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'Autism isn’t an illness, you don’t outgrow it, and there's no need for a cure'

31 March 2021

Environment Agency engineer Ayo Sokale makes a deeply personal revelation during this year's World Autism Awareness Week, debunking common myths along the way.  

'Autism isn’t an illness, you don’t outgrow it, and there's no need for a cure'
Debunking myths about autism

In a moment of honest communication with Anh (ICE’s digital content lead), she asked me to write a blog post on autism for World Autism Awareness Week, and this felt like a big deal.

Why? I’m on the autism spectrum and have a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. I am 28 and this is the first time I am speaking about this publicly, because I felt a huge need to mask this.

I always thought I would only share when I had reached the zenith of my personal contribution, because I truly believed it would affect my prospects, that people would treat me differently, advantageously or disadvantageously, and I didn’t want to be wheeled out as the autistic person, or be coddled.

As a result, I’ve masked and hidden this part of me in every role. Even the aspects that are highly challenging to me, at some personal cost over the years.

Furthermore, I was concerned about having to deal with another bias as a result of another label. After all, I can’t hide I’m Black or a woman, but I can try and hide my autism.

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Why am I sharing now?

In an episode of Dr Shini Somara’s ‘Innervation’ podcast on speaking out, she said that we must all speak up when it will achieve the following:

  1. To help others,
  2. To inspire others,
  3. To connect with others, and
  4. To do good and be of service to others.

Therefore, I’m sharing in the hope of raising awareness of autism and to demonstrate the following:

  • Autism doesn’t stop you from reaching your potential and being a productive member of society.
  • To acknowledge that my journey could’ve being easier if society was more tolerant and accepting, and advocated for adaptations that are more inclusive of autistic people.
  • Challenge the common stereotype of autism and make it clear that autism is a spectrum.
  • Challenge everyone to reflect on how they include themselves and others.

What is autism?

The National Autistic Society defines autism as a ‘lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world’. It says that ‘1 in 100’ people are on the autism spectrum, and that’s around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK.

Some autistic people have average or above-average intelligence. Autism is sometimes coupled with other learning disabilities, such as ADHD and dyslexia. For the scope of this blog, I’ll only cover autism.

Debunking myths about autism

Let’s start by debunking some myths: autism isn’t an illness, you don’t outgrow it, and there is no need for a cure. It simply means that your brain works differently from a neurotypical brain. Neurotypical means not displaying autistic or neurologically atypical patterns of thought or behaviour. The National Autistic Society lists the most common traits for those on the spectrum as:

  • Having a hyper focus in an area of interest;
  • Difficulty communicating and interacting with other people;
  • Finding it hard to understand how other people think or feel;
  • Finding things like bright lights or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable;
  • Getting anxious or upset about unfamiliar situations and social events;
  • Taking longer to understand information; and
  • Enjoying repetitive behaviours and routines.

It’s important to remember that autism is a spectrum and affects everyone differently, with everyone having varying strengths and weaknesses, and therefore needing varying levels of support. As the saying goes, if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.

In the words of Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, where he is also a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the university: “The disability is in relation to social functioning and adapting to change.”

Also: “We know that autism is not just a disability. It’s also a difference, and sometimes those differences include strengths or even talents. And I think that side of autism has got neglected.”

He compares the way in which autism is viewed today with how left-handedness once was, and says he hopes it will eventually be regarded as another variation.

My personal experience

My biggest challenge has been in understanding why people behave as they do, and their motivations. As a result, I use a lot of my bandwidth to unscramble the world around me, and try to assess danger posed by my blind spots. This often means I’m working harder.

However, my difference has resulted in consistency and hyper focus as a positive, and additional stress, missing some social cues, and anxiety as the negative.

The biggest challenge I’ve faced has been in the world of politics, where there are intricate interpersonal relationships and vested interests across parties, and the frequent use of deception.

Professor Baron-Cohen makes the case that, “on average, autistic people are likely to be more honest and moral – another example of where a trait that could appear negative can just as easily be viewed as a benefit.

“Other people might be more flexible about which rules they follow and how much they are willing to bend them. But for autistic people, these patterns really matter. They expect words to actually mean what they say and are very confused that a lot of life involves deception.”

Therefore, instead of treating neurodiversity as a bad thing in those spaces, instead it could be useful to adopt a neuro-diverse approach that favours transparency and systematic thinking.

In fact, we need talented, neuro-diverse people to improve on the status quo, remove deception within systems, and challenge assumption.

This isn’t dissimilar from what civil engineers do in design, where they explicitly try and understand the input and assumptions in order to outline the design brief, and have clarity on what we aim to solve.

The link between autism and civil engineering

It isn’t new for civil engineers to tackle social issues, from Bazalgette to Bryn Noble, a fellow ICE President’s Future Leader alumnus who talked about the role of civil engineers in tackling mental and social health issues by designing out loneliness.

Autism awareness is an opportunity for us to take this social responsibility further and design the built environment with neurodiversity in mind, and to be an industry that practises real inclusion.

Maybe by accepting yourself inside, you can be yourself on the outside, and extend that grace to others, showing them the kindness you are now giving yourself. This in part will deal with loneliness.

After all, we can’t connect when we don’t show ourselves authentically.

In the second part of Ayo’s two blogs on autism, she'll talk about what society can do to help people with autism, and how the civil engineering industry could adapt to become more inclusive.

Related links

  • Ayo Sokale, Project Manager, Environment Agency