The Fifth Semester of My Masters

The time has come to sum up the final semester of my Masters. I am done. That’s sort of unbelievable. Given everything that’s happened since I started the course in September 2019, the end of the Masters always felt so far away and although I have lots of plans, I do feel a bit lost now that all of the work is done. Maybe it’s because I haven’t received my final grade or because I haven’t actually graduated yet; maybe once those things happen, the experience will feel a bit more… finished. It was always going to be weird – I’ve been going to this uni on and off for the last seven years – but knowing something and actually feeling it are so different.

So, here is my final semester review.


The final semester of my Masters course involves a largely independent project called the Major Repertoire Project and as long as you’re developing your songwriting skills and knowledge in some way, you can pretty much do whatever you want. People have done projects exploring identity, exploring their heritage, writing song cycles or musicals, digging deeper into their own songwriting and pursuing an artist project like an album, experimenting with newer applications of songwriting (such as in various therapies), and so on. It’s a fascinating module because everyone ends up doing something so different and so interesting. And after a spending a year or two focussing on their craft, the songwriting is so incredible; the final works that I’ve heard are amazing. It would probably take a month but I would happily listen through everyone’s projects.

For my project, I chose to explore my experiences as an autistic woman through songwriting, attempting to translate those experiences both through the lyrics and storytelling and the execution of the song, from the structure to the arrangement to the production and so on. I wanted to write songs that autistic individuals would hopefully relate to and that neurotypical individuals would hopefully gain some insight from. But while the overall goal was to create a body of work, a large part of the project involved researching our chosen area – Autism, in my case – responding to the research (sometimes that was through practice and sometimes it inspired specific songs), and reflecting on my songwriting process and how it was evolving during the project.

The module officially began in the second week of May but I’d already started working on it: I’ve been thinking about this project ever since I applied for the Masters so I was super excited to finally start doing it. But I’d barely begun when I started getting debilitating migraines that lasted for days at a time and resulted in several ambulance visits because the pain was so bad. We eventually traced the source back to one of my teeth: the emergency dentist thought the nerve was dying and diagnosed an abscess. I was top priority for an extraction and given antibiotics (which I had to have a second round of when it flared up again midway through the semester). Fortunately my university granted me an extension – giving me back the time that I’d lost – but it was a flexible extension in case I suddenly got pulled in to have the tooth taken out and needed some recovery time. Due to the long waiting list (and bear in mind that this was the waiting list for emergencies), I still haven’t had the tooth taken out and while the antibiotics and some good painkillers have prevented any more similar episodes, I’ve still been dealing with some tooth pain and migraines. So that hasn’t been ideal.

We only had four classes over the semester but since everyone was researching something different, they weren’t exactly classes. They were more group discussions where we’d talk about how our research and writing was going, whether we were struggling in a particular area, what we could do if we felt like we weren’t fulfilling one or more of the overall objectives, and so on. We had individual supervisors for the more specific guidance and problems whereas this was more general and we were able to share with each other what we’d found helpful, etc. These classes were online but we were finally able to come into the building. With most of the other courses finished for the summer, it was pretty empty and I felt safe there; you had to test negative just to get in the building and with no one around (pre-COVID, it could be a bit of a crush at times), my pandemic anxiety was a lot lower than it usually is when I’m out in the world. Being there after so much time and getting to see some of my friends again made me positively giddy! And there were some friends that I was actually meeting in person for the first time, which was just wonderful! I’m really going to miss it; I mean, I’ll pop in now and then for events and stuff but I’m really going to miss it being part of my day-to-day, week-to-week life.

Anyway. My supervisor was truly awesome. We had fortnightly and then weekly sessions and she was fantastic, not only with the academic stuff but with helping me to manage my anxiety, the things that tripped up my neurodivergent brain, and so on. And while we worked together well, we also had a lot of fun: we went on some epic tangents and there were multiple conversations that we had to mentally bookmark for later in order to actually get our work done. We got on really well and our sessions were always fun and thought-provoking, as well as helpful. I hope that this isn’t the last time we get to work together.

