Autism Acceptance: Claire Rigby

Posted: 5th April, 2024

Claire Rigby, Interpretation Officer at Chester Zoo, writes for BIAZA World Autism Acceptance week on some of the realities of Autism, and how to provide support.

“You don’t have autism.”

My lecturer sits across from me. “You’re just using it as an excuse to get out of work.”

Ten years later, I’ve grown used to this commentary. It’s not a one-off, not even close. It can be as blatant as above, or subtle microaggressions. Comments like “girls don’t get autism” and “you don’t look autistic” are unpleasant but so laughable it’s easy to ignore.

I should introduce myself. My name’s Claire. I’m 28 years old, I have a Masters in Primate Behaviour, a 1 year-old kitten, and autism. Autism and ADHD, specifically. It’s a tricky combination to manage and, like most feminine-presenting people, I didn’t have the support of an early diagnosis. Despite this, I’ve been lucky enough to research chimpanzees in the wild, care for critically endangered species and, ultimately, establish a career in zoo education.

I did also get away from the lecturer who called me a faker, if you were concerned.

There’s some very difficult realities that come with being autistic.

  • Boys and girls are disproportionately diagnosed, with a ratio of 3 male diagnoses to every 1 female diagnosis (, 2024).
  • This leads to a spike in women receiving their diagnosis later in life (, 2024).
  • Autism in people of colour is understudied and underrepresented in research (Kandeh et al., 2020)
  • Less than 22% of autistic adults are employed (ONS, 2021).

With odds like these, it’s kind of mind-blowing that I am where I am at all.

Autism is characterised by a spectrum of behaviours which have different degrees of impact on an individual’s life. We’re often grouped into two categories: high-dependency support needs; and low-dependency support needs. I fall into the latter. The issue is that many assume low-support-needs means no-support-needs.

The reality of this is when my autism has become apparent and I’ve had support needs, it’s something I’ve been penalized for. I’ve found that when I ask for accommodations – unless I explicitly state that I’m autistic and explain why I need these accommodations – I’m seen as an inconvenience, shamed for my needs, and sometimes outright discriminated against. This is not an experience unique to me.

If you want to support autistic people (and I really, really hope that you do), you need to understand that accommodations are a necessity, and you may have to get uncomfortable and check your own prejudices as a result.

I can’t speak for every autistic person, or how they can be supported, but I can share what’s had impacts for me:

  • Sensory supports: Noise-cancelling headphones and sound-reducing earplugs reduce sensory overwhelm. Having a weighted blanket at my desk, fidget toys, and comfortable uniform all helps with this, too. Too much sensory input makes it really hard to think, and small changes like these have a hugely beneficial impact.
  • Avoid inconsistency: Autistic people can struggle with changes for a multitude of reasons. Reduce these changes by creating predictable environments, and where change must happen give advance notice and clear explanations of why change has occurred.
  • Understand ‘literal thinking’: a terribly-named trait. We can understand jokes and we can be ironic (the perception that we can’t is, hilariously, too literal an understanding of the term “literal thinking”). Literal thinking, in my experience, more presents itself as not reading between the lines. Be clear in expectations and if expectations aren’t met consider if there was enough detail given.
  • Let us make mistakes, let us explain ourselves: Autistic people may seem to make the same mistake several times. The nuance of similar events can read to us as several unique scenarios that we weren’t prepared for. Work with us to understand the patterns and themes to mistakes we make to find effective solutions.
  • Prepare for crisis/meltdown*: Support during these crises can dwindle as autistic children become autistic adults, even though the crises will still happen. For me, a meltdown can look like uncontrollable crying, complete verbal shutdown, or even hysterical laughter. It usually from too many things happening faster than I can process. Reduce the impacting factors by having a conversation with the autistic person you’re supporting. Sometimes they’ll know what helps, other times they may still be figuring out their own needs. Just don’t take it personally. Meltdowns aren’t insolence, or overdramatic, or unnecessary. They are the results of a body and brain trying to accommodate more than is physically possible.

I want to reiterate: I can’t speak for everyone. We’re a community, but not a monolith, and autism really is a massive spectrum (no, that doesn’t mean “everyone is a little bit autistic”). Communication and advocacy are important, just as much as creativity is. Think about what is possible, rather than jumping straight to what isn’t possible.

When you’re supporting autistic people keep in mind that the problem you are trying to solve is not them, but how you can use your space to make the world more welcoming.


*some autistic groups find the term “meltdown” to be offensive. As I’m discussing my personal experiences, this is a term I am comfortable using to reference my experience, but don’t assume everyone feels the same.

- Claire Rigby, Interpretation Officer, Chester Zoo

All blogs reflect the views of their author and are not necessarily a reflection of BIAZA's positions. 

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