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"Autism is not bad, it's just difficult. It's exhausting. I wouldn't change it for the world though"

To celebrate Autism Acceptance Week, and ahead of World Autism Day, we spoke to Super Operator and recipient of Vaultex’s Productivity Hero at our 2021 Hero Awards ceremony Ruth Middlemas. Ruth opens up about her journey to an Autism diagnosis, living with the condition day-to-day, and how it affects and helps her working in the cash industry: 

The best way I’ve ever heard Autism described: it’s like living in a glass box, you can see the world and kind of hear it, but you can’t fully make out what’s going on.

Growing up, something just didn’t seem to fit. It was as though I just didn’t feel a part of the world I lived in.

Journey to diagnosis

From a very young age, I always preferred my own company and I never seemed to have the same interests as my peers. I was the tomboy, playing football and had love for a certain little blue hedgehog. Then in my teenage years I was obsessed with music and making friends was never at the top of my list. A pair of headphones and a good song was all that I needed.

So growing up as a female in the 90s and going to 8 different schools (5 of which were secondary!) by the time I was 16 I hadn’t had any consistency with education and teachers.

Autism was the thing that boys had, not girls. No one was paying attention to the me, actually no one was paying attention to the girls, we were all too busy mastering the art of masking, trying out hardest to fit in. So for years we just slipped through the cracks. Struggled on. Forever wondering why we just didn’t seem to “get it”.

By the time I was 16, the internet opened my eyes. I was able to connect with people. Socialise. Be me without limits. But this didn’t help me in the real world.

I started college and was still quiet and shy. I made friends but they always seemed to be just so different to me. Life moves on and you just try to go with it.

When I was 20 my youngest brother was 6 and really struggling. He had issues both at home and school. It was at this point when I first realised what Autism was. This is when everything made sense. That lightbulb moment. I wasn’t an alien after all.

But what support was there for me as a young female in my early 20s? Very little.

It took me another 10 years of talking it through in my head and encouragement from my amazing wife. Finally, I reached out for a diagnosis. And surprise, surprise the test came back positive. I’m Autistic. One of the happiest moments of my life. The relief was the acknowledgement that after 34 years of wondering why I felt so different had a name, it was AUTISM and it was OK.

But the world still has a long way to go.

Living with Autism day-to-day

There’s not a day I don’t struggle with something. Home, work, shopping, and all things in between. Anxiety being the biggest issue and a lot of that comes from my sensory issues.

I could be standing in line at a checkout, I hear every beep at the till, there’s a screaming baby 3 aisles away, the woman in front of me is wearing really strong perfume, I can feel my sock twisted in my shoe as well as the tag on my t-shirt rubbing against my neck. I stand there telling myself to stay calm, ‘it’s ok, you’ll be out soon’. Act “normal”, you tell yourself, as your fight or flight responses are trying to take over. You want to run and hide, but you also really want this bottle of milk you have in your hand because you want a cup of coffee when you get home.

Some supermarkets have brought in “autism hours”. Dimming lights, turning off the music and turning the beeping sound off at the tills. But why is this only an hour? Why isn’t this just standard? Surely these are things everyone would benefit from. And why is it 9am until 10am on a Saturday morning?

Life is like a constant internal tug of war that no one is aware of. It’s not seen. And for those of us that have got through 30+ years of life undiagnosed, our mask is normally so well rehearsed, we sometimes forget it’s on. Meaning we burnout quicker and life becomes exhausting.

And the burnout can be crippling. A five-day working week has such a negative effect on my autistic life. Being caught between a rock and a hard place. I enjoy my job and I need to pay bills. But this could mean on my two days off I can’t manage to do much depending on the week I’ve had.

With the bad also comes the good. The fact I’m not like anyone else. I’m unique, with my own set of skills that can actually help me in certain situations. I can notice patterns in life, which comes in very handy when trying to streamline things within Vaultex.

I mentioned the negative impacts of my noise sensitivity but there’s also positives. I can hear slight changes in the sound of machinery (great thing being a Super Operator, helping to identify issues) and I can pick out the calls of songbirds over heavy traffic, meaning I get to notice the magic of nature.

Working life at Vaultex

16 years ago I started working for Vaultex as a cashier. My autistic self thrived off trying to beat targets, doing the same processing role, day in, day out.

During my time I’ve worked in every department, learnt every processing role and had many different roles along the way before ending up as Advanced Super Operator.

I’ve managed to see the operation of a centre from every angle. I see what works and what doesn’t. And the areas in which improvements can be made. I have a high attention to detail and can hyper-focus/fixate on tasks and see them through to completion – so the repetitive nature of the business lends well to autistic people.

I’m very much a practical/visual learner, so anything that’s hands on, I’m probably going to pick up really well. Whereas sitting watching a screen, I’ll probably be more focused on listening to the aircon unit in the next room.

My management team have worked with me to make adjustments as cash centres are overwhelming places: loud, bright, crowded, full of smells – and initially, there wasn’t much in place for those that are struggling. Noise cancelling headphones help me cope with the sound of the machines, while a solid structure with rotas and giving me plenty notice of any changes stops any unexpected last-minute happenings that would send me into a meltdown.

Work has become one of my “special interests” – but with this comes such burnout. My safe haven, my sanctuary, also becomes my nightmare. I want to keep succeeding but some days I just can’t cope. It really is the double-edged sword. I wish I could turn it off, but I can’t. My focus doesn’t have an “off” switch, so I can be lying in bed thinking about how to make a process better or quicker. So, add burnout to the fatigue from masking all day, and my heightened senses in a busy cash centre, and all I want to do is run out of the door.

It’s these experiences that explains why I couldn’t have been happier to be crowned Productivity Hero at Vaultex’s Hero Awards in 2021. I was so proud that my hard work wasn’t going unnoticed.

Feeling different to everyone often makes you feel invisible but this put me right in the spotlight. I finally felt seen – and it’s probably my greatest working achievement to date.

Autism is not bad, it’s just difficult. It’s exhausting. I wouldn’t change it for the world though. I just wish my younger self had some idea of how to get to the age of 36 without it being such a battle.