I obviously know a lot about Autism already so, after finding sources for that information, I started writing songs about my experiences and researching Autism further. Having the foundation of knowledge that I did, I think allowed me to research both more deeply and down different avenues since I didn’t have to spend so much time on the basic knowledge. And some of that research, from academic papers to anecdotal stories to art made by autistic individuals, sparked some really interesting song ideas (for example, I ended up writing a love song after watching Love on the Spectrum, which I found both upsetting and deeply depressing as an autistic person).

I don’t want to give too much away about the songs because I hope to release them but, over the semester, I wrote eighteen songs with a handful more that still need finishing. For the most part, I wrote alone – first because it was more convenient and then because I felt like my experiences were conveyed with more clarity that way – but I did work with a few different people, when I was struggling with a concept for example. I wrote with a couple of my friends – Richard and Luce (known as LUCE) – but I also wrote with new people that I’ve met during my time on the Masters – Luke (known as leadmetoland), Phill Vidler, and Katherine Moynihan – which was fun and exciting. It was nice to do both: I love cowriting and the back and forth of ideas but doing so much writing by myself really restored my confidence; I’ve spent so much time cowriting over the last two years and really not that much solo writing so I was nervous when I started to write alone again but after a while, it started to feel really good and that was really exciting.

But while I didn’t manage to write with Richard as much as I’d originally hoped to, we had many production sessions, mostly over Zoom. While I’d never considered the production unimportant, the project evolved to a place where the production was just as key to the representation of my autistic experiences and the emotions attached to them as the lyrics conveying the story or message. So the two of us spent a lot of time working on every little detail. While I’ve always been involved in the production choices of my songs, I’ve also always been aware that Richard knows a hell of alot more than me so I was happy to defer to his judgement. But with this project, for the first time really, I was taking the lead on production decisions – on occasion, I had the whole arrangement and production planned out before the session. But I felt more like a producer than I ever have: I was coming up with ideas that actually worked from idea to execution; I was able to pick out specific instrument, arrangement, and effect details in a way I haven’t been able to do up to now; and so on. Along with the songs themselves, that’s something I’d really proud of. I really feel like I grew as a musician and as a producer.

I absolutely loved working on my project. To be researching and writing songs about something I’m so passionate about was just so creatively invigorating. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard though. There were, of course, periods of doubt, insecurity, and anxiety over the academic elements and whether I’d be able to do as good a job as I desperately wanted to. Plus, some of the experiences I was digging into were pretty raw and writing those songs did get difficult, especially since I was suddenly doing the project without the support of my therapist, something I’d put in place to help me manage that. But apart from one bad bout of depression, my mental health was – somehow – reasonably stable (apart from my day-to-day, ongoing anxiety). As I said in my previous post, I think it was the constant creating (and creating things that I’m really proud of) that did it, that kept everything on a reasonably even keel.

Having said that, my chronic pain was almost constant, worse than it’s ever been. There were periods where my knee, for example, was so painful that I could barely walk and my back so painful that I could barely move. My Mum (once a massage therapist) said that it felt like I was storing rocks in my muscles. It certainly felt like they were made of concrete. Maybe it was my anxiety around the project, I don’t know, but the pain was keeping me up at night. I also struggled on and off with my hands and wrists, presumably from all of the typing, piano, and guitar playing I was doing. God, my various health issues are like freaking buses sometimes. I’m still waiting for physiotherapy and hydrotherapy, have been for months. I’ve just started with the Pain Clinic but one appointment was never going to change anything before the Masters ended. So all I had were various painkillers that were only sporadically helpful.

But my biggest ongoing obstacle was my difficulty concentrating, which I’m assuming is due to my (still untreated) ADHD. Staying focussed on my work was very difficult; I exhausted all of my energy trying. It felt like my concentration was so delicate that the smallest distraction would shatter it and then there was no way to know when it would come back; I felt like I was clinging onto it by my fingertips. So I couldn’t stop (really not healthy, I know). I couldn’t waste a second of it. That was super stressful and I often ended up sitting at my computer for hours and hours; there were multiple fourteen hour days, some successful, some not. People kept telling me to at least take a day off now and then but I just couldn’t. I was too scared of losing my concentration when my hold on it felt so tenuous.

