“I wouldn’t change the way I am”

Nigel Colston is Chief Inspector for Neighbourhood Policing with Avon & Somerset Constabulary. As an officer on the autistic spectrum, he talks about how he overcame the challenges associated with his condition and how being autistic brings unique strengths to his role

By way of introduction, many people know me as an “autistic officer”. That isn’t meant in any disparaging way, how could it when I often call myself this! I want to use my position as an autistic officer in a positive way to promote the fact that with the right support, people can get on in this organisation. When I started as a police officer in 1988, I didn’t actually know that I was “disabled”. Even when I found out I was autistic, I was surprised to learn that the condition is considered a disability, because for me it is just part of who and what I am. I really only use the word disability now because it’s the lawful way to categorise me.

When I told a few friends in confidence that I was autistic, their response was an ironic lack of surprise. I had somehow, miraculously, succeeded with my professional career and had even been promoted to sergeant by this stage. Until then, I always had this strong feeling that I was personally responsible for everything – “you haven’t investigated that crime”, that’s my fault for not checking; “you didn’t arrest that suspect”, that’s my fault for not telling you to. I found it incredibly difficult to mix socially with the team. I couldn’t understand why I was unable to hear a conversation in a pub that everyone else was fully engaged in: it turns out that I also suffer from sensory processing disorder as well. Despite achieving good results with my work I never considered myself good enough. That made my role, and my life, quite difficult to say the least.

Having had the diagnosis, I was at last able to start understanding the different way in which my brain worked, and I was able to recognise, adapt and create ways in which I could manage some of this. More importantly, for the first time I began to recognise some of the positives that my neurodiversity offered. I am able to compartmentalise emotions and quickly distinguish relevant and irrelevant information – great when attending critical incidents. Contrary to popular belief, many people on the autistic spectrum are capable of empathy, but often to a state where they are over-empathetic. This is great when helping support colleagues, victims, friends and family, but has a huge impact afterwards because I genuinely feel as if many of those things have happened to me. It is a constant battle of emotions in my case: severe anxiety in regards to my personal life, fighting huge self-confidence with regards to work.

It will be a wonderful day when such distinctions make absolutely no difference to how people, society and organisations view any sort of variance to the perceived ‘norm’. I was once called up for jury service and was disqualified – not because I may be biased due to my 20 years as a police officer, but because officially I had a ‘disease of the mind’. Somewhat ironic that I am judged fit enough to build an evidential case against people, but not to determine whether they are innocent or guilty!

Despite all of this, I wouldn’t change the way I am. But that is personal to me and I understand others may feel differently.

What I will say (and really the main point of my blog) is that I have received absolutely fantastic support from colleagues, managers and the organisation as a whole which eventually enabled me to become a Chief Inspector. I can say with absolute certainty that I would not have got through the recent promotion boards without that support and a number of reasonable adjustments being made; but I hope that the end result for the organisation has been positive overall. That’s why I try to offer myself as an example of what can be achieved with the right support.

I am now the Vice-Chair of the Avon & Somerset Constabulary branch of the Disabled Police Association, a support network for staff aimed at promoting and supporting colleagues with any sort of disability. We are really keen to hear from anyone affected by any disability, and sadly we often hear about cases where people haven’t had the same positive support that I was fortunate enough to receive. Please – if there is one message that I ask you to take away, it is to contact the DPA if you are disabled or managing someone who is and you need any advice or support. Since I started as a PC within Avon & Somerset we come a long way, but there is still a way to go.

December 3rd 2017 was International Day of People with Disability which is recognised by many support groups, associations and employers across the country. The awareness day aimed to promote an understanding of disability issues and rally support for the dignity, rights and well-being of disabled people. Last year’s theme focused on the benefits of integrating disabled people in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life, and the contribution these individuals make. Along with the DPA, we want to celebrate and invest in our employer networks and resource groups, and to build a community of disabled employees both in the UK and across the globe.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a story appeared in the news which announced Government plans to get one million more disabled people in work over the next 10 years. Ignoring the politics that may be behind some of this (seriously, don’t get me started), there is a clear recognition that disabled people can offer so much to the workplace. If I could take one quote from the report it is that “everyone deserves the chance to find a job that’s right for them.”


This blog was originally published on the Avon & Somerset Constabulary website – reproduced here with kind permission of Avon & Somerset Constabulary