Working for Acceptance: How I’m Thriving as an Autistic Engineer

Article by Charlotte Wessels

To mark Neurodiversity Celebration Week, engineer Charlotte Wessels charts her journey from outer space to somewhere she finally feels at home, and highlights the much sought after skills employees on the spectrum can bring to the engineering sector

DURING my school years, I spent a lot of time gazing up at the sky, hoping to see a spaceship coming to pick me up and take me back to my home planet. I was convinced that there had been a mistake at the inter-universal department of life, sending me to Earth. I could understand why that was possible, considering I looked very human and even shared the Earthly love for potatoes.

However, the only spaceship that ever appeared was my mom’s Honda Ballade with its pop-up lights, arriving to pick me up every day after school. Although it wasn’t the spaceship I expected, I was grateful to see that beige car approaching because attending school always left me exhausted. It wasn’t the academics that wore me out, but rather the people and their behaviours, which often seemed inconsistent and, in my opinion, “wrong” because they didn’t align with the guidelines I had formed in my head to understand human behaviour. These pesky humans frequently broke their own rules without any explanation or warning, leaving me feeling left out.

If that doesn’t convince you that I am autistic, then maybe this will: while the other kids were making mud pies in kindergarten, I was building towns with things like sewerage works, hospitals, mortuaries, and dams in the mud formed around the outside tap that I left running for the whole day – I thought that standing water wouldn’t meet the needs of my townspeople. It might surprise you to learn that I wasn’t diagnosed with autism spectrum condition until my mid-thirties in 2020. But if you’re following the developments in autism diagnosis, you won’t be surprised. You’ll know that only in recent years have clinicians and researchers started discussing the prevalence and presentation of autism in girls, and how it differs from the more commonly associated presentation in boys.

The typical understanding of autism is still the prevailing view in society: it’s a boy who keeps to himself, avoids eye contact, acts differently from social norms, and, if he speaks, does so in a pedantic manner, often repeating things he’s heard elsewhere. He also has a special interest, like trains, dinosaurs, or outer space. People who are familiar with this typical understanding of autism would expect the boy to also have some kind of extraordinary ability, as was the case with Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rain Man. That’s why I’m not surprised when people say, “But you don’t look autistic” when they find out. However, I do feel the need to explain it to them because it feels like they’re accusing me of lying. I’ve been told that’s not their intention at all. If you were to meet me, chances are you would describe me as anything but autistic: I’m an outgoing, talkative woman. I make plenty of eye contact, I respond appropriately during conversations, and my abilities are very ordinary.

In the 1980s, psychiatrist Lorna Wing and clinical psychologist Judith Gould observed that women and girls often exhibit different characteristics of autism compared to boys. They have the ability to conceal symptoms, internalising the pressure to appear “normal”. They can recognise societal expectations in terms of gender roles and social interaction, and then imitate them. Unlike boys, girls often do not express their discomfort outwardly. For example, in a loud environment, they might tightly clench their arms around themselves and say nothing. As they grow older, they develop depression, autoimmune disorders, and anxiety, whereas their male counterparts may have outbursts, meltdowns, and persistently avoid anything that makes them uncomfortable. These insights into the differences in presentation formed the basis for further research and the understanding of autism as a spectrum condition, where each individual’s symptoms are unique.

By being open about my autism and its impact on my life, I hope to change some people’s perspectives and make life a little easier for the next autistic person they encounter. Or even inspire someone to start their own journey of self-discovery in understanding their potential neurodivergence

A signal from outer space: receiving a diagnosis

These misconceptions about what autism looks like are the reason why I am open about my diagnosis. By being open about my autism and its impact on my life, I hope to change some people’s perspectives and make life a little easier for the next autistic person they encounter. Or even inspire someone to start their own journey of self-discovery in understanding their potential neurodivergence. This journey, from suspicion to diagnosis, self-acceptance, and even celebration, can only be described as incredibly challenging yet immensely rewarding. I still remember those first few months after discovering that I am on the spectrum; my life unfolded before my eyes like a movie. All the social situations that left me confused and questioning my own humanity suddenly made sense. It was as if the green screen and special effects were lifted, and I could see how effortlessly everyone else performed these complex social manoeuvres, while I struggled to hide my “quirkiness”.

