Angelie Vincent, a Puget Sound-based product development engineer in advanced materials, remembers always feeling different. Throughout childhood and her two-decade career in aerospace, she was often overwhelmed by loud noises and strong smells. She faced challenges with eye contact and reciprocal conversation. A former manager once told her to work on her communication skills, but she wasn’t sure how to improve. In fact, Angelie did not know why she experienced reactions differently than her peers.
In 2018, Angelie learned that her nephew had been diagnosed with autism. Knowing little about it, she began researching the neurodiverse condition. When she found a checklist, Angelie said she felt “physically hot” and experienced what she called a visceral reaction.
“I just knew the second I saw that list and everything on it that I was autistic,” she said. “It was a shocker – an ‘aha moment.’” Soon after, Angelie sought a formal diagnosis of autism, which she said helped her better understand her past. While grateful, she also realized that there were many years of masking who she was leading up to her late diagnosis. “I had been hiding the real me in order to fit in and that needed to stop,” she said.
In an effort to, as Angelie described, “speak her truth,” she confided in her direct manager and slowly started to inform her teammates at work. “The more difficult part for me was saying out loud to people that I had a disability because it initially felt like a personal shortcoming,” said Angelie. But it got easier every time, particularly as she better understood autism and began to accept her disability.
One of the most empowering shifts Angelie gradually experienced was a newfound confidence to share her perspective. Prior to, if a coworker disagreed with her, Angelie would feel flustered and struggled to convey her opinions. “I’d abruptly cut off my train of thought,” she said. “Now, I recognize how autism affects my communication, and I feel more secure to continue to drive my point during important dialogues.”
As a result of disclosing her condition and having candid conversations with her manager, Angelie is allowed the flexibility to arrive and leave work early for quieter surroundings, and she will often take walks when she needs to.
“These accommodations have allowed me to prioritize my tasks and set my plan for the day, enabling me to be more effective and productive at my job. I can maintain full focus on my work and contribute more authentically, improving outcomes all around,” she said. “I am lucky that I have a very supportive organization. I don’t feel like I have to mask or guard myself anymore. I can be fully present at work the way I am.”
Since her diagnosis, Angelie said the Boeing Employees Ability Awareness Association (BEAAAhas been an invaluable resource and network. She serves as the Puget Sound Developmental Disabilities Chair and led three discussions at last year’s self-identification campaign during National Disability Employment Awareness Month. For Angelie, helping others feel inspired to bring their whole selves to work has been rewarding.
Angelie recommends subtle shifts in communication to support people with autism at work. For example, she suggests providing them with a heads-up prior to a meeting or a project to avoid surprises. “Going into a discussion, if you could tell me ahead of time what to expect, then I could have a chance to come up with a thoughtful response so that I can contribute,” she said. Angelie believes this communication strategy can also help everyone—not just those with autism.
She also encourages more colleagues to share their own first- and second-hand experiences with autism to show how employees of every ability bring unique skills to the workplace. “A person with autism can especially help with problems that are extremely complex and require a lot of thought,” she said. “They can come up with solutions that haven’t been identified before.”For Angelie, looking to become an advocate for her nephew evolved into making a difference for members of the autism community at large.
“Autism is so intrinsic to who I am now that I don’t know who I am without it,” she said.
By Kelsey Swanson