I don’t do fluorescent lighting. It pixelates my vision, gives me a headache and makes me nauseous. My office has the ambience of a vampire’s lair.
I dread the weekly fire alarm test. I am super-sensitive to loud noises and combinations of noises.
Two words that strike fear into my soul are ‘sandwich lunch’. Dairy produce in a warm office smells like vomit.
I can only tolerate certain fabrics on my skin and snip the labels off my clothes. After a few hours, it feels like I’m wearing sandpaper.
I’m not exactly a social butterfly. It’s not that I don’t like people.
I used to wonder whether everyone else had been given a manual at school one day while I was off sick but I learned enough over the years to ‘pass’ socially through trial and (plenty of) error. I observed other people carefully and mirrored their language and behaviours.
Spending time around other people can be a lot of fun but it tends to be exhausting.
I crave predictable routines. Disturb my morning muffin at your peril.
The volume on the remote control has to be set at an even number or a multiple of five.
I may be able to brief ministers, chair meetings, lead a bill team, manage a private office or oversee complex projects, but I also get lost travelling to familiar destinations, run out of petrol, forget how to turn on the shower (which we’ve had for 11 years), lose my phone, keys, umbrella, glasses…
These are just a few of the things that make me a bit different to other people.
But perhaps the biggest challenge I face is getting people to believe I’m actually autistic. (I look nothing like Dustin Hoffman.)
People sometimes ask me why I’d want anyone to know I’m autistic. The fact they don’t see anything wrong with asking such a question is the reason why. It implies I am admitting to being a defective human being.
The media portrayal of my tribe tends to reinforce the many myths and misconceptions that persist around autism. As a result, some people choose not to disclose for fear of stigma and prejudice, and I completely respect that choice.
I have a neurological condition which means I experience the world more intensely. My brain is ‘wired’ differently, with a higher number of short connections and fewer long ones. It doesn’t filter out as much distracting information, like background chatter, heavy breathing or busy patterns. Everything has to be processed.
If you think of the brain as a computer, I was born missing an app or two but I’ve developed some good workarounds – plus I have a few nifty bonus features.
Autism is not a mental illness, though we can be highly susceptible to anxiety and depression from the sheer effort of trying to fit into a world designed to meet the needs of the neuromajority. Self-care may look different for us – time alone enjoying our intense interests may recharge our social batteries better than meeting up with a friend for coffee, for instance.
It’s also not a learning disability, though a significant minority of autistic people are also learning disabled.
Neither are we all geniuses.
The vast majority of us do not have savant abilities (though I do pride myself on being able to spot a typo at a hundred paces).
Autism usually has a co-occurring condition. My autism co-star is dyspraxia, hence the falling down stairs a lot thing. (And yes, I do realise that is potentially a set-up for the perfect murder.) The marbled pattern on the stairs in Castle Buildings is especially troublesome. I took a memorable tumble past Mo Mowlam during the political talks leading up to the Belfast Agreement.
I’ve been a civil servant for 30 years and have enjoyed an interesting and varied career. I genuinely believe this is because of rather than despite being autistic.
While autism undoubtedly presents people on the spectrum with certain challenges, which will vary greatly in nature and intensity from one person to another (and I don’t in any way want to minimise those challenges), there are many positive traits associated with autism that can bring real benefits to the workplace.
We’re the independent thinkers. We don’t feel constrained by the conventional wisdom and we’re less susceptible to ‘group think’.
We’re usually good problem solvers. We may stick with a problem until we figure it out, long past the point at which someone else might have lost interest, and we can be very creative.
We’re honest brokers. If we say we’ll do something, we will do it.
We often have a very strong work ethic and we aren’t inclined to waste time on idle chit chat or office politics.
Many of us are visual thinkers. We may think in patterns and make connections that others don’t see.
We tend to have good attention to detail, and our intense interests and monotropic thinking style can lead us to become highly expert in our chosen subjects.
We have a strong sense of fairness and natural justice. We will be more likely to judge you on your ideas and contributions than on your personal characteristics.
And we can come in handy if you need somebody to volunteer to cover the phones while the rest of you go off to the big noisy Christmas party.
The world of work benefits us too. Being able to direct all that swirling nervous energy into something constructive can help reduce anxiety and build self-confidence.
The highly structured and visually-oriented world of the civil service, with its clear hierarchy of roles and responsibilities, suits me very well and the only reasonable adjustment I’ve had to request so far is an uplighter.
I was asked in a BBC Radio 4 podcast last year whether I would want to take a pill that would effectively ‘cure’ me of autism.
The answer is no.