I remember a moment after netball tryouts when I must have been about eight years old. I was standing on the side of the netball court after everyone had left, berating myself for some social faux pas that I managed to be aware of. I was begging myself to stop being me for once and just be like them. There was so much anger, frustration, and desperation in my heart at that moment. It is no surprise to me, then, to find out many years later that, although from the outside I had a very typical childhood, I now suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

By getting a diagnosis and having a kind therapist say to me: “Charlotte, you are not bad or broken, just different,” I was finally able to start the process of recovering and rediscovering myself as a quirky, curious, and intensely thoughtful and emotional person who has just as much right to stand in the sun as anyone else. Now that I understand myself and my needs, I can ask for help. This has led me to return to full-time employment, making me one of just 29% of adults with autism who are employed in the UK.

Learning to drive the Earth buggy

What is shocking about the above statistic is that in 2021, the percentage of disabled people in employment was 53.5%, while the percentage of non-disabled people employed sat at 81.6%. Examining these statistics, I also discovered that 19% of 21 to 24-year-olds with autism have degrees, compared to 24% for disabled adults. This gap is smaller than the gap between autistic adults and disabled adults who are employed. The answer to why people on the autism spectrum obtain degrees but struggle to secure jobs at the same rate is not difficult to find. All one needs to do is ask any individual on the spectrum about their experience of trying to find a place for themselves in the workplace.

From the bright lights in open-plan offices to the anxiety-inducing maze of office politics, the frustrating demand of employers for a range of “soft skills” rather than technical expertise, to the uncomfortable dress code and the painful requirement to be on camera for online meetings, corporate culture does not accommodate those who don’t conform. As a result, autistic individuals leave the economy, taking with them their unique knowledge, skills, and talents. No one benefits from this.

What employers, particularly those in the engineering sector, need to realise is that by making accommodations for autistic employees, they can tap into a pool of individuals who are known for their reliability, loyalty, attention to detail, and ability to identify mistakes that neurotypicals may overlook. We possess a substantial capacity for acquiring and retaining knowledge, and our resilience and resourcefulness are inbuilt because from day one, we have had to work exceptionally hard to navigate the challenges of “normal” life.

I recently attended the Royal Academy of Engineering’s conference on “Harnessing the Power of Diverse Thought”, and two key takeaways emerged as we discussed how engineering companies can create space for neurodiverse individuals. Firstly, there is a need to raise awareness and provide education to both employers and employees regarding autism and its manifestations. This includes fostering psychologically safe environments at work, where neurodiverse employees feel comfortable disclosing their conditions and requesting accommodations.

Secondly, companies should adopt an inclusion-led approach rather than focusing solely on diversity. By making the workplace more inclusive, such as by offering flexibility to all employees rather than exclusively to those with official documentation, a naturally diverse workforce will emerge. Valuable resources on this topic can be found on the websites of the National Autistic Society1 and the Royal Academy of Engineering ( I strongly encourage you to explore the work being carried out by these and other organisations.

I have stopped looking out for the mothership, and instead I have turned my attention to the multitude of my home planet’s outposts here on Earth. As we all start talking more about autism and neurodiversity, whether it be in the engineering space, or elsewhere, the more I find out that I am not alone. There are so many others who share a similar story. This sense of community has enabled me to start building a life here on Earth that I am quite fond of, so I’ve decided to stay. I wholeheartedly believe that if each of us took a small step forward, it will lead to a giant leap for mankind towards a more inclusive society that can access a range of different skills and abilities and meet the challenges of the day head on.

If you are interested in learning about autism in females, I highly recommend the videos in my YouTube playlist titled “Autism is amazing”.2 It features two presentations by Sarah Hendrikx and three TED Talks by individuals on the autism spectrum. Additionally, if you are curious about whether you might be on the autism spectrum, I suggest looking at the Raads-R self-report3 questionnaire.



Article by Charlotte Wessels

Policy officer

Charlotte Wessels is a policy officer at IChemE, and has a passion for sharing knowledge with others to facilitate change, or because someone asked her about her special interest which is saving the world

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