If you haven’t heard the news (and quite frankly where have you been?) that the Black Country Living Museum is a TikTok sensation. With over 1 million followers on TikTok the museum is connecting to younger audiences in ways that other museums can only dream of. Who is behind this success? Abby Bird, their marketing and communications whizz! Abby also happens to be autistic.
In this our first ever interview with an autistic museum professional Abby shares with us what it means to her to be autistic, the advantages and challenges that can bring in the workplace and her advice to the heritage sector on how they can recruit and retain neurodiverse staff.
1 – Tell us a bit about yourself …
So I’m 31 years old, and currently living in Birmingham (so not from the Black Country, this is an important distinction to make for reasons I am yet to understand).
I’ve been working in museums for 8 years or so, and have been working at the Black Country Living Museum for 7 years.
2 – You are the first autistic museum professional Autism in Museums has interviewed, tell us a bit about what it means to you to be autistic.
Autism is a pervasive developmental condition – meaning, you’re born with it, and it impacts every aspect of who you are including the way you think, behave and see the world. I’ve been autistic since birth – ever since I was neatly categorising dinosaurs into their correct geological periods, or remembering every single dog breed and their characteristics by rote – so being autistic is a core part of my identity. Put another way, I really don’t know what it’s like to not be autistic.
The best way I can describe autism is sort of like being a traveller in a foreign country. No matter how hard I try, there are certain values, certain ways of doing things, behaving and speaking that are simply not natural or native to me. If you were forced to spend the rest of your life in China, for example, given a decade or so, you could probably learn the language decently well. You could learn and understand the culture, and could probably mimic the values, norms, customs and behaviours pretty well. But it would always feel foreign to you in some sense, and to natives, there would always be something recognisably different about you, no matter how good an actor you were. For me, that’s autism.
I’m well aware of the stereotypes that exist about autistic people, but, it’s important to remember that the theories and science that explain autism are changing, and many old-fashioned ideas about autistic people are being (thankfully) dismantled. One such theory is the idea that autistic people lack ‘theory of mind’ – that is, they have an impaired ability to empathise and that this is what causes communication issues. This idea about autistic people is pervasive, harmful, scientifically irreplicable, and from my own personal experience – just not true. Increasingly, the ‘double empathy problem’ is being put forward to fill in for this inaccuracy in thinking about autistic people – it states that when people with very different experiences of the world interact with one another, they will struggle to empathise with each other. So you might say the communication deficiencies go both ways. After all, you wouldn’t describe someone who grew up in China but came to live in the UK as ‘impaired’ because their way of viewing and understanding the world is different to yours. Many autistic people, myself included, are starting to question the idea that being autistic is inherently an ‘impairment’ in the strictest and truest sense of the word. So being autistic to me means being not inherently deficient or ‘wrong’, but just a bit different. A variation, if you will.
Someone once asked me “if you could get rid of your autism, would you?” and I think the honest answer is no. Perhaps neurotypical people find autistic people curious, and that’s understandable. But for what it’s worth – in nicest way possible – I sometimes find non-autistic people quite curious, too! So to me, being autistic is not better or worse, just different.
3 – You work at the Black Country Living Museum as a Communications Manager – tell us about your role.
My role is pretty varied, though recently it’s been streamlined so I look mostly after social media, as that’s where the role and my skillset has naturally taken me. So I effectively lead on all of our social media content, including TikTok but also all of the other channels too. My goal for this post is to try and bring together all of the expertise within the BCLM to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. At the same time, I’m also keen to ensure that everything we do has our audiences at the heart of it, and I’m pretty relentless in that pursuit. You’ll often find me asking “wait, is this interesting?” and I have a pretty good instinct for knowing what’s broadly interesting and what isn’t, and how to make the seemingly ‘boring’ have appeal online. As if that wasn’t enough, I also have to balance all of these considerations with our goal to get people through the door, and sometimes it is a very fine balancing act indeed.
4 – Has the BCLM made any adjustments to support you in your role?
Some of the adjustments I’ve had made include flexible working – so that means either coming in slightly later or working from home entirely. I also have access to a quiet room which I can book as and when needed, which is super helpful.
On top this, for the most part, there is an understanding that there are some things that I need extra time for and that it’s not just me ‘trying to be difficult’. It’s a small thing, but a basic level of empathy and understanding can go a long, long way.
5 – Do you think being autistic brings any advantages in your current role and are there any challenges?
As I mentioned previously, as an autistic person, the challenges I face are constant and non-stop, both in the workplace and outside of it. But with a good support network, as well as practice, planning, and some minor adjustments, carrying out my full time role successfully is very doable for me personally. But it’s also important to understand that some autistic people will never be able to work in an office environment at all – and that’s also okay.
