Metropolitan Police Federation

Metropolitan Police Sgt Suzanne Burke, who only found out she was autistic at the age of 46, had to battle for adjustments to gain promotion, and now she uses her experiences to help others as a Police Federation Representative.

Suzanne joined the police when she was 32 and is now in her 19th year of service for the Met. She had previously left a series of jobs, feeling that she “didn’t fit in”, and said that joining the police felt like coming home. But later on she found that having autism, and at times managers’ lack of understanding of her needs, started to hold her back.

She said: “It was always my dream to be a police officer, but I thought people like me didn’t get into the police. So I was quite nervous when I started training at Hendon. But when I walked in and looked around, for the first time it felt like I’d found my tribe. The police are such a large and diverse range of people, it made me feel at ease and like I didn’t stand out.

“But I found the social aspect of the workplace very challenging. I’m more socially aware than some other autistic people, but that still doesn’t make it easy for me to mix with people. I’m awkward, I get made fun of. When I was younger I coped with this by learning very quickly and I became a bit of a clown and made people laugh. If you’re funny, people are a bit more forgiving.

“What became a problem for me was when I started having difficulties getting promoted; I kept failing the promotion process over and over again. That’s when my autism really came to light and I decided to fight back, because I wasn’t getting the reasonable adjustments that were appropriate.

“I asked for The National Autistic Society’s workplace assessment. It costs well over £1,000 and every time I requested it my request was ignored. I wouldn’t stand for that – if you know anything about people with autism, we hate injustice and we can’t let things go. Some people with autism think this characteristic is a superpower!”

Suzanne realised that she could use her tenacity to challenge the organisation’s decision and get reasonable adjustments, and she gained the support of Federation Representative Tim Clarke.

She said: “Tim always answered my phone calls, he would meet me and my family any time I needed it, he was just brilliant. Talk about going above and beyond.

“I felt that by bringing a tribunal and standing up for what was right, I would be singled out and hated and that colleagues would walk away from me. But Tim kept saying to me, ‘No, it’s actually the opposite. If you make changes in the Metropolitan Police, people will listen to you.’

“It’s hard to step outside the norm and take the organisation that you’re working for to task. But I was convinced that I was right, I had the support of the Federation behind me, and I was getting a lot of good advice from outside, so I just kept going with it and the progress was always positive. Even though it took a long time, over the years everything changed for the better.

“We drove some fantastic change within the Met – they got there in the end.

“Tim and the Federation helped me turn what was a negative thing into something completely positive. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Suzanne was granted her workplace assessment and adjustments were made, which boosted her career. She said: “I passed the Sergeants exam in 2012 and I’ve just passed the Sergeants promotion now in 2021, that’s how long it took to get the adjustments. The first time I got the adjustments I passed the process.”

She is proud that there is now a precedent that helps other autistic officers in the Met get adjustments. In addition the Met set up an Adjustments Hub to better cater for the workplace needs of its staff and an Autism Support Group, of which Suzanne is the Vice-Chair.

One of the most important things police line managers can do is to get to know individual officers with autism as everyone has different abilities and needs, Suzanne said.

She said: “We always say in the Autism Support Group, ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’. It’s different for everybody. So many people put us in boxes and say: ‘Oh I’ve got a friend who’s autistic, so I know all about it’, but they won’t.

“It’s about building understanding. My line manager wrote a blog, saying, ‘To manage someone with autism you just have to get to know them’. That’s true for anybody with a disability or protected characteristic.”

Through her work with the Autism Support Group, Suzanne supports colleagues who are, or think they might be, autistic, or have an autistic child or family member. She points out that The National Police Autism Association has said it’s relatively common for police officers to be on the autistic spectrum because they are attracted to the routine and discipline of the job.

She said: “I’ve got autistic colleagues who absolutely have to have a set routine, they have to work 7-3 because they can’t cope with change. Whereas I like autonomy – I find it very difficult if someone says to me, ‘You’ve got to be here at 8 o’clock’, if I don’t really need to be there. So I might reply: ‘That’s stupid!’, because, being autistic, I am literal and honest and say the first thing in my head and that can cause conflict. Conflict raising my anxiety. The line manager will need to understand this, not react and just continue the conversation, patiently. I always do as I’m told, I just can’t stop myself needing to understand why.

“Some autistic people can’t cope with busy Tube trains, so they need to adjust their hours of work, whereas I have no issue with standing in a packed tube, it doesn’t bother me at all.

“The kinds of things we suggest to line managers and the Senior Leadership Team is to give people a bit of leeway while things are getting into place, because a lot of autistic people can suffer from anxiety. And while people are being diagnosed there can be a lot to come to terms with – I’m married with three children, and being diagnosed with autism at the age of 46 had an enormous impact on my whole family, so there’s a period of adjustment.”

Three years ago, Suzanne became a Federation Representative herself, after being encouraged to by Tim, who told her: “You need to be a Fed Rep and then you can really make changes and really help other people.”

She said: “I love being a Fed Rep. Everybody in the Federation has been so inclusive and welcoming, there’s a mutual respect.

“I was the poster girl for wanting to join the police and being proud to be in the Met, but after a while in the organisation I felt they weren’t loving me back. It made me feel a little bit broken-hearted, especially when I wasn’t progressing in my career.

“But the Federation is completely different. For police officers with autism, the Federation is a very good fit. Autistic people can be very black and white – the law is the law, and all that complicated legislation that normally alarms people, I can’t get enough of it!

“I’m a real supporter of the underdog and if somebody can’t stand up for themselves, I’ll stand up for them and gently remind their managers of their responsibilities. If a line manager is not being quite as nice to an officer as they could be, my position is to support them both.”

Suzanne also loves her current role in Met Prosecutions, where her bosses encourage her to be herself and bring a different perspective to police work. She believes that neurodiversity in the workplace is essential for creativity.

She said: “Until very recently I was a PC, but I have the ability to think quite strategically. My boss doesn’t stop me doing this, and if I come up with an idea they’ll explore it. They’ll challenge me and say things like: ‘That’s great but how do we do that?’, but they listen to me. They try to inspire my creativity and get me to think.”

Suzanne said that her main aim as a Fed Rep was for the Met to be a pleasant workplace for everyone and to encourage understanding and acceptance of diversity. She added: “I’m now in a Metropolitan Police that is getting better all the time and there’s a willingness to change, even right up at the top.”