‘Inside Our Autistic Minds’ BBC documentary – Jonathan’s perspective

Tonight at 9pm, BBC Two airs the first of a two-part series featuring wildlife TV presenter and conservationist Chris Packham meeting four autistic people from across the UK and helping them create short films that reveal to family and friends what life is like for them.

Chris was diagnosed with autism later in life and hopes that the ‘Inside Our Autistic Minds’ documentary will “give everyone a wider understanding of what it’s like to be in our lives.”

“Hopefully, armed with that understanding, they will be able to make autistic people’s lives a little bit more harmonious, a bit more liveable,” says Chris.

Chris Packham, a man in his fifties with blond grey hair, wears a black t-shirt and smiles in front of a tree in a woodland setting.
Chris Packham (credit: @ChrisGPackham on Twitter)

In that spirit, we’re sharing Jonathan’s perspective on being autistic today. Jonathan worked with our Connect 2 Work project worker Kitty Wright to find sustainable employment with an inclusive employer.

He found his experience with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to be very positive with lots of support offered to help him perform at his best in his role – including writing the following article for the DWP staff intranet site to help colleagues understand him better.

Click here to watch Luke’s Connect 2 Work story which we released last Valentine’s Day. Connect 2 Work forms part of the Help and Connect project in Coventry within our Strengthening People strand of action at Grapevine.

An office window at night with a neon sign hanging that reads: What is your story? Desks and computers are in darkness behind.
What is your story? Credit: Etienne Girardet on Unsplash.

World Autism Acceptance Week and me. By Jonathan Caldeira

Autism can be difficult to explain, particularly if people have developed their own assumptions of what autism ‘looks’ like.

The truth is that autism is not visible as such and affects people very differently. The analogy I use to explain this difficulty is that it is like trying to describe what a pineapple tastes like to someone who has never tried one.

A somewhat crude explanation of what autism is and how it affects me is that to me, the world looks fundamentally different. I perceive sound, taste, touch, sight and smell differently to others. It can be difficult to filter these out and somewhere like a busy train station can be overwhelming – like a computer you have tried to open email with by clicking the application 100 times.

I think differently, feel differently and express myself differently.

Autism can be incredibly lonely as you can feel distant to others around you and the world.

In social settings, it can be a mystery what social rules and boundaries are. I try to approach it like trying to understand an alien species’ way of socialising. I have learnt to emulate similar behaviour (masking), although I don’t quite get it right all the time – like smiling when someone has said something sad or not reacting at all to someone’s comments.

It can feel like there is a set of rules and norms that everyone else knows, but no one has explained and they don’t make exact sense. If you have met me, you realise that I may sound very blunt or overly candid.

That being said, I would not be me without my neurodiversity. I have extremely passionate interests. I collect high-end fountain pens and am known to carry a bunch with me as well as a notebook wherever I go, writing fiction, documenting my day and trying my hand at calligraphy.

I paint Warhammer models, collecting a bunch of different armies and reading all the background on them. I have read over a 1000 books in the last 10 years, including War and Peace when I was 14. I have met a great many people, made many friends and had fascinating conversations through these interests.

At work I am unleashed. My unique ways of thinking and coming up with solutions makes me a prized member of my team. I can learn new software and new skills very quickly, coming up with better ways of approaching a task and manage a large amount of data in my head.

That being said, there are challenges and I have struggled with my autism because there is still a lot of work to do in improving the accessibility of the workplace and outside of it to autistic people.

I struggle with opaque language and sarcasm, which can lead to some embarrassing situations or miscommunication. Things that may be obvious to some are not with me and I need to ask a lot of questions to reassure myself that I know what they mean. Flexibility and change is a challenge, particularly since I take comfort from set routines.

At DWP, I have been provided with a variety of tools and accessibility support to help me overcome these challenges.

I use dictation software to keep my hands free when I need to do something with them to help me focus. I am able to tint my screen and use an iPad to write notes by hand digitally. I can vary my start times at work so I can avoid the rush-hour train which is a sensory trigger for me and I am provided with coaching to better understand others as well as explain myself to others better as well.

Autism can be a challenge, but I am me, because I am autistic and DWP has done a lot to make me feel like I can be myself and my best at work.

I have used the ‘Be your best’ template to help explain to my colleagues how I prefer to communicate, what I may struggle with and to explain some of my behaviours to clear any assumptions that may be had.

Because of this support, I have felt enabled at work and am able to be open about both my struggles and more importantly what my autism does to make me special.