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The challenges of being “different”

12 October 2020

In the latest in our ‘Coping with lockdown’ series of blogs, chartered engineer Anna Preston, who is autistic, describes the challenges she faces every day.

The challenges of being “different”
Anna Preston CEng MICE describes the challenges she faces every day

I am autistic and face unique challenges every day in my role as a Chartered Engineer and within the workplace.

Since my diagnosis, I have been through many changes and learned many things about myself. I’m still the same, but now I understand, why I struggle with some things and also that I am different to most people. This is beneficial because I’ve come to accept myself rather than beating myself up for being different and, I can now look after myself much better.

Life in lockdown

Life in lockdown has shown me this more than ever that . My environment massively affects my wellbeing and productivity. Having control over my environment has been, and is, amazing. With autism, just an increase in noise levels, for example, can create massive anxiety. So, having no fluorescent lights, no uncomfortable work clothes, no draughts from air conditioning and no background noises or tricky dynamics to negotiate has been so beneficial. I feel so much better in myself, which in turn has enabled me to increase my work output and have more stable mental health.

Lockdown has also provided more opportunities to talk with people on a 1-1 basis, rather than in groups. This has been a very real benefit. I struggle joining in with group conversations and tend to shy away from them because of my sensory and processing differences.

How the environment can affect my condition

One example of how every day tasks can be magnified with autism and how you are affected by environment was when I was preparing for my Chartered Professional Review (CPR) with ICE. I sat my CPR before I received my autism diagnosis. Of course, I was still autistic at that time, I just didn’t know it.

In the months prior to my review, I remember asking my mentor:

What will the building be like inside?

How big will the desk be?

How near will other people be to me?

How will I be able to block out other people’s voices?

Knowing about my environment was equally important to me as being technically prepared. In fact, knowing about my environment was paramount for me even to begin to focus on what was actually technically required. Although I didn’t know I was autistic at this time I knew that I didn’t feel that I fitted in. I knew I was different to my peers. I felt like an imposter even being there. It was only the encouragement from my mentor that gave me the motivation to pursue Chartership.

I arrived at the review location far too early. As more and more people arrived, the noise levels escalated. I knew I was becoming extremely anxious. You might think this is normal, but what I’ve since learned is that as an autistic person, my basic anxiety levels are already heightened. This is because I absorb far more information from my physical surroundings and it becomes confusing, stressful and sometimes makes it impossible to function. Examples include things that most people don’t even notice. The smallest of noises, bright lights, unusual decor, smells and even drafts all contribute to my capacity to focus on the task in hand. I have no filter system. The frightening part about this is that it can quite easily lead to sensory overload for me and a total meltdown. This is a major part of what autism is to me.

My presentation at the review went well, however, as soon as I stopped talking, I became overwhelmed by all the other reviews that were taking place in the room at the same time. It was terrifying.

As a result of this, when the reviewers began asking questions, their words merged with all the other conversations in the room. The reviewers had also switched topics and were now talking about my report. I find it very difficult to switch tasks – something that’s a common trait amongst autistic people. My next problem was in the way that I communicate and process information whilst not understanding body language or facial expressions very well.

I tend to listen to the question or request and absorb the information whilst making little comment. I then need time to think and put all the information into order as one would with a jigsaw and then return with the solution after checking it is all accurate. By delaying my responses, I was concerned that I would come across as shy, disinterested or awkward (which I’m not), so I started panicking and saying the first things that came into my head, which was counterproductive, in fact it was nonsense.

Whilst I still feel I wasn’t able to present the best version of me, I was very lucky that my reviewers were experienced and very patient and managed to calm me down. They also somehow saw past my difficulties, which I now know to be disabilities, and managed to get through to the ‘true me’ and see my engineering attributes.

Work life and the support of the engineering community

Since disclosing my diagnosis, I am surprised and overwhelmed by how supportive the engineering community has been. Most of my colleagues have been great – they have helped me in situations they know I find particularly difficult. It’s also nice that those I work closest with can see the funny side of some of the idiosyncrasies I have, and we can talk (and often laugh) about it. I definitely prefer it when people are up front about this, rather than shying away from the subject or being silently offended. I struggle to interpret social nuances and feel sad and rejected when I feel people withdraw. I would never purposely insult or offend anyone and am in fact at times scared of doing so. The importance of raising autism awareness helps both myself and my colleagues to work together well.

Since my recent Autism Awareness Week article in conjunction with the ICE Ben Fund, I've also received many positive and supportive messages from people throughout the construction industry, which has definitely made me feel much more accepted. I also feel more optimistic about being allowed to be myself going forward which has been one of the most liberating experiences of my life.

How to be an ally to those with autism

What we need going forward is for colleagues and employers to see the positives, and also to understand some of the challenges we face on a day-to-day basis. When we ask for adjustments within work, such as flexible work hours, breaks, desk position etc. we’re not asking for preferential treatment, it’s just making things equal. Most of us are highly anxious and also don’t have the same level of ability to block out our surroundings or communicate our level of distress.

Autistic people in general can add a lot to a company, bringing diverse and creative ways of thinking, as well as honesty and dedication. Many people do not really understand what autism is and just see the negatives.

This needs to change.

If you'd like to submit a blog to our 'Coping with lockdown' series, submit your entry here. Alternatively email your submission here.

Related links

What should civil engineers be doing to support people with autism? Ayo provides some tips

The ICE Benevolent Fund offers support for ICE members and their immediate families living with autism. For more information, click here.

Read this helpful online safety guide for people on the autism spectrum.