Policeman says lockdown ‘has been great’ for autistic people

A Bath policeman who was diagnosed with autism aged 39 has said the coronavirus pandemic has had unexpected benefits for people like him.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people communicate and interact with the world.

Inspector Adam O’Loughlin, 44, said: “First off, lockdown has been great for autistic people – particularly for me.

“Rules have made the lives of people like me way easier. Especially at the start, supermarkets were quiet and there was nobody bumping into you.”

As a teenager, the Avon and Somerset Police officer found social situations difficult and didn’t feel like he fitted in.

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Adam said: “It’s like learning a foreign language, it’s tiring and nothing comes naturally. That is what life is like for people with autism every day.

“I was at that awkward point where I struggled, but people still expected the same from me as everyone else, and I couldn’t trust myself with what I was saying.

“You have two coping strategies, you can just not say anything, or you can just accept that people will think you are a bit weird. I chose the first option and people assumed that I was either arrogant or shy.

“In my mid-teens, I thought I just wasn’t very nice and that was why people didn’t like me. I was very aware I was being socially excluded.”

When he went to university, Adam felt most at home volunteering for the Royal Naval reserves. After graduating, he said he “didn’t know what to do” but he didn’t want to live on a ship.

“I didn’t understand office politics and I didn’t like the noise in an open-plan office, so I thought maybe I would enjoy the police. My dad was in the police, it’s quite a family profession,” he said.

The first few years of training were “awful”, Adam admitted and he still didn’t fit in.

He said: “I struggled to get my head around what I was meant to be doing. I started at the Met and I hated policing football matches. Like I really hated it – the crowds, and the noise and everything moving around.

“But everybody has things that they don’t like doing, I just find it a little harder. It’s not very pleasant but I can do it.”

After a few years in the job, the copper found his feet and discovered there were lots of things he loved doing that were dull for other people.

“It’s actually a really good career for autistic people. They give me a uniform so I always know what to wear, we have our own language, and everyone follows the rules from a black and white perspective.

“A lot of the repetitive work I find really interesting. Like, I enjoy looking through a big list of bank statements for one transaction,” he said.

Adam only found out that he was autistic in 2016 after a family member was diagnosed and he decided to get tested. When he told his boss at Avon and Somerset Police, he didn’t get the response he expected.

“He said, ‘are you going to tell anyone?’ and then he said ‘be really careful who you tell’, because a lot of autistic people don’t have a good experience when they tell people.

“I thought about it and I decided I wasn’t going to hide it because I wanted to help people understand it. I also thought it would be helpful for my family member to know I was the same.

“About 700,000 people in the UK are autistic and 85 per cent of them are underemployed – that is tragic. I am unusual because I have a good job.

I met a guy with a PhD in astrophysics and he’s stacking shelves in Tesco because when you walk into a room people think you’re weird and don’t give you a job ” Adam explained.

The policeman said telling his colleagues about his diagnosis was “the best thing he ever did”.

“People have been much kinder and much more forgiving of my flaws, and my quirks, and I have been able to feel comfortable in my own skin all the time,” he said.

Inspector O’Loughlin explained that many depictions of autism in films and TV “weren’t very helpful” and he wanted to educate people on what it’s actually like.

“I’m crap at maths and I’m not like Sherlock. People ask what my superpower is and I’m like ‘I don’t have one, things are just a bit harder for me.’

“I have particular sensitivities to smells like perfume and polish. For instance, I used to wipe the desk down after it had been cleaned to get rid of the smell of polish,” he said.

The copper felt that the pandemic had offered a chance for us to understand better what autism feels like every day.

He said: “Lockdown is like what being autistic is like all the time – being scared to leave the house, being scared that people are going to cough on you.”

“It does grip you when you see people doing stuff you know is wrong, but you can’t let it consume you. It’s like when I first started the police, you can’t stop every car going 35mph in a 30 zone.

“The vast majority of people I know have done what they’re told but there are always going to be people that break the rules. People aren’t perfect and realising that comes with experience.”

Somerset Live Bath