World Autism Acceptance Week – Roberta’s story

Roberta, senior flood risk engineer

Meet Roberta, a Senior Flood Risk Engineer. Roberta joined Waterman Aspen nearly two years ago and has Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In light of World Autism Acceptance Week, Roberta shares her experience with ASD and celebrates the niche traits that allow her to excel at her job, along with the value autistic people bring to the workplace.

Roberta created this video to document her experience of sensory overload during meetings in an office environment. Click the video below and try to maintain eye-contact for the whole time. You’ll also need the sound at reasonable level (headphones would work best):

Thank you for watching/enduring my video. After I’ve spent a while in a meeting with the pressures of conforming to social conventions, maintaining eye contact, trying to keep still and being in a heightened sensory state due to levels of noise, I will zone out of the environment to soothe myself.

For me, this involves losing eye focus, causing things to become blurry for me – hence why the video is out of focus. I’m unable to keep eye contact anymore, so I’m either staring you out – and panicking that it’s too much – or I’m looking down at the floor or at a spot on the wall – which makes you think I’ve lost interest in what you’re saying or that I’m not concentrating.

I’ll usually start pinging a hair bobble on my wrist or playing with my fidget ring to try and pull my brain back into focus and as a soothing tool. You’re probably thinking I’m nervous at this point because I’m fidgeting. I tend to knock my knees together when I get agitated which I know annoys some people because of the noise or movement of the table or, you may think I’m being childish because I’m such a fidget. If the meeting doesn’t end soon, I just zone out completely, go completely still and quiet and stare at the desk.

“Not very professional”, you’re thinking, but office environments are not set up for autistic people. The constant pressure of social conventions, not being in control of the sensory environment (heating, lighting, sounds), not being in control of your usual routine (lunchtime meetings or people coming over to talk to you just as you’re ready to log out for the day) can all be very disruptive to autistic people. These things all lead to autistic burnout after leaving the office.

Burnout for me manifests as literally feeling like I’m sat in set concrete, I physically cannot move, think or talk which, as you can imagine, is both distressing for me and those around me and can take me days to get out of.  

Some things that have helped me, and may help others:

  • Loop headphones – They take the edge off noisy environments and allow me to sit more comfortably in an office while not completely ignoring conversations
  • Allowing myself to take breaks – If I feel I’m zoning out, I just excuse myself from a meeting for a few minutes to refocus and take a walk away from the environment
  • Mindfulness – When I have back-to-back meetings in a day, I always ensure I take my lunch break and take time to mindfully complete an activity
  • Working from home – I attend mandatory office days for meetings and then continue working from home. This ensures that I can be involved in the essential discussions, and to socialise with colleagues – yes, we’re not necessarily introverted – and then focus on work in my own environment when I return home

With the right support, autistic people are an extremely valuable addition to any workplace. I have found my niche in reviewing drainage applications because I love analytical details and I’m great at spotting the differences between each submission – something others may miss. I can plough through new technical documents at speed and disseminate the information to colleagues which is useful given the amount of legislative change within the public sector. My autism also makes me deeply empathetic which allows me to be a supportive colleague – something I am currently doing in my role as a Mental Health First Aider and as an EDI Champion within Waterman Aspen.

Useful resources:

  • – A great resource for employers on employing autistic people
  • Mind: Autism & mental health – A great overview of how autism can affect someone’s mental health due to negative attitudes from others and barriers to support
  • Inside our Autistic Minds: BBC 2 – A two-episode documentary series exploring different autistic voices and experiences

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