Autism in the beauty industry
Autism spectrum disorder is a type of neurodiversity that is estimated to affect more than one in 100 people, with 700,000 people thought to be on the spectrum in the UK.
Since it is a “spectrum”, autism can manifest in different ways and in different intensities depending on the person, although it’s typically associated with restricted or repetitive behaviours and difficulties in social communication and interaction.
This can make certain aspects of everyday life challenging for autistic people, including work – but one of the best things about the beauty industry is the variety it holds, both in the people that work in it and the range of services they can provide.
This makes it a very welcoming place for neurodiverse people to work, with a niche for almost anyone.
One person who has found her home in the beauty industry is aesthetic practitioner Charlotte King. King, who works at Radiance Aesthetic Clinic in Exeter, was diagnosed with autism when she was 14 after struggling in school.
First steps to a beauty career
Explaining her route into the industry, King says, “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but my friend wanted to be a hairdresser and went on a hair and beauty taster day, so I tagged along. In the afternoon, we did nails and I just fell in love with it.
“I started beauty at college, and that was probably the first time I focused at school because I was interested in it. I really enjoyed anatomy and physiology, and the science behind it all started to make sense – whereas before at school, you could not get me to listen in science classes.
“I started with NVQ Level 2 Beauty Therapy, then did Level 3 Electrotherapy. I then worked in Australia and that’s where I started to move into aesthetics because they did a lot of laser and body contouring.
"When I came back and started working where I am now, I got trained up in laser, peels, CoolSculpting – just everything on the menu really! Over time we’ve got new machines and there’s always something new going on as the industry evolves, which keeps me focused and excited.”
Through a slightly less direct route, Caro Syson has also found herself in the beauty industry in a supporting role, hosting the Earn More Stress Less podcast and founding small business software Pocket PA.
Syson created Pocket PA for her beauty therapist daughter Megan, who has dyscalculia, when she decided that she wanted to work for herself but struggled with certain aspects of running a business.
Syson explains, “Megan was amazing with her clients, but she has an issue with numbers, so as her mum I was looking through all of these business tools for something she could use – and I was shocked at the number of different ones there were, but there weren’t any she could digest.
"I knew that if she wasn’t managing her numbers then she wouldn’t have a business in 12 months.
“I looked at all of these tools, and thought, ‘How hard can it be? I’m going to make something for her, I know what she needs, I’ve been in business for 30 years’.
"So, I began this software journey six years ago never having written a line of code. I created Pocket PA for Megan, and it evolved as she started to grow her business – she wanted to take online bookings, she wanted reminder messages, she needed to track her mileage; all of these things she needed to operate as a self-employed beauty professional, and I created Pocket PA bit by bit to accommodate this.”
The point of difference between Pocket PA and other software tools is that it was specifically created with neurodiverse people in mind.
“It’s all done in colours, which is really necessary for any neurodiverse people who might find words and numbers difficult to process,” Syson explains. This layout makes the software easier to use for neurodiverse business owners with different needs – it’s also used by Syson’s son, who has dyslexia and is a self-employed electrician.
Syson herself was diagnosed as autistic last year, when she was in her 50s, and it was something of a lightbulb moment.
She explains, “It was like, oh my god, I can’t believe this is why I made Pocket PA! Because most people would have been like, well, Megan needs to make do with the other software, but I was just so in my own bubble that I thought, I’m going to make something else.
"I’ve always been a go-getter, maybe a little bit naïve, but I have this tunnel vision.”
Challenges around autism in the beauty industry
With the beauty industry centred around communication and interaction with other people, there can be difficulties for autistic beauty professionals.
The way in which some autistic people communicate can come across as insensitive or inappropriate, due to their difficulties in recognising and understanding other people’s feelings and intentions, as well as in expressing their own emotions.
Syson explains, “I’m quite a direct, no-nonsense type of person, and I’ve come across as abrupt or a bit rude, but until people get to know me, they don’t know that it’s not my intention.
"In the first encounter with someone, that can be quite challenging. I've had to teach myself to keep eye contact; to be open to conversations with new people and not find myself out of my depth.”
Autistic people can also struggle with changes in their routine, which can prove stressful when appointments change or clients cancel with little notice.
“I constantly check my diary on my phone and in my head for what I’m doing in the day,” says King. “If it changes then I have to rethink and get that in my head. If someone cancels or appointments get squished in, even if I’ve still got enough time, I get a bit stressed managing it.”
Syson adds, “Autistic people like routines, we like certainty – but obviously in any small business, you have to be a bit flexible. I sometimes find other people’s timekeeping challenging to navigate. I know it’s not socially correct to pull someone up on being late, but it will matter to me how they apologise or what the reason is, which seems crazy to most people.”
A supportive routine has been encouraged by King’s employer. “They allow me to work how I work best,” she says. “They know I like to see the diary, and I’m the only one who has it on my phone. They know I like things my way – I have my treatment room and I always do things in that room, whereas the other girls chop and change a bit.”
Strengths in being an autistic beauty professional
While there are certain drawbacks to being autistic, there are a lot of unsung strengths which make autistic beauty professionals even more of a valuable part of the industry.
While communication can be a challenge, the different ways in which autistic people approach building relationships with others can actually be a benefit.
Due to picking up on social cues in a different way, Syson believes autistic people can sometimes be a bit naïve about others’ intentions. “But with that comes a lot of honesty and integrity,” she says.
“It's great for building trust with clients because they will pick up on that and they'll know they can trust you. Nobody wants to work with unethical practitioners, so I think that gives us an advantage in that respect.”
King agrees that building relationships is a superpower for her. “It’s the feeling you have with people. Connecting to the emotional side of it, you can really boost yourself by knowing what clients want,” she says.
Another benefit to having a brain that’s wired differently is the ability to approach situations and problems from a different perspective.
“We've had to think outside the box because we've had to cope with lots of different scenarios. It makes us quite innovative and creative when we're trying to problem solve, and autistic people do often possess really strong attention to detail, which can be beneficial,” Syson comments.
Having highly focused interests or hobbies is another common manifestation of autism, but this has the ability to create experts. “Autistic people often have real special interests, so if they love something, they'll hyperfocus into it – to the exclusion of everything else sometimes – but they will often be real specialists about a specific thing if they really enjoy it,” explains Syson.
This hyperfocus has helped King to grow her knowledge of skin – with her obvious skill leading to her becoming a finalist in the Aesthetic Therapist of the Year category in the 2022 Aesthetic Medicine Awards.
She says, “Because I know so much about skin now, I can read clients’ skin, know exactly what they need, and put a plan in place for them. I know how long it’s going to take, what they’re going to need to do – and I can be honest about it. I don’t make false promises.”
As with any group of people, no two autistic people are the same, and each individual will experience their own set of challenges and strengths – “We’re all individuals, and people have different nuances,” says Syson. However, it’s clear that the industry is boosted by autistic beauty professionals’ capacity for deeper connections, expansive knowledge and innovative ways of thinking.
Do you have experience navigating the beauty industry with neurodiversity? Let us know in the comments...