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Being Neurodiverse at sea

6 September 2023

New research on how prevalent neurodiversity is among seafarers is expected shortly, and Nautilus members will hear a debate on the topic at the Union's General Meeting in Liverpool in October 2023. Ahead of this, a member explains what it is to be neurodiverse and how it has impacted his career at sea

What is your neurodiversity?

My neurodiversity is autism –  especially Asperger's Syndrome. My autism developed from living with a rare condition, fetal valproate syndrome (FVS), which can be caused through exposure during pregnancy to sodium valproate − usually found in epilepsy medication. 

I was diagnosed at a very young age with FVS. During my youth, I struggled a lot with social interaction, which I still do now, but I have found ways to overcome this.  When I was 16, I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and so I found out why I struggled so much. 

How did it affect your training as a seafarer?

It affected some of my training, such as trying to understand how others behaved, and how you should act as an officer. It still affects me as a seafarer now, because you can struggle in so many ways with what to say to others, when to say it, and how to process certain information.

Did you have any support at college?

There was no actual support to start with as a cadet. I received support eventually from an onsite counsellor who helped guide me through mindfulness sessions. This strategy helped during my second sea phase. It meant I found ways to think differently and take my mind off work.

How has your condition affected your career?

I am currently a sole engineer. I have been a third and or fourth engineer on a variety of vessels in the past.

My condition has limited me from trying to progress further because of not 'fitting in'. It is a vicious cycle with every trip I have faced so far.

What obstacles have you faced?

Plenty of personality clashes. Discrimination, harassment and bullying have been major obstacles. The social aspect of most jobs is also a struggle, but I am slowly overcoming them. The biggest issues are when to speak up about grievances, how to process certain information and how to approach certain situations with an open mind, and most importantly, what to say. It's largely a communication issue.

Have you felt discriminated against?

Yes, because of my personality/character. Many people can pick up on the Asperger's Syndrome because of who they may have worked with previously, for others it has been a simple case of 'oh, you're different' and they sense and target the weaknesses.

Has it impacted your health?

Yes. I have found that when I feel the trip has gone well, generally, the appraisal or end of sea service testimonial has said the opposite. That puts me in a bad mental state for a few weeks.

I took up running to overcome some of these issues and help me be in 'a world of my own', and there are also other ways I try to overcome these issues.

What would sort of support would you like to see maritime employers implement under their equal opportunities policies?

There needs to be more training and awareness, and acceptance in general. My experience of being perceived as 'different' means I am hard on myself, because nobody truly understands the issues or the battles [of neurodiversity].

What three key pieces of advice would you give any other neurodiverse seafarer?

  • find a routine that works for you. Plan your day to suit you, but be open and accept change. 
  • forget what the bullies say: they have no idea of the battles you deal with − you are better than them.
  • be yourself − you are inspirational!


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