During the semester, I also had a few other commitments; it was awkward timing but they were all great opportunities:

  • As I mentioned in my post about the previous semester, I was part of the judging panel for a songwriting competition. That ended up being a lot of work but fortunately I managed to get it all done in time for this module to start. The end was pretty stressful because our deadline was suddenly brought forward but it was a great experience and I learned a lot from it; there were so many amazing songs and so many talented songwriters and they’re all still pretty young. I hope they keep writing; some of them I’d love to see pursue songwriting as a career. The final winners weren’t the ones I personally would’ve have chosen but I guess that’s what happens when you’re judging by committee and there are so many good songs to chose from.
  • I also submitted work to a competition: three songs, two already written and one that I wrote as part of this project. I was supposed to find out whether I’d made it through the first round in August, I think, but, because they’re also an organisation and not just a competition, COVID has thrown a wrench in the plan and so the whole thing has been delayed until February. So I guess I won’t know anything for a while.
  • One of my tutors is doing a research project on the many reasons why we write songs and I volunteered to share my thoughts. In mid July, a handful of students came together for a Q&A panel about our personal songwriting intentions, processes, and experiences. It was really interesting with a pretty wide range of reviews and even a couple of debates. Hopefully some of what we said was useful for the research.
  • Also in July was the Taylor Swift focussed musicology conference I mentioned in my post about the previous semester and I presented my paper on some of Swift’s lyric writing techniques: her repeated use of certain imagery and the ongoing themes throughout her discography. I loved researching it (and hope to research it further in the future) and writing the paper – so much so that it ended up being over ten thousand words long and I had to do some major editing work. Presenting the paper – I ended up recording it and presenting it in video form because I was so nervous – was very nerve-wracking: everyone was lovely and very welcoming but I was just so aware of how inexperienced I was. But it went really well and I really enjoyed the whole conference; there were so many interesting papers. I hope it’s a conference that can happen again (not just because I have so many ideas that I’d love to research but because Taylor Swift is so fascinating on so many levels; there’s a lot that can be learned from her, not just around music but in business, in the development of pop culture, and so on). 

In the last month, my approach reached a new level of intensity. I was working constantly, quickly when my concentration was good and agonisingly slowly when it was bad. But I didn’t stop. I even worked while I ate. I know that’s not a healthy way of doing things but I was just so terrified of getting a grade I wasn’t happy with, that made me feel like I was letting everyone down, myself included. If I wasn’t working, I felt guilty so I just kept working.

Finally it came time to try and distill all my work down to the most important points for the final presentation. My god, that was hard. Months of research, almost twenty songs, and a lot of reflection on my creative process all into an hour… Or, as I said, the most important points. But figuring what those important points were was a real struggle. Throughout the whole Masters, I felt like the module objectives were designed to trip me up – not me specifically, of course, but anyone reading them. Reading them felt like trying to interpret another language that you barely understand so I felt like I was just waiting to discover that I had it all wrong. Maybe it was my autistic brain, I don’t know. My supervisor was great regarding this anxiety but two years of feeling that way made it a hard feeling to exorcise. So I just did what I know how to do and worked through it, hoping it would be enough. And on the 6th September, I had my final assessment. Two tutors watched my presentation and then, after a brief discussion, they asked me a couple of questions, both of which were pretty straightforward to answer. And that was it. The project and the semester was over.


According to the usual rules, the results will be released in twenty working days, although I don’t know if that will apply given that my assessment was so much later than everyone else’s and they all received their results the day after I presented. So I’m just waiting to hear. I’m trying not to stress about my grade but, as I said in my previous post, I’m finding it hard. I’ve been working relentlessly – with so many obstacles to navigate – and the idea that that still wasn’t enough to get the Distinction I want so badly does upset me. I mean, I’d get over it in time but, yeah, it would be distressing. I just really hate the idea of thinking, “I could’ve gotten a distinction if I wasn’t autistic or had ADHD, etc.” I know that that’s not a healthy way to think but the standards and expectations I have for myself are somewhat warped, something that I think is due to the late ASD diagnosis and the clash between twenty-ish years with neurotypical standards and then having to adjust those expectations in accordance with what I now know is a neurodivergent brain. It’s a mess basically. But I’m waiting for the results – they should be out on the 6th October – and hoping desperately that it went as well as I hope it did.