Big challenges include sensory overstimulation and processing – strong lighting, loud noises or strong smells are impossible for me to tune out, so open plan working can be quite difficult, as are scenarios where multiple are talking.
Like most autistic people, I tend to be quite literal in the way I communicate and I sometimes struggle to understand sarcasm or recognise jokes, for example, or to inherently just ‘know’ when a conversation is over. My preference is to just literally be told that a conversation is over, but most people dislike doing that as they don’t want to be rude. So I do try my best to meet people halfway – to pay more attention to the signs, to soften my language and to use the right body language. Like most autistic people, I do this by using mental scripts or checklists that I have memorised.
Inevitably, because it’s not ‘native’ to me, mistakes are made, but I try to be as open as possible and approach situations with understanding, compassion and honesty.
Ultimately, as an autistic person, you tend to find yourself adjusting the way you like to do things more so than a neurotypical person adjusts the way they like to do things. The fact is, autistic people – and their way of thinking and doing things – are not in the majority. And so my philosophy is ‘when in Rome’. Some people can find such high levels of what we refer to in the autistic community as ‘masking’ quite difficult – and at times I do, but this is simply part of being autistic.
What I also find quite personally challenging is the lack of understanding around autism. Many people think it’s a mental health condition, or it’s something that can be cured or ‘changed’ with enough practice. Yet, if we applied the same logic to people who, for example, used wheelchairs, it would be deeply offensive and ableist. I try to educate people as best I can but sometimes it can be really difficult. How do you tell people that someone sipping from a can 30ft away means that you now can’t hear them properly? How do you explain that sitting in traffic for an hour is not just miserable (like it is for most people), but physically painful because of the high levels of sensory overload? It all just sounds nuts.
When it comes to autism, I try to focus on the positive aspects, of which, in my opinion at least, there are plenty.
For example, autistic people tend to inherently have a very good understanding of systems and how things ‘fit together’, noticing small details and patterns that others may miss. Whilst it’s important to be able to see the big picture, in my opinion, the devil is absolutely in the detail. That’s often why I have such a hard time explaining why the Museum’s social media content has been so astoundingly successful. I can’t explain the process in a way that would make total sense to you, I just know what will work because I’ve studied it, pulled it apart, tested, failed, tested again, theorised. That way of thinking and working would bore the living daylights out of most neurotypical people, but to autistic people, it’s quite natural and normal, especially when focussed on a special interest.
It might seem strange for an autistic person to work in communications or marketing at first glance, but I think it’s actually quite a natural fit. After all, autistic people spend a great deal of time working out what other people are thinking and feeling, and adjusting the way they communicate to suit different styles and to achieve certain outcomes. This is an essential skill for someone working in a comms or marketing role, and in my experience, just because someone is charismatic, naturally charming and warm, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are able to put their own way of thinking to one side. Newer research is showing that autistic people are, in fact, quite good at doing this, especially when it is logical to do so.
6 – Have you got an advice for autistic people who want a career in heritage or marketing?
I don’t think there’s any sector specific-advice I would give, to be honest, certainly nothing that hasn’t been extensively covered elsewhere. But my biggest piece of career advice to autistic people in general would be: just be kind to yourself. At the end of the day, your brain works differently, and there’s only so much of that you can control. It’s best to lean into all the things that makes being autistic unique and special, so work to your strengths, rather than against them, and know that most people’s views and thoughts on autism come from a place of misunderstanding, not malice. So, with kindness, honesty and authenticity, help them to understand. From my experience, most people are not unreasonable and are willing to listen and help you out.
I would also say that it’s important to remember that autism is a disability, and is a legally protected characteristic. As such, you are entitled to reasonable adjustments if you need them – but on the flipside, it’s also your responsibility to advocate for yourself. So don’t be shy or embarrassed in asking for those adjustments to be made. In my experience, most people are actually more than willing to make them. The trick is recognising what you need and trialling new ways of working until you get to a place where all parties are happy.
Also, part of being a self-advocate is about setting boundaries, too. Unfortunately, it’s likely that you’re going to face discrimination from time-to-time. Because autism is an invisible disability, there is a tendency to take it less seriously than other disabilities. Sometimes that discrimination is obvious and easy to spot – for example, when people openly deny that autism even exists, or imply that it can be caused by a vaccine (and therefore be cured), or use ‘autistic’ as a slur. Sometimes, that discrimination is more insidious. My advice is to deal with such things head on, in a friendly, polite but direct way.
7 – What advice have you got to employers who want to recruit more autistic people?
In my opinion, there are quite a few things that we can do as recruiters and employers to ‘level the playing field’ for autistic people.
