Photo by Sven Mieke on Unsplash.comAbout me

I’m an Incorporated Engineer, working in a niche sector.  I’m also mum to an amazing teenage boy.  I have high functioning autism and extreme sensory sensitivities. People I work with tend to use words like diligent and thorough to describe me. 

 

I’ve always been a high achiever, even at school, but I have also spent 30 years silently struggling with anxiety and a crippling fear of failure

On my strengths

My work ethic and diligence are probably my biggest strengths.  I also have great attention to detail and I’m able to concentrate on something for very long periods of time.  I’m innately able to absorb large amounts of information and retain it.  I’m very logical and objective, direct and straight forward; honest to a fault.  Putting all of these attributes together enables me to excel in my field.  Apparently, many engineers are autistic.

On my challenges

Earlier in my career, I worked in large offices with lots of people, often with a long commute to get there.  I found travelling on public transport and working in open plan offices exhausting and I couldn’t understand why others didn’t feel the same.  I now know that my sensitivities to lighting, glare, noise, temperature, clothing and even smells aren’t something that most other people have to deal with.  But these things deplete my energy levels rapidly, to the point where I can’t think straight. 

Growing up, I also learnt that being myself wasn’t socially acceptable – I was viewed as odd, aloof or stuck up, although in reality I was bemused and confused.  I could see that naturally I didn’t act and appear like those around me, although I didn’t know why.  My solution was to suppress and mask, both at work and at home – I tried to hide my social interaction difficulties by copying how others behaved in an attempt to fit in. 

Without understanding my difficulties or having any coping mechanisms, I became permanently overwhelmed and lived in survival mode for more than 25 years

The mental and physical exhaustion left me with burnout and I regularly had meltdowns in the confines of my home, which lead to my marriage break up in 2007.   At my lowest point, I was labelled by my work colleagues and my family as emotional, highly strung and mentally unstable.

Although I knew that I was very ill, I didn’t seek professional help because I firmly believed that I’d be institutionalised in secure accommodation if I admitted my issues to healthcare professionals. I knew that being treated like this was not going to help me so I didn’t seek help. 

More recently, when I sought help for my son’s anxiety, I was told that people with autism aren’t entitled to mental health support – there is still so much misunderstanding and discrimination that needs to be addressed, even amongst those tasked with caring for society

On my diagnosis

I was diagnosed in July 2014, at the age of 40, on the same day as my son.  The relief was immense - I had struggled for so many years; failing to understand why others could cope with life but I couldn’t.  I had even come to the privately-held conclusion that perhaps I was mad!  Having a diagnosis and being able to label my difficulties meant I could now set about finding solutions and coping mechanisms. Julie Bjelland’s HSP podcasts for highly sensitive people has been incredibly helpful, and taught me the importance of self-care.  And online shopping and video calls mean that I don’t have to deplete my energy so much by visiting shops or attending meetings in person. 

When I hear education professionals question why children need a diagnosis, I am baffled - knowing my challenges has been so beneficial to me

Initially, I disclosed my autism to several people, but their reactions weren’t positive.  So now I am selective about who I tell.  I have a Master’s degree and numerous professional accreditations but in the past when I have told work colleagues that I’m autistic, they would suddenly start talking to me very loudly and slowly.  If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be humorous.  Public disclosures by people such as Melanie Sykes and Christine McGuinness will hopefully help others understand that we’re not aliens or incapable just because we have autism.

On applying for jobs

I’ve been really quite successful when applying for jobs, primarily because I am willing to “play the game” and make my written application fit the criteria, which gets me an interview.  I can then mask my way through an hour’s interview, particularly as I’ve studied social interaction my entire life and can mirror with ease for short periods.  As a highly qualified engineer, employers have been keen to offer me a position.  The issue that I haven’t considered until recently is whether the role and the environment are right for me; whether I will be able to cope.

Rightly or wrongly, my innate focus is on the quality of the work rather than on making sure everyone is happy.  I question and challenge because I see the collective goal as being as good as we can be.  However, my unintentionally direct and sometimes blunt comments can get me labelled as confrontational.  Whilst I care about and have empathy for others, my support tends to be practical assistance rather than emotional sympathy. 

I think that possibly men wouldn’t be labelled quite so negatively if they displayed the same traits, but being a woman I’m expected to be…well, nicer….more caring and worried about others’ feelings than about the quality of the work.  But that’s just not me

Ironically, I’m seen in my particular niche of engineering as being a go-to mentor and have supported over 250 people in the last 5 years, but I have to balance my naturally direct communication style with masking and depleting my energy – that’s a challenge!

On making adjustments

I did recently try to explain to a potential employer why I needed reasonable adjustments, but unfortunately they didn’t seem aware of the Equality Act and its implications.  We have a shortage of engineers yet I am surprised that HR personnel aren’t more knowledgeable about autism when so many engineers are highly likely to be autistic.  In my view, an understanding employer who is willing to discuss reasonable adjustments is essential for those facing challenges.

It might have taken me a couple of decades, but I’ve worked out now that I’m not going to get along with everyone.  And that’s okay

I’ve been in my industry for over 20 years and have developed a good reputation for the quality of my work.  6 months ago, I finally decided to set up my own consultancy and established myself as a limited company.  I specialise in forensic work that is more plans based than site based – this reduces the sensory challenges I have on construction sites or on public transport and it plays to my strengths. 

Although it’s still early days, I have plenty of work just from word of mouth and I now have the autonomy to better manage my sensitivities and therefore my energy levels.  For the first time in my adult life, I have enough energy to explore interests outside of work!

Andy Wyett

January 2022