While the ‘project-for-assessment’ is over, I definitely want to keep working on the songs, write some more on various elements of my autistic experience that I just didn’t manage in the timeframe, and then, hopefully, release it in some form. That’s the dream. I’m so proud of so many of these songs and I really, really want people to hear them and hopefully find strength or comfort in them. We’ll have to see because these projects are just so expensive to put together, from the production work to making music videos to all of the marketing.

And while this is a topic for another post, it should be acknowledged that the semester ended on a very sad note. I found out the morning after my presentation that my Granny had died. Between that news and an intense semester’s worth of work and my brain is just at overload. I can’t tell if I’m not feeling anything or feeling everything. I don’t really want to get too deeply into all of this, partly because I’m not ready and partly because, if only on my blog, I want to keep this semester and this project separate. I really just wanted to mention it in the context of all the emotions I’m dealing (or maybe not dealing) with right now.

So that was the final semester. But there’s still a couple more chapters in this story, so to speak. Graduation will hopefully go ahead as planned – in person – in November and then who knows? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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My apologies if this post is a bit all over the place: everything’s really hitting me and I’m just exhausted but I wanted to get this out while it’s still fresh.

Parenting a Young Adult With Autism Spectrum Disorder: I Interview My Mum

Since this is my blog, the experiences are predominately from my point of view but I thought it would be really useful, as well as interesting, to get a different perspective on the same scenario. So, with that in mind plus the fact that most resources are aimed at the parents of young autistic children, I asked my Mum if I could interview her about what it’s like to be the parent and often advocate for a young adult with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I came up with a list of questions and she answered them. I had almost no input on her answers, only to ask for more information or detail if I thought she hadn’t fully answered the question or finished a thought. We’re hopeful that this could be of some help to parents with adult children managing a form of Autism.


I’ve talked about what it was like for me to get a late diagnosis but what was that experience like for you?

The process of getting a diagnosis for you was frustrating at best and distressing at worst. You were very clear about your need to know the causes of your difficulties and so refusal from medical professionals to engage with that need was hard to witness. I needed to do the research, follow up possible assessments and/or therapies and talk about your challenges against a backdrop of suspicion of being overprotective and a distrust of my motives. Even when it became clear that your inability to talk for yourself at the outset was a result of Selective Mutism and your experience with those professionals, I was still met with a resistance to engage with me on your behalf.

Although I’m more able to speak for myself now, what has it been like having to do so much advocating for me?

It always felt like it was my role to do this until you were able to do it for yourself. I wasn’t trying to fix things, just get your voice heard, your experience understood so that the problems you were facing could be addressed and the right support provided.

I knew all the answers to questions you were being asked because we’d talked about it all beforehand. Both before and after your diagnosis, it has just felt like I can be the means to you being heard and hopefully understood as and when you are not able to do it yourself.

As in your first question, this doesn’t always work! And I do often feel frustrated by a refusal to accept my intentions, confusing it with a reluctance to ‘allow’ you to speak for yourself/become independent.

Knowing me but having an outside perspective, what would you consider to be the positives and negatives of having Autism Spectrum Disorder?

This is really difficult for me as all I see is YOU, with all your qualities and all your challenges. Combine this with the fact that each person with ASD presents so differently and I do find it difficult to generalise. Understanding more about women on the spectrum now, I see your very singular focus on anything you set out to do as a positive. I think your intense empathy is a double bind, giving you a compassion that can then often be overwhelming. The biggest negative I see is your level of anxiety. This is often debilitating and always massively exhausting and affects most aspects of your life.

How do you think things would’ve been different if my ASD had been recognised when I was younger?

This is a little easier to answer as I think, from all I see now, knowing about it earlier may have enabled us to access support for you and given you access to specialist resources. Having said that, I wonder if a diagnosis earlier might have ended up giving you a label that meant expectations, both your own and society’s, may have been different for you. Increased awareness of and understanding surrounding neurodiversity is relatively recent.

What do you think is the most important skill or trait when it comes to parenting a young adult with ASD?

