On Autism Awareness Day we are delighted to share an interview with Marion who works at Blists Hill Victorian Town, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. In the interview we talk about what it means to be an autistic heritage professional and what it is like to be the ‘human version of an interpretation panel’!
Marion talks about the skills autistic staff can bring and highlights the importance of not just implementing inclusive recruitment practices but thinking about how you support staff in the workplace post appointment.
Tell us a bit about yourself –
At the time of writing in March of 2022 I’m 31 years old, and although I’m a native of Dudley I’ve recently moved across the border into Shropshire. I’ve been working in museums since 2017, having spent a year at another museum before finding my way to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust (IGMT). There I work at the Trusts flagship site, the open-air museum Blists Hill Victorian Town as a Visitor Engagement Demonstrator. On top of this I’ve recently concluded a 10-month long secondment during which I occupied the position of Visitor Engagement Team Leader. I was diagnosed in June of 2020.
Tell us a bit about what it means to you to be autistic –
Being autistic is for me is a bit of a paradox. It’s synonymous with struggle as much as it is resilience. Autistic people are often as strong as they can be delicate in certain aspects. I can be incredibly resistant to change, yet also astonishingly adaptable. Inane things affect me so much deeper and so much more obviously that my neurotypical counterparts, and that makes life understandably more challenging and immensely lonely at times, which is why I think it’s so important to advocate for yourself, if not others on the spectrum. The more understanding there is, the better those around you will be able to relate, accept, and accommodate not only you, but also those that are not at a point where they feel they can disclose or advocate for themselves.
If I had to describe my lived experience as an Autistic person to others, I would liken it to being an alien. You were designed to look outwardly the same as all of those others around you, and yet you have a completely different operating system. Sometimes it aligns with what is expected by those around you, other times your idiosyncrasies alert them to the fact that you’re ‘different’ in some way, even if it’s subtle. You’ll always get the feeling that you’re just going through the motions to look the part, unable to indulge in certain behaviours that feel the most natural to you for fear of judgement, ridicule, perhaps danger. You’ll suffer a myriad of discomforts that others don’t think twice about, all for the sake of trying to appear ‘normal’, to not cause a fuss. And you might do well, you might pass as allistic (non-autistic), and people would never comment on your odd foibles, or strange habit of say, turning the office lights off all of the time. But you’ll always be aware that something isn’t quite the same. You’ll always have a pervading, niggling worry about it in the back of your mind that you just don’t quite belong.
I think this is why having labels is so important, despite a common push in recent years to avoid labelling people. However, labels come from a form of identity and they can really help you ‘find your tribe’, giving a real sense of community where they might never have been one before. During my diagnosis journey I was often asked why I wanted to pursue something that would just ‘label me’, probably negatively. The answer was simple. Because the labels I had were wrong, and not indicative of the experiences that I had gone through, or the type of person I was…The things I enjoyed, or the things I struggled with because of my neurotype. It can be very invalidating to try and take that away from people. And for those that are able to acquire support, in whatever fashion in comes, it’s even more essential knowing that you have a label on your side.
You work as the Visitor Engagement Team Leader at Blists Hill Victorian Town – tell us
about your role –
I mentioned that I’ve technically had 2 roles during my time with the IGMT. As Visitor Engagement Demonstrator I’m the human version of an interpretation panel essentially! I’m there to facilitate the visitor experience as they move around the site, helping them fully immerse themselves in to the experience of traveling back in time. Through stories and sharing information I help them connect with the unique environment that the museum offers, its objects, people, and histories. I tend to work mostly in the museums Artisan exhibits, which include the Printers, Plasterers and Candlemakers, as well as our Mine Train experience. I’m also the museums first female steam driver, which has seen me driving our replica of the world’s first steam locomotive, and the sites historic winding engine amongst others.
As Visitor Engagement Team Leader I took a step up in helping to run the site on a day-to-day basis. I was mostly responsible for working on the ground with the rest of the team, making sure everyone had everything they needed to do their jobs, and assisting with any issues that might occur during the day. I did have an office based component too, mostly consisting of liaising with other departments, staff, and tending to external queries where necessary. I also found myself getting involved in the museums TikTok antics too!