For me, it starts with training and workshops around not just disabilities, but around diversity in general. As human beings, we are all the same deep down in many ways, but we all have things that make us unique – whether that’s our cultural background, our religion, our age, or a disability. I know a lot of people get frustrated at identity politics, but for someone who thinks differently, or who has been raised differently, a little understanding, tolerance and open-mindedness can mean the world. In particular, it’s about understanding that often what we view as ‘professional office behaviour’ is actually just the values and ideas of dominant culture (that is white, Western, cisgender, middle-class and neurotypical) writ large.
If you belong to this cohort, you may not realise this, but these values and ideas about what it means to be a professional permeate absolutely everything, from the way you’re expected to dress, and to speak, and to behave. This can make it difficult for people who don’t fit neatly into these categories to get on in an office to varying degrees. Many people who don’t fit in end up ‘masking’ or ‘code-switching’ to appear polite and professional within the dominant culture, and this can be exhausting, and in my view, unnecessary.
So continuing regular diversity training, and continuing to explore and understand the idea that there are multiple ways to be professional and successful, is essential. We all have biases and prejudices – it’s part of being human – but it’s our responsibility to address, acknowledge and dissect them. As part of this, I think it’s really important to hear the personal experiences of people from different backgrounds share their stories, their values, their triumphs and their struggles – making that connection between people is how we foster understanding.
For autistic people in particular, there are some really simple adjustments we can put in place. For example, starting with the interview process, be open to offering up all or some of the questions beforehand if appropriate, or consider conducting the interview in a more suitable sensory environment if practical. When it comes to the work environment, be aware that open offices can be especially difficult for autistic people, and so having quiet rooms available or offering flexible working solutions, or working from home, can be a life saver.
When it comes to planning workload, it’s as simple as asking, “how do you like to work?” and “what things do you find difficult?”. Depending on an autistic person’s particular strengths and weaknesses, it may take them a bit longer to do things, and so if we can compensate for that by giving extra time or transferring work load, we absolutely should. But also, I think that this is something we should be doing for everyone, autistic or not, because we all need different things to be happy at work.
It would also be nice, I think, if employers would be more up front about flexible working and a willingness to adjust to neurodivergent people’s needs. So I would advise to put that you’re willing to do or consider all of these things in your job description – it can be the difference between an autistic person applying or not!
8 – How important is it for museums to think about welcoming autistic audiences?
Extremely, but it needs to start with a solid understanding of what autism is and how it can impact people. Otherwise, saying something like, “autistic people can’t wait in queues like other people” can sound a bit odd. From my experience, there are some really simple measures that we can put in place to make museums more autism friendly and they include providing as much information as possible on your website beforehand, so autistic people and their carers can plan out their day; opening early or later and providing ‘quiet hours’; making it clear on your website where certain points in the museum journey may be overwhelming sensorily speaking so autistic people can avoid them; providing priority access to exhibitions or queues; or simply providing more training to staff as to how to communicate to neurodiverse people – for example, by asking permission as to whether or not someone would like more information about an exhibit.
It’s important to remember that 1 in 100 people (and possibly even more) are autistic, so this is quite a large audience to miss out on by not making minor and easy changes! I think there’s quite a good business case for it.
9 – What do you think autistic staff and volunteers can offer the heritage sector?
Autistic people have so much to offer any sector that they choose to work in! Autism is so often described in deficits, and while each autistic person is unique, we each offer a lot of positives too. For example, autistic people often have an insanely meticulous attention to detail, the ability to focus for long periods of time, keen observation skills, the ability to absorb and retain information very quickly, and not to mention a great deal of tenacity. Autistic people tend to be strangely good at challenging the status quo in good faith (how else do you think the BCLM’S TikTok account happened?)
Also, I might be biased (in fact, I definitely am), but I actually find that when they’re happy and feel comfortable, autistic people are truly hilarious – in a quirky, deadpan, oh-my-god-did-you-really-just-say-that type of way.
Personally, I think these are all positive things – but this is where you’ll probably find autistic and neurotypical norms diverge quite a bit…
10 – Did you have a favourite museum you visited as a child?
Funny you should say that, because I literally was fascinated by BCLM. Some might say it was fate…
If you are an autistic heritage professional and would like to get in touch with Abby Autism in Museums is happy to pass on your details in confidence. Email us on firstname.lastname@example.org
You can hear more about BCLM TikTok success in this interview with Abby Bird in the For Arts’ Sake Podcast – https://forartsake.co.uk/abby_bird/
More coverage on BCLM TikTok success here –
Black Country Living Museum to feature in TikTok marathon, BBC News, 15th May 2021 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-57126479
How the Black Country Living Museum became TikTok famous, ITV News, 14th December 2020, https://www.itv.com/news/central/2020-12-14/how-the-black-country-living-museum-became-tiktok-famous
How a Dudley museum became a TikTok sensation, Guardian, 13th December 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/dec/13/how-a-dudley-museum-became-a-tiktok-sensation