Working in archaeology as an autistic person – a personal view

Hi, I’m Jacky, I’m one of Cotswold Archaeology’s Senior Finds Officers. I’m based in the Kemble Office near Cirencester and have been with the company for almost nine years.

Autism Awareness day Jacky with tranchet adze

Q: What is your background in archaeology?

A: I did my archaeology degree at Queen’s University, Belfast, which is where I’m from. My Masters degree followed, in Palaeolithic Archaeology from the University of Southampton. That included a double module on the study of lithics, which is flint tools and the waste products from their manufacture.

Q: What are your interests and specialisms?

A: At Cotswold Archaeology all of the finds staff work on a number of different finds types, including things like pottery, lithics, ceramic building material (brick and tile), glass and clay tobacco pipe. My main specialism is lithics and I report on lithic assemblages from evaluations and excavations across the company. However, I spend most of my time working with Roman pottery, the most commonly found artefact type.

Q: When did you find out you are autistic?

A: I realised I’m autistic less than two years ago, at the age of 51. One of the things that prompted the realisation that I am properly different from most people was that I had two annual appraisals in a row which included a lot of negative feedback on my communication.

Q: What did colleagues say about your communication?

A: Colleagues said that sometimes I could be ‘brusque’ and ‘abrasive’, which came as a big shock to me! I have since discovered that I have a typically autistic communication style, which is straightforward and to the point. I don’t beat about the bush or hint about things, and I don’t tend to include preamble or filling in my communications. My emails can seem a little odd to some colleagues as they generally just include whatever information I need to convey, and nothing else. My next appraisal included lots of positive feedback, particularly on my communications being focused and to the point!

Q: How did you get a diagnosis, and how did the company respond to it?

A: The waiting list for an NHS assessment for autism in most counties is at least two years. I decided to get assessed privately so I could request reasonable accommodations at work as a disabled person – autism is classed as a developmental disability. As soon as I was diagnosed, I emailed my colleagues to tell them of my diagnosis, let them know the specific ways it affects me, and suggested ways in which they could support me at work. I received very positive, supportive emails in response from a lot of my colleagues.

Q: Which autistic traits are not helpful in your job?

Jacky giving a talk

A: As I’ve already said, communications have been a problem for me at work in the past. Now that colleagues know to expect my direct communication style, this is less of an issue. However, like most autistic people, after I have written an email I spend time going over it, making sure I am expressing myself clearly and won’t come across as curt.

It is common for autistic people to provide what allistic people consider to be too much information: we need all the information to understand something, so we then provide a similar level of information to others to make sure, as much as possible, that we are being fully understood.

In verbal communication autistic people often interrupt, which certainly applies to me. I know this is irritating and I don’t like being interrupted either! The main reason we interrupt is because we have a short working memory so if we don’t say the thing as soon as we think of it, we are likely to forget it straight away.

When being given information autistic people usually need it to be explicitly clear and unambiguous, so that expectations are understood. Instructions on a task may need to mention what is to be excluded as well as what is to be included and are likely to need a clear end point – or we will keep doing the task until the cows come home!

A lot of autistics find it difficult to see the bigger picture. When I’m writing a report on artefacts I focus on the assemblage and can struggle to step back from the detail and put the assemblage into its wider context. The ‘discussion’ is the part of any report I find the most difficult to write – what the information from the finds means in terms of the site and the people who were using it.

Like many autistic people my brain processes sensory information differently to allistic people. Compared to most people I experience lights as brighter, sounds as louder and smells as stronger. This can be a problem in a shared office as my lighting needs are different to those of my colleagues (I wear a sun visor in the office) and I can’t filter out background noise. Many autistic people find noise-cancelling headphones helpful but they don’t really make any difference for me.

Q: How do your autistic traits help you in your job?

A: Most autistic people have one or more ‘special interests’. I think this is a gentle word for obsessions! Luckily for me one of my special interests is flints and working with them is of course a large part of my job.

‘Info dumping’ is another autistic trait: when we get onto one of our special interests and talk about it for longer than would be expected, which some people can find intense or boring. However, I get to do it as part of my job, giving training talks on flints to colleagues and work experience students. Now that I’m aware that I’m autistic I try to make sure I break information down into manageable chunks.

‘Hyperfocus’ is another typical autistic trait where we can zoom in on something really intensely and keep doing it for hours. This can be useful when working on a large finds assemblage.

Most autistic people also have good attention to detail. In my job this is helpful as I want to know every little detail about the flints I am recording, so I can extract as much information from them as possible. This can then inform the reader of my report about things like dating, technology and past activities.

Q: Finally, what advice would you give to someone who thinks that they might be autistic?

A: I would encourage anyone who suspects they are autistic to seek an assessment – the first step is usually through your GP. A diagnosis helps put a lot of past thinking and behaviour into context and helps you understand yourself and your needs better. Whether or not to disclose to friends and family, or at work, is a personal decision but it has been a positive one for me.

Jacky Sommerville

National Autistic Society

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