Has the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust made any adjustments to support you in your
In terms of support offered to me at work, I consider myself very lucky that I don’t require much at all really, mostly because I was fortunate in the places I was trained. Perhaps the greatest understanding that has been shown towards me is being allowed to pass over training in certain exhibits in which I know I would struggle, such as those that are retail based, and have a heavy focus on numeracy, which is something I have always struggled with. It’s especially tricky due to our use of token Victorian coinage which further adds to the anxiety. I know the cash handling and busy environments are something that other neurodiverse people in the team worry about a lot too, and things like doubling up on staff during busy periods, or moving into quieter exhibits have been offered to them which I think are really positive steps.
I think a massive benefit of the particular community we have at work means that if needed I could approach a number of people within the management team and feel that my needs and concerns would not only be taken seriously, but be actioned upon, and that my best interests were a high priority. This is very valuable to me, as many other previous workplaces have not given me the confidence to do this, or taken me seriously when I have.
Do you think being autistic brings any advantages in your current role and are there any
I think the biggest advantage that being autistic offers to me in the workplace is my ability to retain information and articulate it back to people. I essentially get paid for talking about my special interests all day, which is autistic heaven really! I play into the stereotypical notion of the ‘autistic sponge’, and I’ll happily spend hours researching what others might consider to be inane information if it enables me to do my job better, and give visitors a real depth of knowledge. Obviously this is only really helpful in a very specific number of niches, thankfully also the one I’ve ended up in, but it means I can also offer my most at work.
In terms of challenges, there are a few, mostly related to people. A lot of folks consider it strange that an autistic person who might typically be framed as not enjoying communication with strangers, and who might struggle with interpersonal communication, has a role like mine. And although most of the time visitors are happy to listen and interact on the intellectual, informative level I generally tend to occupy at work, there are others who bring humour or sarcasm into things, which I don’t typically understand well from strangers. I think on occasions I’ve probably offended or confused people by not laughing at their jokes and witticisms, and sometimes it can be hard to read how a visitor wants to be interacted with. It’s rare, but it always makes me feel almost utterly incapable of being a human when it happens.
A lot of things that have typically been an issue for me in other settings are largely of the modern age, and as I live out my working days in the past effectively, a lot of them can be negated. Typically though difficulty can be presented by things such as intense white light and LED lighting, invasive noises such as keyboards, radios, electrical equipment and other people to mention but a few, the presence and prevalence of smells, even the colour of walls or furnishings can prove difficult. And that’s not to mention the sensory hell that is the open plan office! I consider myself very lucky that I don’t have to navigate these anymore.
One of the biggest difficulties is with clothing. My role means I’m wearing reproduction Victorian costume every day, and while it’s one of my favourite parts of the job, it can come with a host of sensory issues. Is the material of a particular item going to be uncomfortable for me? Is the cut of it going to feel too tight against my neck, or anywhere else that might stress me out? Do I need to wear layers underneath, and how will that affect me? My shawl is wool, but is it the ‘good’ (soft) type of the ‘bad’ (itchy) type? Are the trousers I sometimes wear – that are designed for men and held up solely with braces – intensely difficult to deal with sometimes? This is something I’m very keen to see addressed as an issue because it’s hitherto been overlooked, and I know others are affected by it too.
Communication skills are often an area where autistic people can struggle but these
skills are essential for visitor engagement, have you got any tips on how someone might
improve their communication skills?
Some autistic people are much better at communication than others, that goes without saying, and being somebody that doesn’t really struggle in this way I’m not sure how far this advice will go really, but in terms of oral communication, practice. Watch videos of people talking about similar subjects to the things you might need to talk about. Listen carefully to the changes in their voice as they go, and what causes that and as ask yourself what emotions are being considered. Talk to yourself about a topic, or anything at all really. Practice playing with your voice; The tone, inflection, and pitch.
Eye contact is something I struggle with often. I tend to find the trick is in looking past somebody, or at a point on their face like their ears, that take the pressure of the intense eye contact that can be given by neurotypicals. They can’t tell, for the most part, and would probably never say anything to you even if they had an inkling!
What advice have you got to employers who want to recruit more autistic people?
