I am special just like you

2022-03-28 -
Array, ASLEF
Amy Nicholson wearing a blue and black uniform and standing smiling in the doorway of a train which has red, orange and blue livery

Amy Nicholson, Disabled Members Representative Committee member for district 6, writes about autism and hidden disability for Autism Acceptance Week:


The word ‘autism’ provokes many thoughts and discussions. It was, for a very long time, poorly diagnosed, and then only for those who were severely affected. Along with autism, many other conditions may, or may not, be recognised in a child or adult. Some will live their entire lives completely unaware that they have it; which can have a disastrous effect on their mental wellbeing.

From a very young age, it was obvious that I saw the world quite differently to other people. I was extremely sensitive to how things felt, smelled, sounded, and were seen. I did not cope well with large crowds and noisy places. I would see terrifying things – that others could not – in everyday objects. As I grew, I learned what was a ‘normal’ way to behave and became extremely cunning in masking my feelings and reactions when exposed to situations with which I felt uncomfortable.

‘I would “feel” the noise of the HSTs all through my body’

I recall one fear I had as a young child was of high speed trains. I bring this up because I am writing for ASLEF. Living a short distance from the Midland main line, these magnificent beasts would fly through our local station with such a roar that my mother couldn’t even take me to the station without me having a complete meltdown. I would ‘feel’ the noise all through my body.

However, I absolutely loved watching the steam engines that chugged just around the corner from my home. To me, they appeared much more lifelike, as if they had feelings of their own. Over time, I would develop a great love for all things mechanical and enjoy working on my own projects and volunteering in railway preservation.

I was labelled a few things. Quirky was one, awkward was another. I was already on the back foot for help because I was born female. Back then, autism was seen as a male issue. It is only from more recent studies that we know females are much better at masking the condition. In a 2017 study, Loomes and other researchers analysed existing prevalence studies and found that the male-to-female ratio was 3:1. That ratio has been reduced, but there is still a long to go in recognising symptoms.

‘Luckily for me, I ended up driving trains’

I lived my entire childhood, and much of my adult life, without diagnosis nor the knowledge to recognise there was a problem. As a result, I have struggled with anxiety and depression. I have had many meltdowns when overwhelmed by a world that favours extrovert characters. I thrived at university on individual assignments, studying Computing and Statistics (favouring numbers – another autistic trait), but really struggled when forced into group work. It was around that time that I came to realise I needed to work in an environment where I had more control and could work on my own.

Luckily for me, I ended up driving trains. My favourite train I have ever driven? Why, an HST! I absolutely love my job. It ticks all the boxes for a neurodivergent like me. We follow strict rules, we are given a diagram to follow, we don’t have a phone ringing at us constantly, we make the decisions (most of the time!) and it is generally repetitive. I have my own ‘bubble’, which is my cab, and can shut the world away once I step into it.

The National Autistic Society, on its website, published an article in February 2021 which revealed shocking data highlighting a huge gap in employment for adults with autism. Just 22% of autistic adults are in any kind of job. Personally, I find this heartbreaking. Through my experience, and working on the railway, I have met so many people with autism. The autistic spectrum is vast, but I feel there is a place for these people. They come up with amazing ideas and solutions that many would oversee or not even consider. They are ideal for vocations that require a high level of expertise, since many will go into great depths researching a particular subject. They can be meticulous, consistent, reliable, and honest. They can be all the things that make an excellent train driver!

‘Could you be autistic? Do any of these signs relate with you?’

ASLEF’s Disabled Members’ Committee is looking into these findings after a group member from the Our Voice Our Rights campaign made contact to investigate why so many autistic adults are out of work. We feel the union, and the railway in general, could really help with this issue.

Could you be autistic? Do any of these signs relate with you? For me, the reason I decided to seek diagnosis was for closure and to help family and friends understand me better as a person. Since investigating the issue, my mental health has improved significantly. I can realise the signs of anxiety much sooner and know that it is okay to remove myself, or avoid completely, the places and events that affect me on a negative level.

It is the best thing I have done for myself, but I also love to talk candidly about it and help others recognise the signs. Perhaps, for many, that’s where mental illnesses stem.  It is never too late to find that closure and peace.

If you are interested in discovering more, please check out autism signs on the NHS website.



An autism acceptance poem by Jackie Bielinski:

I am special just like you
I can take the things I do
And learn from them the best I can
Make a difference with who I am.
You might be slow, I might be fast
No need to measure first and last
You might be smart, I may be not
So who cares? We still have a lot
To share and grow together we’ll be
Friends to the end, just wait and see.

(See the full poem at autismspeaks.org)