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“All of the things I am good at are a result of being autistic. Not in spite of it.”

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A Day in the Career of… Fiona Ferris, Autism Advocate and Deputy CEO of As I Am Ireland.

 

What time do you usually get up and how do you start your day? 

My day would usually start around 6.45am. I’d love to say I am one of those people who jumps out of bed feeling energised and refreshed, but it can usually take me some time to get to sleep because I find it difficult to switch my brain off.

I wake my nine year old daughter up and help her get ready, before getting myself organised and starting the commute to work.

Three coffees later, I am ready for human interaction!

 

The academic side of things was never an issue for me, but navigating the social aspect and the sensory environment wasn’t possible.

 

Take us on a jaunt through your career to date…

When I left school I really had absolutely no idea what it was I wanted to do. I went to study Business Management in Queens University Belfast, but found the college experience to be so overwhelming.

The academic side of things was never an issue for me, but navigating the social aspect and the sensory environment wasn’t possible. I didn’t complete the degree and moved to Dublin in my early 20s.

It wasn’t long after I moved that I found out I was expecting my daughter. She was diagnosed with autism when she was two years old, which totally changed my path. I had to spend a lot of time working with her in those early days, trying to tap into my ability to think ‘autisticly’ to figure out how she saw and experienced the world around her.

When she started preschool I went back to study my degree in Early Childhood Teaching and Learning with Maynooth University. It was a totally different experience – small classes, all practical and assignment based. It felt as though I had been set up for success from the beginning.

 

In order to fit in or act ‘normal’, autistic girls learn to imitate what they’ve observed – which is why girls can be diagnosed much later than boys

 

When I graduated I had been managing a large creche, and then moved to manage a smaller part time preschool enabling me to tutor Special Needs courses in the evenings.

In September 2017 I saw the role of ‘Early Years Training Programme Co-ordinator’ advertised for AsIAm, an organisation I had admired for a number of years. I must have applied at least three times in the week applications were open. I was so happy when I heard I had been successful through the interview process, and started in November 2017.

 

Fiona Ferris As I Am Autism

My role involved researching and developing a training programme funded by Early Childhood Ireland that was specifically aimed at early years educators, to provide them with the skills and knowledge to support and include autistic children in their services. I delivered 36 training sessions in 19 weeks all around the country in what can only be described as an intense but amazing few months.

In January 2019 I was delighted to be appointed as Deputy CEO of AsIAm, overseeing the community team and working with a fantastic management team. So far, I am loving every second of it. 

 

While the rest of the class would be outside playing, I would much prefer to stay inside drawing and being alone – for me it was to recharge, so I could cope with the rest of the day.

 

Can you tell us about your own journey with autism and how that manifests itself in your life?

One of the things I probably get asked most is ‘How does autism affect you?’ I genuinely do not know how to answer this because I have no frame of reference, having never been neurotypical!

Looking back to when I was in school, it was usually a case that I had one very good friend who I understood and understood me, but was never really able to cope with or manage larger social situations or contexts.

While the rest of the class would be outside playing at break, I would much prefer to stay inside drawing and being alone. I enjoyed this time, and for me it was to recharge, so I could cope with the rest of the day.

 

I would say I was quite the social chameleon. While this can be a strength, it would lead to complete burnout.

 

Secondary school was much the same – academically there were no issues however I had to learn a lot of the information myself as sitting in a classroom with large numbers of people, where the lights are bright and you can hear people breathing, writing, chewing, coughing, and you’re meant to be able to focus on what the teaching is saying and writing on the board… well it just wasn’t possible!

Autistic girls are known for being fantastic social imitators. They are able to observe the characteristics and mannerisms of those around them, and in order to fit in or act ‘normal’ they imitate what they’ve observed – which is what can lead to girls not being diagnosed until much later than boys.

I would say I was quite the social chameleon. While this can be a strength, it would lead to complete burnout. In my early college days, there were times when I was unable to get out of bed or speak to anyone just because I had been masking my autism so intensely, or putting myself in situations that were unnatural to me. 

 

All of the things I am good at and can do, they are a result of being autistic. Not in spite of being autistic.

 

It wasn’t until around five years ago that I fully felt comfortable with my autistic self. I had spent so long hearing about all the deficits people talk about when they speak of autism, that it just wasn’t something I wanted to be associated with.

Yet, there I was, trying to be an advocate for my own daughter. I started to feel like a hypocrite. I was able to see all of the amazing things that she could do and the incredible way her brain works as a result of being autistic, and it helped me to look at my own abilities more positively and not be so hard on myself.

All of the things I am good at and can do, they are a result of being autistic. Not in spite of being autistic. 

 

There is a huge amount of social politics that surrounds adult friendships and relationships, and they just aren’t as apparent to me as they seem to be to everyone else.

 

Have you faced any barriers in your career as a result of your autism? If so, how have you tackled them?

One of the reasons I feel I was compelled to work in the Early Years sector is because you always know where you stand with children. Adults can be so confusing, and rarely say what they mean.

There is a huge amount of social politics that surrounds adult friendships and relationships, and they just aren’t as apparent to me as they seem to be to everyone else.

Working with children is a breath of fresh air. Children say what they mean, if they’re upset or happy, they show it. I find children so easy to understand especially in those early years.

