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Blog: The 'autistic officer' - everyone deserves the chance to find the job that's right for them

As part of World Autism Awareness Week, 26 March to 2 April 2018, Chief Inspector Nigel Colston, who leads the South Bristol neighbourhood policing team, shares his personal story in this blog.

Ok, so by way of introduction many people know me as an ‘autistic officer’. That isn’t meant in any disparaging way, how could it when I often call myself this! I want to use my position as an autistic officer in a positive way to promote the fact that with the right support, people can get on.

When I started in 1988, I didn’t actually know that I was ‘disabled’. Even when I found out I was autistic, I was surprised to learn that the condition is considered a disability, because for me it is just part of who and what I am. I really only ever use the word disability now because it’s the lawful way to categorise me.

When I told a few friends in confidence that I was autistic their response was an ironic lack of surprise. I had somehow, miraculously, succeeded with my professional career and had even been promoted to sergeant by this stage.

20180327_2302_CI Nigel Colston _JB9868

Until then, I always had this strong feeling that I was personally responsible for everything. If someone on my team had made a mistake - that’s my fault for not checking on them. I found it incredibly difficult to mix socially with the team. I couldn't understand why I was unable to hear a conversation in a pub that everyone else was fully engaged in: turns out that I also suffer from sensory processing disorder as well.

Despite achieving good results with my work I never considered myself good enough. That made my role, and my life, quite difficult (to say the least).

Having had the diagnosis I was at last able to start understanding the different way in which my brain worked, and I was able to recognise, adapt and create ways in which I could manage some of this.

More importantly, for the first time I began to recognise some of the positives that my neuro-diversity offered. I am able to compartmentalize emotions and quickly distinguish relevant and irrelevant information: great when attending critical incidents.

There is a clear recognition that disabled people can offer so much to the workplace, and everyone deserves the chance to find a job that's right for them.

Contrary to popular belief, many people on the autistic spectrum are capable of empathy but often to a state where they are ‘over’ empathic. This is great when helping support colleagues, victims, friends and family but has a huge impact afterwards because I genuinely feel as if many of those things have happened to me. It is a constant battle of emotions in my case: severe anxiety in regards to my personal life, fighting huge self-confidence with regards to work.

It will be a wonderful day when such distinctions make absolutely no difference to how people, society and organisations view any sort of variance to the perceived ‘norm’.

A few years ago I was called up for jury service and was disqualified - not because I may be biased due to my 20 years as a police officer, but because officially I had a ‘disease of the mind’. Somewhat ironic that I was judged fit enough to build an evidential case against people, but not to determine whether they are innocent or guilty!

Despite all of this I wouldn’t change the way I am, but that is personal to me and I understand that others may feel differently in relation to themselves.

What I would say (and really the main point of my blog) is that I have received absolutely fantastic support from colleagues, managers and the organisation as a whole which eventually enabled me to become a Chief Inspector.

I can say with absolute certainty that I would not have got through the recent promotion boards without that support and a number of reasonable adjustments being made, but you know what, I hope that the end result for the organisation has been positive overall. That’s why I try to offer myself as an example of what can be achieved with the right support.

I am now the vice-chair of the Disabled Police Association (DPA), a support network for staff aimed at promoting and supporting colleagues with any sort of disability. Since I started as a PC within Avon and Somerset we have come a long way, but there is still a way to go.

International Day of Persons with Disabilities (3 December) is recognised by many support groups, associations and employers across the country. The awareness day aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and rally support for the dignity, rights and well-being of disabled people. It focuses on promoting empowerment of, and helping to create real opportunities for, people with disabilities.