Anna NibbsAnna Nibbs

Learning and Teaching Enhancement Adviser (Enterprise), Academic programmes and Student Engagement

“I’ve always been autistic. It was made ‘official’ in 2016, when I received my formal NHS identification, aged 36. Late diagnosis isn’t uncommon among women, and people of any gender who don’t conform to traditional stereotypes of what autism looks like.

“I use identity-first language – I refer to myself, and ask others to refer to me, as an autistic person, rather than a ‘person with/person who has autism’. Autistic isn’t all that I am, but it’s innately part of who I am – it’s not something I carry around ‘with’ me.

“Autism is an information processing variation. Parts of my brain detect, and do wonderful things with, more detail than the equivalent bits of allistic (non-autistic) brains. The bits responsible for filtering, social interaction and emotional regulation are less effective. My mental computer has a huge hard drive, and fantastic sound and graphics cards, but woefully insufficient RAM.

“That I’m a person should be obvious. Yet, I’m astounded at how often autistic people are portrayed as less than human, perhaps because of common misconceptions that we’re emotionless and lack empathy – two ‘facts’ that aren’t true for all of us. I experience acute hyperempathy, especially on an emotional level. I tend to avoid watching or reading the news, for instance; too much of it is extremely painful to witness.

Autistics are social contortionists, constantly bending ourselves out of shape, the better to occupy spaces that don’t accommodate our natural form.

“I get overloaded by too much information; reacting either very dramatically and visibly, or by ‘shutting down’. It’s why autistics like structure, and why many of us find periods of uncertainty and change deeply distressing – we cope better when we can plan and prepare, to avoid overwhelm.

“People often describe autism as a ‘hidden disability’. That’s not entirely true. My autistic traits aren’t intrinsically invisible; rather, I’m often required to tone them down to make myself more acceptable to those around me. I’d love to flap my hands more in conversations, hum or sing as I work, or skip instead of walking, without these things affecting how I’m perceived professionally. Autistics are social contortionists, constantly bending ourselves out of shape, the better to occupy spaces that don’t accommodate our natural form.

“Some of us make pretty good contortionists, but it goes against what our bodies and minds actually need. And, like frequently bending your joints beyond their natural degree of flexion, social contortionism can be tiring and painful, look odd, and potentially do long-term internal damage. Many of us, myself included, experience debilitating mental illness as a consequence.

“I’m disabled because the world isn’t built for me. Spending time with other autistics feels like putting on my cosiest, warmest, most comfortable pair of pyjamas after a day in a stiff business suit and a painful pair of high heels.”

Anna runs an informal peer support group for autistic staff at the University, with Dr Sarah Hale of the Department for Lifelong Learning.

To find out more, contact Anna (a.nibbs@sheffield.ac.uk) or Sarah (s.hale@sheffield.ac.uk).