Working on the railway works for me

2023-12-20 -
Helen standing in front of a freight train wearing high-visibility clothing and a hard hat

By Helen Gander, Freight Train Driver

Growing up, I don’t think I ever felt different as such, I was just often frustrated and overwhelmed. I struggled to do and understand some things that everyone else seemed to naturally just do. Socially, sensory, my struggles with executive function, the way I see and process things, my clumsiness, my need for routine and fear of change, I could  go on as there’s so many more.

Amongst other things, I was labelled as shy, lazy, extra sensitive, anxious or just plain old overreacting. So it was easier and safer for me to simply hide how I was feeling and learn how to fit in. 

When I was 18, I got a job on the railway, working on the station platform as a dispatcher, and this was where I really began to feel at ease. The routine, having a roster for me to work to, a timetable for the trains, a despatch procedure, a cleaning routine, every day was a system, I knew exactly what I had to do, and when and how. It was perfect.

I still struggled socially, but back in those days there was a lot of after work pub time, so I’d just have a few drinks and become the entertainer. But I’d be left absolutely exhausted after a day of having these interactions with the public and then being the social clown afterwards. I’d go home and have to recharge my social battery, sometimes for days.

And then it hit me. The fear. What if I am autistic? Are they going to take my key from me? Am I going to be allowed to drive trains any more?

My mental health began to suffer and over the years I’d had different episodes of depression and anxiety, and not all the time, but there are some occasions I’m convinced I wasn’t actually depressed at all, I’d had what I now know to be an autistic meltdown or shutdown, I couldn’t figure out why I still felt so disconnected to the world and under the surface, it was slowly eating away at me. 

A few years later,  in 2008, I’d got my drivers job and that truly was the making of me. I struggled with the classroom side of it as that’s not my natural environment, but I just knew if I could make it through the exams, once it got to the hands on side then I’d be just fine. It played to all my strengths. Again it was wonderfully scheduled and routine. Being given a diagram each day with the exact to the minute timings for where I should be and what I should do was bliss.

My deep focus and concentration for a task were called into order, autistic people are often really good at repetition and spotting patterns, again perfect for train driving, I’d already got the hang of that driver talk we all do in messrooms, ‘long job?’ ‘Got much left?’ It was easy to script conversation, to really fit in. I felt at home, but something still wasn’t right. I was still wearing a mask. I’d been wearing it so long, I didn’t even realise I was doing it by now. 

Helen in the cab of a freight train

Fast forward some years, My wife suggested to me that she thought I might be autistic after yet another adverse reaction to something that might be considered fairly mundane. I initially brushed it off, but then after it playing on my mind, and using my absolutely excellent research skills and hyper focus, I found myself down a rabbit hole of information, and it was really beginning to look like she could be on to something. 

I was seeing so much of myself in the traits and behaviours of someone with autism.

I’d been masking all these years, which is something women in particular do. That’s why there’s so many women who are diagnosed later in life. We are often missed as children for many reasons. Our specialist interests are often considered more socially acceptable, and for a long time there was also the belief that girls couldn’t be autistic.

I wrote a list of all the traits and behaviours where I matched with the diagnostic criteria, and examples from my life, it was staring me in the face. I was autistic. 

And then it hit me. The fear. What if I am autistic? Are they going to take my key from me? Am I going to be allowed to drive trains any more?

You see, this job is more than just a job to me, partly because of my autism, it’s become my identity. Everyone knows me as Helen the train driver, it’s the place I feel most at home, most at ease, you can’t take that away from me. So out of fear, I did nothing with this new information.

I potentially had something in the palm of my hands that would change my world for the better, help me understand and make adjustments to make things easier, and I felt I couldn’t do anything with it. The pressure built up inside me and again, my mental health suffered. 

I eventually had a conversation with a trusted driver friend from another train company and he told me he knew of another driver with autism. That it was ok, that I wasn’t going to lose my key, and he gave me the confidence to approach my GP.

A diagnosis isn’t for everyone, not every autistic person needs or wants one, but I knew I just had to know. So, I went along, armed with my list, and to my surprise she took me seriously, she agreed and referred me for diagnosis.

I still hadn’t told anyone I worked with or my family at this point. Sadly the NHS waiting lists are long for adult diagnosis so, after 3 years waiting, my anxiety was becoming too much and I researched again and found a reputable private clinic.

After various appointments, I finally got my diagnosis. 

the industry is moving forwards and trying to do better for everyone who works here, and also with legislation like the equalities act, there is definitely progress being made and that can only be a good thing, for everybody

Around this time I was changing jobs. A massive thing for me. I’d worked for my company for almost 20 years at this point and been driving with them for almost 15, but an opportunity came up and after giving it a lot of thought and consideration, I was able to accept the job and make the change. It was honestly the best thing I could have done.

I’d not told my old company about my diagnosis as I only officially received it a week before I left, so I was nervous about telling my new employer, GBRailfreight, but I knew I had to if I was going to finally find my inner peace. Telling them I had autism was absolutely fine, as it should be. I’ve never felt any kind of discrimination or negative repercussions. Quite the opposite in fact.

I’m now part of a neurodiversity working group within the company to really help drive change to make the workplace a better environment for those of us who are neurodivergent. There’s people from all over the business who are involved but Traincrew are currently under represented so I’m pleased to be part of something positive and feel like we could be making a difference. 

I spent so long in fear, hiding, worried I was going to lose my job. It really affected my mental and thus my physical health too.

I hate the idea that there are other people possibly going through something similar.

I don’t ever claim to be an expert in autism and neurodivergence, but if I can use my experiences to inspire or help just one other person, especially those of us who are late diagnosed, whether that’s through my instagram account (@helen_drives_trains) where I try and champion neurodiversity on the railway, or articles like this, then that’s something positive to me.

The railway to me is the perfect place for me as a neurodivergent person for some of the reasons above and many more. I’ll finish by saying that while I can’t speak for all train companies, I’d like to think the industry is moving forwards and trying to do better for everyone who works here, and also with legislation like the equalities act, there is definitely progress being made and that can only be a good thing, for everybody. 

Helen standing next to a freight train wearing high visibility clothes. It is dark and the train headlights are glowing