“Hi, I’m Richard and I have autism. This statement seems a little ridiculous to me as it’s the same to me as saying, “Hi, I’m Richard and I’m left-handed”; which as it happens I am. So, we’ve nailed three facts about me in the first sentence, but please don’t expect me to keep up this sort of pace!
Autism is relatively new to me as I have only recently been diagnosed, and before diagnosis, I didn’t know very much about it. Naively, and somewhat stereotypically, I thought that autism was characterised by a lack of emotion or being some kind of genius.
For me, my autistic awakening started with the diagnosis of both of my son’s, and the journey we went through as a family to get the support they needed at school and at home. The more I learnt about autism, the more I found that the characteristics also applied to me.
I felt it was important to explore this further to normalise autism for my two children, so I approached my GP regarding a diagnosis as an adult. The journey of diagnosis took about two years, the majority of which was waiting for appointments. It started with a simple verbal test which I’m pleased to report I scored highly on which led to a very invasive questionnaire that my partner and I had to fill out separately. Finally, after almost two years my partner and I were interviewed for about half a day which led to a formal diagnosis of autism. It was very emotional because it gave me an actual reason for so many of the things I have struggled with in my life and has allowed me to gain an understanding of myself which is wider than the intuitive one I originally had.
One of the autistic traits that I identify with is that I am quite self-isolated. It’s a strange dichotomy as I would describe myself as an extrovert and I like being around people, however, the problem I have concerns the social norms that people use as a basis for all social interactions, which are skills I do not inherently possess. Therefore, I need to consciously think about those ‘unsaid rules’ and am applying them constantly throughout a conversation, which is draining for me and can often leave me feeling like I’ve failed or messed up and so often it’s easier to be alone.
As I have got older, I have been able to manage this far better, but as a child, I always chose tasks or sports that I could do as an individual and so spent a lot of time alone.
One of the challenges I face daily is sensory overload. This is a very fancy way of saying my brain has too many browser tabs open and has crashed and needs a reboot. Things that can trigger this for me are too much noise or people speaking to, or around me at once; bright flashing lights; or strong smells (they don’t have to be bad, just strong).
These can all stop me from being able to function while they are occurring, and I have developed several strategies to enable me to cope with them. I may ask people to pause in their speaking, close my eyes or cover my nose and, when I need to be subtle, I have mastered the art of very shallow breathing to minimise how much I can smell. I am aware these aren’t normal actions and so I spend a lot of time trying to focus my way through them or masking them.
I wouldn’t change my diagnosis.
While there are things, I struggle with that are normal for other people, autism is just a different way of understanding the world. The way my brain perceives things is slightly different, but that means I can offer different perspectives.
For example, I often consider unconnected problems at overlapping times which can lead to the creation of connections and solutions that would possibly be overlooked.
Having a recent diagnosis, I have slowly been letting people know about it in my personal life and in the workplace. My line manager has always been supportive of my working environment requests even before my diagnosis, I have been able to sit in quieter parts of the office to avoid distractions and when the possibility of hot-desking arose, he was able to secure a fixed location for me to work in, these seem like small concessions however they are massively impactful to me and the way I work. Sharing my diagnosis with others is important as I hope that in talking more and sharing my experiences will lessen stereotypes and give some insights to an autistic person’s world.
Being honest, I have found that autism affects my personal life far more than my professional life, when I am home, I relax more and the coping strategies I employ during work hours tend to slop meaning that people within my personal life need to be quite patient with me, but the people who have stuck around are the people who are right for me.
My two boys may have helped me get a diagnosis, but I wouldn’t change anything. And now, it means I can help them both to find strategies that work for them, through childhood and into adulthood.”
At Kier, we have an Ability employee network, it’s a place where colleagues can come together to discuss their experiences and further support inclusion for all at Kier.