This question makes me want to ask you what you feel has been most important but my sense is that being there for you, trying to put aside any preconceptions and opinions of my own so that I am able to really listen and hear what you are telling me, leave aside any of my own anxieties or fears, to support and encourage you to do what you want to do; a combination of protection when things are tough and support to push forward when you feel able.

I also feel it has been important to be prepared to read and research for myself and learn all about the condition so I can share this whenever it feels necessary to inform the argument for support. And to be prepared to persist when first attempts are met with a negative response.

I’ve often talked about feeling like a burden for not moving out or contributing more as a young adult. What are your thoughts on this?

In answering this, I would like to reference a quote here, which I think explains how I feel about this. I found this during one of my searches and thought it was a positive recognition of the difference I see and how it affects your life in the sense of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ you contribute and participate. Keri Opai, a Mental Health Service Award Winner in New Zealand, consulted the Maori disabled community in order to develop variants in language that differ from what he called the “sometimes condescending English terms,” and instead emphasised the ‘gaining [of] strength and ability.’ So the word for ‘disabled’ itself is ‘whaikaha,’ which means to “have strength or to be differently able.” He also spoke of people with autism having ‘their own timing, spacing, pacing and life-rhythm’ and so interpreted autism as ‘takiwatanga,’ meaning ‘in his or her own time and space.’ (Te Reo Hapai, the Language of Enrichment by Keri Opai)

I do understand that you feel this way though but I know that you do what you can when you can, and that this inevitably fluctuates according to what you have going on at any particular time. With the anxiety and fatigue you experience on a daily basis, and your focus being studying at the moment, it just doesn’t make sense that you do more than you are able to, nor that you would move out to live independently, with all the extra demands that would make on you, yet. There is plenty of time ahead for that. Until then, I get to enjoy your company and give you the support you need.

I’ve been taking various medications and going to different forms of therapy for years now. What do you think have been the effects of those, positive and negative?

I have always felt that it would be a combination of therapy and medication that would be likely to be the best way forward, and I think we both agree now that this has been the case. It was challenging to find a therapist that you felt able to work with but once we did, we knew instantly that you could start moving forward, in your own time and in whatever way felt possible, something your therapist has always supported.

Regarding medications, I do have concerns about their effects on you physically as well as mentally and appreciate that living together does mean I can help monitor these effects and see patterns and changes that maybe you can’t.

What do you think the hardest part of living with ASD is? 

Again, looking at you, I would say that the hardest part for you, of living with ASD, is the sense of feeling different and feeling left behind your peers; and watching you being so exhausted by managing the mental health issues that have troubled you as a result of the late diagnosis.

Do you feel your life is different because I’m autistic?

Yes, my life is different to what I had expected it would be at this point, but then so is yours. But we deal with that, and make it the best we can, for both of us.

What has been or is the hardest part of parenting a young adult with ASD?

I have often felt very isolated, and criticised for continuing to be your voice when you are not able to speak. And I do worry about the barriers you may face in a world that does not always recognise the assets and abilities of neurodiverse people, expecting autistic people to change rather than have society change the many inhospitable or incompatible environments and expectations that may hinder them.

What help/advice would have been helpful to you at any point?

All the way through… someone willing to believe in my intentions and acknowledge that, I, as a parent, only have your best interests at the core of everything I do.


So hopefully her responses to these questions have been helpful or reassuring to the parents among you guys. During this process, she actually realised that she had questions for me so we decided to do the same thing in reverse and that post will be up tomorrow!

What Women With Autism Want You To Know

The other day, I was just browsing through YouTube (probably procrastinating something) when I came across this video.

“Autism is not a disease, it is a developmental disability. It’s about living our best possible lives with this condition.”

I am ridiculously excited that this video exists. Even a few years ago, when I was looking into Autism as an explanation for my struggles, I was still being told that women don’t have Autism or being dismissed because I didn’t fit into the stereotype for Autism (which has come from autistic boys and men). So the fact that this video even exists shows that some progress has been made. At this moment in time, it has just short of a million views. A million! That means that potentially a million people now have a better understanding of Autism in women. That’s completely amazing!

