan, turned and stepped out of the office.
I am an ‘NT’ and my wife is an Aspie. My wife’s treatment at the hands of her (or more accurately our) employer have been far from pleasant (which is the main reason they’re now my employer and no longer our employer). I have had to watch as the health system has let her down time and time again and then have had to watch as she was effectively relentlessly bullied by her employer. The story above is merely a thought and is not meant to make any judgments or to point any fingers specifically but our experiences of the ‘system’ have not been overly positive and it just got me wondering what it would be like if the shoe was on the other (proverbial) foot. My sympathies are with anyone who is forced to have to run the NT gauntlet in their struggle to get their ASC recognised, identified, assessed and then, hopefully, supported.
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