Understanding Autism: Meet Gemma this Acceptance Week

This week (2nd to 8th April) is World Autism Acceptance Week. One in 100 people are autistic, which means there are an estimated 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK. To mark the week, Gemma Irvine, Patient Care Advisor shares her story of being diagnosed with autism at the age of 35, shortly before joining Connect Health in 2022.

5 April 2024

Autism affects millions of people worldwide, and it’s crucial that we work towards understanding and supporting those living with autism. To foster a more inclusive and understanding environment, we are using this week to raise awareness. By learning more about autism and how we can support individuals we can create a more inclusive, informed and compassionate workplace here at Connect Health.

Gemma Irvine, Patient Care Advisor, tells us more about living and working with autism:

When I was diagnosed autistic I wasn’t surprised, it was more of a relief. Growing up, I always knew I was different and even thought I wasn’t from this planet at times! I used to think I was maybe taking longer to mature and would laugh about it. Before joining Connect I was a Care Worker and my colleagues at the time suggested I looked in to getting assessed. Being told I was autistic made total sense to both me and my parents and has given us so much more understanding around why I act or respond a certain way. Since being diagnosed my life has improved so much and making the move to work at Connect was the best things I could have done.

“In 2022, the year I was diagnosed, I moved house and started working at Connect. These are big things for most people, but they were massive for me. Change can be really hard for people with autism and I did struggle at times but I have amazing friends and colleagues who supported me. Routine is so important to me, but I also know that change is inevitable. The support I’ve received from the Help@hand Boost app and my manager, Cindy Oliver, has been invaluable.”

“Cindy has been so supportive since I moved to her team – which was a challenge in itself as it was a change I wasn’t prepared for. She understands me and the extra support I might need. I have a Wellness Action Plan in place and lots of people I’m able to reach out to. This hasn’t been the case in my previous jobs so moving to Connect was the best decision I ever made.”

Cindy, Team Leader, said:

“I am also Neurodiverse so that helps me to support and understand Gemma. The main thing we have to think about when supporting a colleague with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is that we may have to tweak the current Wellness Action Plan to make it more suitable for someone with ASD. We don’t have any specific support documents in place, so it’s more about talking to the colleague and asking what will help them.

When asked what coping strategies and adaptations Gemma uses, she said:

“I prefer to work in an office as I feel isolated at home and get less done. Connect allow me to work in the office each day, even though the majority of PCAs work hybrid.

“I refuse to let autism stop me from doing anything that I want to do or doing my job well. I wear headphones and listen to music a lot to block out overpowering noises. I also use breathing techniques. I’m very self-aware and know I’m easily distracted so I have to break down tasks and prioritise. I write lots of lists to guide me. Sometimes I feel like I’m not coping but know I can turn to Cindy, colleagues, friends or access support via Boost if I need to.

“In my previous role I was working 60 hours each week as we were short staffed. I never got two days off in a row so I was constantly tired. I was totally drained by the time my shifts were over and I would suffer from sensory overload. I would have to have a nap when I finished work and then I didn’t sleep at night, so my sleep pattern was all over.”

With only 29% of autistic people in any form of employment, Gemma tells us why it’s so important for her to be in that percentage:

“I crave routine so working at Connect gives me that, Monday to Friday with set hours is ideal for me. I can honestly say that the PCC (Patient Care Coordination) Team is the first place I’ve felt comfortable and fully accepted. There have been times that I’ve struggled – moving teams was a massive deal for me but also ended up being a very positive move. Since joining I’ve completed my Tier 2 training, worked on two new contracts and achieved a law certificate. I’m proud of myself for achieving this. I’m also planning on going to Poland on my own next year. This terrifies me as airports make me anxious but I’m determined to go.”

Gemma ended by offering her support:

“I’m very open about being autistic and keen to raise awareness so others don’t also feel like they’re an alien from another planet!”

What is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a complex neurological condition that affects a person’s social skills, communication, behaviour, and interests. Autism is not an illness, it’s a spectrum disorder, meaning individuals with autism can experience a wide range of symptoms and severity levels. While some individuals may require substantial support in their daily lives, others may lead relatively independent lives.

Living with autism brings a unique set of challenges that vary from person to person. Some common challenges include difficulties in social interactions and communication, sensory sensitivities, repetitive behaviours, and adherence to routines. These challenges can significantly impact an individual’s ability to navigate everyday situations, build relationships, and engage in activities that others may take for granted.

Challenges Faced by People with Autism

Autistic people have many different abilities, strengths and weaknesses which are individual to them. A common challenge among individuals with Autism, is anxiety, with research indicating elevated levels compared to neurotypical peers. However, due to communication challenges, autistic individuals may struggle to express their anxiety, making social interactions and situations difficult for them. Anxiety in ASD can manifest through various symptoms, including social phobia, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, and resistance to change. It is important for individuals on the spectrum to have structured planning, as they often struggle with changes in various aspects of life, from major transitions to daily routines such as leaving the house or trying new activities, therefore benefit from using visual supports like schedules and social stories.

Societal norms can also present a significant challenge for individuals on the Autism Spectrum as they may struggle to comprehend social conventions and non-verbal cues, leading to potential confusion and miscommunication. Challenges in emotional regulation and relationship-building, along with the limited societal Acceptance of autism, often hinder opportunities for individuals with ASD to reach their full potential and achieve independence.


Visit the National Autistic Society here.