There’s so much good stuff in this video – you really should watch the whole thing. But here are some of main points and some quotes that stuck out to me:

1. Autism covers a wide spectrum.

  • “Autism is an internal thing, not an external thing. No one looks autistic.”
  • “Autism isn’t a linear spectrum of high or low. It’s a whole bunch of different traits that are on their own spectrums. It’s kind of a 3D, weird mess.”
  • “Autism is simply a different way of thinking, seeing, and interacting with one’s world.”

2. We have emotions.

  • “I would definitely disagree with the idea that we’re not emotional. I think we’re actually highly emotional. I think that we just… many times we don’t express it the way people expect… We’re feeling it. It’s there. But it just might not come out. And then, at other times, it might be overly expressed.”
  • “We can’t filter them out because we feel them so strongly so we shut down as a way of processing all those emotions.”

3. Social interactions can be challenging.

  • “It takes a lot of effort to appear [like anybody else, like someone not on the spectrum]. Like, it takes a lot of conscious awareness. Social skills are like a muscle for us.”
  • “It’s very, very draining. Even with people that I care for and enjoy being around, I have to psych myself up to be around them.”
  • “All the little things that everyone does unconsciously, autistic people do manually. So that adds up. What I’m doing with every part of my body, I am to some degree aware of and trying to do.”

4. Diagnoses can happen at any age.

  • “A lot of women, women that I know who are autistic, are not diagnosed until their twenties, thirties, or even beyond. A large part of this is because the way that we diagnose Autism is by using criteria that were created by observing boys and Autism looks different in girls and women than it does in boys.”
  • “I feel like, ‘okay, I know why I’m this way, I know why other people are the way they are, so I can bridge this gap.'”

5. The nuances of dating can be challenging… but we do have sex lives.

  • “We just may need more support in order to learn how to make [relationships and sex] happen. We don’t naturally understand the nuances that are involved and there are a lot of nuances.”
  • “People on the Autism spectrum, especially women, are more likely to experience sexual assault or some sort of violent incident than the neurotypical, non autistic population. We are very vulnerable. We definitely can be more trusting because we are very honest and upfront people so we don’t think that other people might not be so honest and might be trying to hurt us.”
  • “One of the traits of Autism is not reading between the lines in social interactions and so much of dating and sexually is supposed to be indirect and subtle and that it’s inappropriate to talk about sex in a direct way, even when you’re teaching it as sex ed.”
  • “No one is teaching the social aspects [of dating and sex]. And honestly, this is where autistic people are the canaries in the coal mine. Teaching the social aspects of sexuality would help everyone. Autistic people need it but it also benefits everyone.”

6. We have lots of different interests.

  • “There is a stereotype that everyone with Autism is into science and math and stuff, like Rain Man. But a lot of people with Autism… women actually, especially… a lot of us are into the arts.”
  • “In my experience, autistic girls are also just as obsessive autistic boys. They’re just obsessed with, you know, fantasy novels or their favourite band or whatever. Not planes, trains, and automobiles.”

7. Bullying sucks.

  • “You know, it’s like somebody making fun of a blind person only in this case you’re blind socially.”
  • “We all start from somewhere but that isn’t necessarily where we’re going to end up and you have to believe that there is going to be a future.”
  • “There’s enough misfits in the world, like, people who got picked on. There’s so many of us. So you do find your tribe.”

8. It’s getting better.

  • “I think things are going to be a lot better for the next generation.”
  • “You know, your kid might be behind their peers but it doesn’t mean they’re gonna be behind forever. Your kid is a full human being who will grow and change just like everyone else.”

As I said, it’s amazing that this video exists and that autistic women are being seen and that people are finally understanding that autism in women looks different than it does in men, and that it can look different from woman to woman. I agree with all of these points but there’s still so much to it, to living with this everyday. So, in addition to these points, this is what I, as an autistic woman, want you to know:

  • I have no idea either – Just because these behaviours and reactions are coming out of my brain and my body, that doesn’t mean I necessarily understand them. I’ve done a lot of reading about Autism and mental health but it’s just different in real life. I’m learning everyday and I hope that you’ll keep learning with me.
  • It’s exhausting – As these women said, it’s draining, even when it comes to things that you enjoy. It’s like you have to consciously process everything you do, everything around you, and that takes up so much energy. I cannot manage as much as everyone else and I find that so difficult to get my head around.
  • I’m doing my best – I promise.