I really believe if employers are serious about encouraging neurodiverse individuals it’s vital that they aren’t just trying to tick boxes in their recruitment process by making people ‘diversity hires’ without any intention of supporting them once they’re through the door. They also need to shake ingrained assumptions about what makes a candidate present well during the interview stage. Eye contact, for example. Not something that autistic people generally give for extended periods of time, but drastically effects how people perceive us in interviews. I think a move towards more alternative methods of interview such as video calls, or written interviews might be a good way to open up the opportunities to people who struggle with presenting in person.
Additionally, I think it’s pointless encouraging people to apply unless they’re ready then to support them in the workplace if needed. It’s really essential that you have systems in place to accommodate the unexpected. You never know what form anyone’s issues might come in. I would encourage managers not to be dismissive, but foster an environment where everything is taken seriously, and they work with their employees to come to a suitable and workable solution to anything problematic.
Awareness and EDI training lead by reputable companies, and/or those involving the neurodiverse lived experience is essential for the allistic (non-autistic) workforce first and foremost. They need to have a good grounding of what it looks like to be an autistic adult in order to better understand the needs of their neurodiverse peers without said peers necessarily having to disclose or explain. This might sound derivative or patronising, but the reality is people don’t really know what to expect from us a lot of the time. They need to be aware of the terminology to use or to avoid if discussing autism, and the kinds of things that sound well meaning, but are actually quite offensive or demeaning, such as ‘Oh but you don’t look autistic’. It’s a minefield and outside of the autistic community there’s almost no awareness of these issues, at least in my experience.
How important is it for museums to think about welcoming autistic audiences?
I think it’s really important. I know a lot of institutions have things along the lines of ‘quiet sessions’ where people – although mostly families and particularly children -are encouraged to visit during a time where things are generally toned down, and while I absolutely and wholeheartedly support the good that they do in offering more vulnerable people access to sites, as an autistic adult something just doesn’t quite sit comfortably with me. What about the people whose lives don’t align with these sessions? It’s almost as if we’re only allowed to exist when it suits an organisation or company and that we aren’t welcome the rest of the time. I feel that it’s rather ironically, quite exclusionary, and that measures should be made to assist autistic people with their sensory needs all of the time.
I’ve heard of things like badges that people can opt to wear that signal they’re autistic, prefer not to hold eye contact, need to lip read and suchlike. I think if the workforce has the right training and ability to understand what these signal in practice, they can work well, allowing employees and potentially other visitors to adapt to the requirements of the autistic visitor if needed. The provision of ear plugs, and maps with sensory information marked are fantastic. Providing video tours of the site for visitors online before they even make their choice to visit is something I personally would love to see more of. When the world holds a lot of anxieties for the neurodiverse brain, having the option to really familiarise yourself with the environment you want to travel to has massive benefits towards opening up accessibility. There’s a lot of things that could be done, I think organisations just need to think out side the box, and consult with specialists who can open that proverbial box for them.
What do you think autistic staff and volunteers can offer the heritage sector?
There’s a lot of (perhaps somewhat stereotypical) characteristics that a lot of us possess that make us great for the heritage sector. Some examples might be; The ability to retain a vast and extensive knowledge on topics, refined observational ability and attention to detail make us very good curators, educators and specialists. Our creativity makes us adept designers, interpreters and events planners. High empathy levels often make us good, relatable managers too.
It’s amazing what qualities good management and the right levels of support can bring out in Autistics. A lot of the time we’re not even aware of what our real skills and talents are until we’re in that nurturing, safe environment, and while I think the heritage sector still has some way to go, it’s already 100 times more suitable for fostering autistic staff than many other industries are, and the potential for autistic staff to enrich and drive a heritage organisation forward in whatever position they’re in is great.
Did you have a favourite museum you visited as a child?
I wasn’t a very well-travelled child, but I remember visiting Blists Hill on a school trip when I was 13 or 14. I don’t recall much, other than stuffing myself full of freshly baked bread. I was also given a business card by the machine printer who’s presses I had admired, and he told me that if I wanted a job, to come back when I was older. That visit was really special to me because that job offer always stayed in my head, even as an adult, labouring and suffering in unsuitable positions I’d think about it. I still have the business card to this day! It took me a while to find my way back, but eventually that same man ended up training me in the print shop all those years later. I think it has to go down as my favourite because of the predestined nature of it all.
You can find out more about Blists Hill Victorian Town here – https://www.ironbridge.org.uk/explore/blists-hill-victorian-town/