In past jobs, the social politics of a workplace could feel like I was living on a foreign planet. I think working in management helped that, as I was able to do a job that created rules and structure while allowing myself to maintain a small bit of social distance from others.

 

Questions like, “Tell me about yourself?” or “Where do you see yourself in five years time?” They can be so vague and confusing if you are a literal thinker.

 

In AsIAm, it is probably the first workplace where I feel I can be totally, 100% me. I was so nervous in the lead up to the interview as it was something I really wanted, but also because the majority of interviews are not autism-friendly and set autistic people up for failure right from the beginning.

Questions like, “Tell me about yourself?” or “Where do you see yourself in five years time?” They can be so vague and confusing if you are a literal thinker.

Most interviews judge on your body language and your eye contact, which can be difficult to comfortably maintain when you’re autistic.

 

A few days before I went for my interview with AsIAm, I received an email with a picture of the interview room and of everyone who would be present. It said there wouldn’t be any trick questions.

 

A few days before I went for my interview with AsIAm, I received an email. In the email was a picture of the interview room and a picture of everyone who would be present. It told me I wouldn’t be judged on how I dressed, my eye contact or body language.

It said there wouldn’t be any trick questions, and if I needed anything rephrased to just ask. It also said that if I needed to turn off the projector after I had used it, that was no problem. This was one of my biggest concerns because the buzzing and the light from the projector can be uncomfortable and distracting. When I read this email, I knew for certain that this was somewhere I wanted to work.

 

The biggest barriers autistic people experience aren’t anything to do with autism, they are to do with how society chooses to respond to it.

 

What type of inequalities can autistic people experience in the workplace and how can employers work to address them?

One of the biggest barriers for inclusion in the work place comes from lack of understanding and how that impacts the judgement and attitudes of others.

The biggest barriers autistic people experience aren’t anything to do with autism, they are to do with how society chooses to respond to it.

Every autistic person will experience their differences in a totally different way, so the first step is not to assume that if you have met one autistic person you will know how to support another.

 

The best way to find out what an autistic employee might need from you as an employer, is to ask them or their advocate.

 

An autistic person will experience differences in the areas of Communication, Social Interaction, Social Imagination and Sensory Processing, however within those areas, the ways in which they experience their differences will be completely unique to that individual.

The best way to find out what an autistic employee might need from you as an employer, is to ask them or their advocate. Consult with them, and find out what will make their working life a bit more accessible.

Do they need to work in a quiet environment or with headphones on? Do they need to be able to have regular movement breaks? Perhaps commuting is difficult, and could they work on a slightly earlier or later schedule than other staff? Would a mentor or buddy system help them to transition into their role more successfully?

AsIAm provides training to employers and workplaces to help give them the knowledge and tools they need to support autistic employees. Some of the strengths that being autistic can present you with are loyalty, honesty, focus and attention to small detail. These are qualities that all employers want in their staff.

If workplaces make the effort to support an autistic employee, they could be the best employee they ever had.

 

You don’t need to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.

 

What’s the best bit of advice you’ve been given in your career?

“You don’t need to set yourself on fire to keep others warm”. This wasn’t so much career advice as it was life advice.

I have always had quite a strong sense of social justice, and what is right and wrong. I also feel that I see potential in people even when other people don’t seem to. A combination of these two things can be both a strength and a weakness.

I always want to help people, to do anything I can for them, especially if they are finding difficulty with something and I know I can help. This would go right back to when I was in school when I would allow other people to copy my homework or my tests so that they could do well, but ultimately end up in trouble for it myself.

 

Emails don’t expire, and I can still help that person. Tomorrow.

 

As an adult, in personal terms it could mean trying to maintain friendships or connections with people who were not good for me and that I did not benefit from, just because I was worried about anyone being upset with me.

In my career, as it is so centrally focused on something I have an emotional connection to and I am passionate about, I could be up into the early hours of the morning responding to messages and emails from anyone looking for support or help, leaving me in a position where I am less able to cope the next day.

I have learned over time that I can still be me and do these things, but sometimes put myself first. Emails don’t expire, and I can still help that person. Tomorrow.

Fiona Ferris Autism As I Am

 

How has your daughters journey with autism inspired the work you do?

It is everything about the work that I do. She inspired me to get into the field of work I do. She is one of the brightest, most intelligent and hilariously inappropriate people I have ever met and I want the world to be able to appreciate that kind of difference in people.

Children are the next generation, and if we can get them to embrace all kinds of difference at a young age, the next generation of autistic children and adults will not face the same kind of barriers they do today. 

 

The best way to manage my energy is to allow myself some quiet time – sleeping, having a few hours where I don’t speak, or giving myself time to stim

 

How do you relax and de-stress at the end of the day and during difficult periods? 

There can be some days where I have given a few talks in a row or have had to engage in more social interaction than I am able for that I find my energy crashes a bit.

I have found the best way to manage this is to allow myself some quiet time. This can be anything from sleeping, having a few hours where I don’t speak, or giving myself time to stim (autistic individuals usually engage in self stimulatory behaviour – stimming – which is characterised by repetitive or patterned movements such as rocking, jumping, flapping, pacing etc).

Self-care is so important for everyone, but it means something totally different to every person. You don’t need to be autistic to be able to advocate for your needs, and doing what you need to do to keep your mind healthy.

www.AsIAm.ie

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