World Autism Awareness Day: 2 April
Colin Larkworthy, Clinical Trials Support Officer at the Jenner Institute, was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 38. He talks about his experiences of autism and love for his work
Autism is a spectrum condition characterised by difficulties with social communication, interaction and imagination. Autistic people can be unusually sensitive to sensory stimuli and may struggle with reading body language and following many of society’s unwritten rules.
This can lead to anxiety, depression and frustration.
Colin Larkworthy highlights that thinking differently can also lead to success
Individuals can coexist if we all – neurotypical and neurodiverse individuals – in clear minds, make a connection in a calm way with each other by communicating in a collaborative way, in the spirit of cooperation, whereby both individuals understand each other, with the correct content in context.
My brain is different from your brain. Your uniqueness is different from my uniqueness. I look at the detail first and then work backwards, towards the concept. I may need many examples of something before I can understand the broader point.
This may seem like a weakness, but it’s not. Bottom-up thinkers like me often excel in research and data analysis, fine arts, data entry, coding and developmental biology.
I work as a clinical trial support officer, and I like routine and structure. I do certain things at certain times. I’m a list man. I’m very proud and privileged to be part of the team that worked on the COVID-19 vaccine with Professor Sir Andrew Pollard and Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert.
I have a very black-and-white – literal – way of thinking. For example, if you tell me that you will get a task done by a certain time and then don’t deliver on time, I may get frustrated. This may present as an ‘over the top’, angry response, when in fact I am overwhelmed and can’t communicate that well. Being able to use calming behaviour strategies is key, such as those in the book Clear Time and 3C Pathway from Act for Autism by Morton and Gurnett. They help me to regulate my emotions better.
It is commonly said that autistic people don’t have empathy, but we do – we just show it differently.
What are the key challenges you have faced?
There is scientific evidence that about 80% of autistic people have one or more psychiatric conditions, for example depression or mood and behaviour disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorders (OCDs), tics and sleep disturbances. 50% have anxiety.*
Triggers are unique to individuals. For me, it is noise, which can be hard to deal with in an open-plan office. I left one job because it was too noisy, and I couldn’t cope.
Even having conversations can be overwhelming and draining at times. Sometimes I don’t want to discuss things. Just because I can talk doesn’t necessarily mean I want to. Just because I was OK yesterday doesn’t mean I am also OK today.
I have had depression and sleep deprivation and at times it has been a struggle.
Common communication issues
Say what you mean, say what you do and do what you say
Communication can be challenging, not just for the individual with the condition but also those around them – family, friends and work colleagues.
I may come over as being blunt or even rude. In fact, I am simply trying to be precise and to the point. If you feel that I am going round and round in circles, questioning everything – it’s just because I want to make sure that I get things right.
How can people help?
- Don’t force communication. Respect the choice that some individuals may not want to talk for periods at a time.
- Find other ways to interact, for example by email, with pre-recorded comments or using visual supports like PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System).
- Wait for as long as it takes – don’t rush the individual.
- Calm your emotions before explaining.
- Use key words and be prepared to repeat for clarity.
- Keep to your timings. If you say 5 minutes, then it is 5 minutes not 10. As a conversation runs over, anxiety can set in and ‘meltdowns’ could occur.
- For motivation, explain the functional importance of a task.
- Focus on key points and provide opportunities for initiation.
- Give time for the individual shift their attention from one task to the next.
- Be prepared to reframe questions until you are understood.
The support and understanding of colleagues
Personally, it’s so important for me to show that autistic and neurodivergent individuals, as well as people with mental health and other conditions and challenges, can be successful at work.
I am extremely blessed and lucky to be in the position that I’m in. I’m overwhelmed by the support that I have from my colleagues and my line manager – Mr Ian Poulton at the Centre for Clinical Vaccinology and Tropical Medicine (CCVTM) and the Jenner Institute under Professor Sir Adrian Hill. Gary Strickland has been extremely kind and compassionate about my special interests in autism, neurodiversity, equality and inclusion, as have Professor Sian Gronile, Dr Laura Seymour and Joel Casey, who are doing phenomenal work on the Neurodiversity project.
I am on the Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Working Group for the Nuffield Department of Medicine, where I hope to instigate learning, development and policy change for more education and research in adult autism. Thank you to Clare Worland and Elena McPhilbin for their encouragement in this project. I am working on EDI education for staff and students, not just about autism but encompassing many other conditions and challenges too.
I’m hoping to be with the University until I retire. That is what I would love.
* Ainsworth et al, 2020; Lever & Geurts, 2016; Russel et al, 2013
Colin has a collaborative website: What You Aut To Know. You can email him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter @youauttoknow.
Colin is planning equality, diversity and inclusion talks during Trinity term. Please see the Nuffield Department of Medicine website for news.
Can be. Can do. Just different
- Occupational Health Service
- Equality and Diversity Unit
- Nuffield Department of Medicine
- Neurodiversity at Oxford
- Oxfordshire Adult Autism Diagnostic Service
- Act for Autism (supporting and empowering people involved with autism)
- Access to Work: get support if you have a disability or health condition
- Personal Independence Payment (PIP)