For World Autism Acceptance Week, two autistic Strathclyde students share their stories. This is Steven’s story:
A couple of years ago, I watched a news report that showed an anti-vaxx protest. Although at that point no vaccine for Covid had been developed, one boorish protester exclaimed that receiving an injection presented the risk of contracting autism. At this point, I was awaiting the start of my autism assessment, having been on an NHS waiting list for over a year. I remember vividly the anger I felt that such views still existed, but I also reflected that autistic people carry the burden of harmful stereotypes that are more insidious: our supposed absence of empathy; our presumed intellectual incapacity; our apparent instinctive aggression.
In late 2021, I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), aged 38. It marked the culmination of several years of seeking an answer as to why I experience particular challenges with greater intensity than the perceived norm. Since my adolescence, I have suffered from severe anxiety and depression, which were often triggered by my exposure to change – planned and unplanned change alike – or by my inability to make friends. University was a significant struggle: I couldn’t interact with others, and was fearful of anyone who approached me; I became obsessed with academic study as a coping mechanism; and the transition from school to university was unsettling to the point that I had to leave my hall of residence and move back home to live with my parents. My academic ability was key to distracting me from my otherwise unrelenting ruminations, and my habit of catastrophising that would often lead to panic attacks.
Throughout my 20s and early 30s, I received medical diagnoses such as panic disorder, OCD, and depression, and I fought back through continued academic success (I have a doctorate in English Literature), exercising and getting into my dream job: teaching.
All appeared well until 2018. I taught to a challenging timetable that involved moving across eight classrooms a day, teaching large classes of up to 33 children, and over 300 children in total. I coped with this for six months, but I had an episode of extreme panic in school (thankfully not in front of any children) that led to a three-month absence. But this attack was different: as my panic increased, lights became brighter, every sound merged into a shrill cacophony in my ears. When I visited occupational health, I mentioned the sensory assault as well as my difficulties with change: the macro-transition of leaving school and starting university, and micro-transitions such as moving from classroom to classroom every period of every day. His suggestion, that I might be autistic, started the process that led to my diagnosis in 2021.
I received some support during my return to work, but this was undermined by assertions from senior managers that my panic was an act of aggression. Language matters in these situations, and the concept of ‘aggression’ indicated to me their clear inability to understand my situation. The best thing I could do was to educate myself about autism, and continue to support my pupils to achieve their potential.
During the process, my understanding of autism grew through my experience of teaching autistic children and young people in the mainstream classroom. I learned about stimming (self-soothing behaviour) thanks to a pupil who needed the sound of running tap water to reduce the sensory challenges associated with being in a large class. I learned about the importance of routines after observing pupils whose rigid thinking required professionals to provide relentless routines to safeguard them from anxiety. I also learned about masking after teaching a girl in S3 who learned and imitated the behaviours of her non-autistic classmates to the detriment of her mental health.
These children became my teachers, and they helped me to recognise my own autistic traits prior to my diagnosis. I, too, have sensory sensitivities (especially to sound) that I could calm by playing with a pen or a fidget item. I also require routines to give me a sense of safety; the chaotic teaching timetable I endured presented a clear threat to my mental wellbeing. From my S3 pupil, I realised that I, too, had learned to mask. Although I appear assured in social situations today – teaching and maintaining friendships are brimful of interactions – they often left me exhausted and in need of time to recuperate.
Thus, my eventual diagnosis came as no surprise. Having said that, it gave me a lens that explained my past experiences of change, anxiety and routine-building. I now believe that my panic attack at school was, in fact, an autism meltdown. It also helped me to remember that just as the autistic pupils I have met have talents and qualities that make them valued members of the class, so too do I have strengths and abilities that I can take forward into all of my future ventures. We’re not ill or deficient; we’re unique.
Our lives can improve with greater understanding that extends beyond raising awareness. As a teacher currently out of work, I am frustrated by the ongoing lack of understanding of autism within my profession. I have met some wonderful teachers and support staff who are skilled at supporting autistic pupils. Yet meaningful, impactful teacher training on understanding autism and supporting autistic children is scarce. Much more needs to be done on sharing good practice within schools, so that all school staff – not just those with specialist training – can work collaboratively to create autism-friendly school communities that recognise the strengths of all its autistic members.
Now that I have a diagnosis, the future is uncertain. On the one hand, I know that my ASD has given me positive qualities such as empathy, attention to detail, and a love for learning. On the other hand, I have come to terms with the stereotypes I have encountered, and I must manage the challenges that being out of work brings to my autistic mind. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that better times will come.
Autism Acceptance Week
Autism Acceptance week is an opportunity to learn about the experiences of people on the spectrum.
The Autism Friendly University Project strives to create an inclusive culture that supports, champions, and celebrates autistic people at Strathclyde. They are committed to helping our autistic students and staff to feel like they belong in our community, and to make all aspects of university life accessible to them. We invite you to join them this week in raising awareness and understanding of autism across the university, and we hope that together we can move towards a culture that celebrates difference.
Gaining an accurate understanding of autism is crucial, as many myths and misconceptions remain widespread across the population. A lack of understanding can lead to some autistic people feeling isolated and alone, so it is important to stick to the facts: