World Autism Awareness Day – Inclusive Quality Education For All

Given that the theme for this day was only announced by the UN a week or so ago, this isn’t as prepared as I would’ve liked; I would’ve liked more time to work on it, to organise my thoughts on the topic. ‘Cause this week has just been chaos, both in reality and emotionally: I had to leave my cats at a cattery, pack for my trip to the US, fly to Boston, go to a concert there, and then fly to Nashville, where I’ve been super busy. And all of that has been very stressful. So it’s not ideal but I’ve done the best I could with the time and emotional energy I’ve had.


Given that the theme set by the UN this year is ‘inclusive quality education for all,’ I thought I’d write a bit about my experience in education as a young autistic woman. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was twenty so, while my years in school were obviously affected by my being autistic, we didn’t know that that was the cause.

During primary and secondary school, things were pretty okay. I loved learning so that was never the hard part for me. I was shy – painfully so (P.E. and drama classes were cause for weekly distress) – and I was exhausted by being in school but otherwise I think it was fairly normal. For the most part, I was a high achiever: I learned to read and write well very quickly; I was top of the class in most subjects (some of which I tried hard in but some of which I seemed naturally good at); I was in my school’s ‘gifted and talented’ stream for multiple subjects. I was left to myself a bit, I think; I guess there’s a logic to the idea that you don’t need to help a smart kid be smart but then, in the long run, said smart kid doesn’t learn how to learn, if that makes sense. I picked things up very quickly so no one ever really taught me how to study; once I got to the harder stuff, I started to struggle.

Things were fine until sixth form college, when that problem really kicked in. But still, I pushed through: I worked harder, I exhausted myself further. But I thought there was something wrong with me. I thought I was stupid, that I was missing something; it never occurred to me that something like ASD meant my brain processed information differently, that the combination of the undiagnosed ASD and my all-consuming attempts to keep up were having a detrimental affect on my physical and mental health, or that I wasn’t being supported as I should’ve been. I had individual teachers who were kind and understanding but the institution itself offered no support at all. By the time I was taking my A Levels, I was so burned out and worn down that I was right on the edge of a breakdown. I ended up taking a gap year between the end of sixth form and the beginning of the university as I tried to get a handle on my spiralling mental health.

I went to the same university for both my BA and my MA (although with a few years in between), mostly because it allowed me to pursue my greatest special interest (songwriting) and study it in depth. I was diagnosed with several mental health problems during my first year of the BA and then ASD between the first and second year, which was when my university became more open to supporting me (it is worth pointing out however that I had to fight for almost every step because they simply didn’t understand why I needed what I told them I needed). They had what was called a Student Support Agreement that was supposed to be sent to all of my tutors before classes started so that they knew the difficulties I struggled with and what sort of accommodations I might need but I’d often introduce myself to a tutor and they’d have no idea what I was talking about.

In general, most of my tutors tried to understand; they were as accommodating and supportive as the university would allow them to be. They wanted to know; they wanted to understand; they wanted to make things easier for me (obviously not easier than it was for everyone else but to put me on the same level as my peers so I wasn’t disadvantaged). And while, I don’t mind – and even at times enjoy – educating others on Autism, it took a lot of energy to have those conversations at the beginning of every semester, sometimes multiple times. (It’s also worth pointing out that having those conversations can be really enjoyable when the person wants to learn but it can be a totally different story when you’re having those conversation out of necessity and the person isn’t really engaged.) It wasn’t until the last semester of my Masters that I worked with a tutor who was neurodivergent herself and it was a completely new way of experiencing education; feeling so understood and accommodated was amazing and that was definitely reflected in my work.

But while the individuals were open, for the most part, I felt like the institution wasn’t particularly interested in my experience as a neurodivergent student. It’s a small school so there were never that many of us (or there weren’t when I last spoke to them about it) because there weren’t that many of us in general and I don’t think they saw us as worth investing in (as in, it wasn’t financially worthwhile to educate all of their tutors on Autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions for just a handful of students) despite the benefits it could have for all of the students and for the tutors themselves.

Having said that, when I started the Masters I was introduced to the person brought in to support students with Autism and ADHD. I was feeling really optimistic about going back to uni – that progress was being made – but I hadn’t even known her a month when her actions triggered the biggest meltdown I’d had to date in the middle of a busy London train station, which was a traumatic experience. After that, I never heard from her again and found out from someone else that she’d transferred me back to Student Services without her ever saying anything to me. And all of that was with her training and experience. So I didn’t have a lot of faith in their efforts after that. I’m still talking to them though and I hope that I can still help them make the university experience better for neurodivergent students. They could – and they should – be doing more. With so many neurodivergent students dropping out of university, more needs to be done and I think the starting point is teaching the teachers.

I think it’s worth pointing out that I am in a fairly privileged position: I’m from a white, middle class family with a good support system and I went to good schools throughout my time in education. I was also able to go to university and had support from home that allowed me to do that in the way that was best for me. I was (and am) very lucky. But despite all of that, education has been an incredibly distressing experience.


Ultimately, everyone in education needs to know more about Autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions; knowledge and understanding is the only way that the education experience is going to get better for neurodivergent students. All of these institutions have been built on ableist foundations and I don’t have the answers on how to fix that but I do know that, without the knowledge, nothing will ever change.

When Results Day Isn’t What You Hoped It Would Be

Trigger warning: This post contains details of an emotional breakdown and mentions of self harm.

So results day is coming up. The timeframe is much as it ever was: school grades will be released as planned: A Level results will be released on the 13th August and GCSE results will be released on the 20th August. Degree results tend to depend on the specific university. Despite all of the upheaval over the last several months and the changes made to the expected academic year, many people still took exams of some kind, worked hard on projects or coursework, and pushed themselves to attain the highest marks they could so, regardless of the unusual circumstances, the anxiety around these days is no doubt mounting.

As I’m in the middle of my course, I’m not currently awaiting any grades. I completed my second module back in April and received my marks not long after. But every August (and to an extent, January, when some modules are assessed), I think of all those anxiously anticipating those numbers or letters that they’ve been working towards for months, that their lives have revolved around for so long (not a healthy mindset, mind you, but one that society has entrenched in us and one that I’d like to talk about further at a later date). I think of those young people and hope that, whatever grades they have received, they are coping in a positive and healthy way.

What with my GCSEs, some in Year 9 and some in Year 11, my AS Levels, my A Levels, all the results during my degree, and now my Masters, I’ve had many, many a results day. And the majority of them have been absolutely fine, if not better than fine. Some of them have been downright amazing. But I do have one very negative experience that I think is important to share because chance are, at some point or another, we will all have a bad results day that comes as a shock. So I want to tell this story and then share some advice for dealing with a similar situation…

It was a chilly morning in March 2013 and I was anxiously awaiting the release of the Autumn module results with my friends. The only course I’d had an exam in was Physics and although I’d found it difficult, I finished it feeling like I’d done okay. Having been absent for a lot of secondary school due to ongoing illness, I’d missed out on a lot of foundation material so I’d found the course difficult but during the most recent parent-teacher evening, my teacher told us (me and my Mum) that she had absolute confidence in my abilities and that I was on track for a high grade. So when I opened my results and saw the little printed ‘u,’ I was initially confused. Surely it was a mistake. I’d always gotten good grades and my teacher had said such positive things. I waited restlessly for the mark to be confirmed and when it was, it felt simultaneously like everything went still and like everything was crashing down around me. I made my escape and headed for the more secluded of the two toilet blocks – I felt like every emotion I was feeling was visible on my face and I had no idea how to talk about it or how to pretend that I was fine. I needed to be alone.

I was crying before I even made it into the toilet stall and I sat on the lid, sobbing so hard that my chest hurt. I was gasping for air but it was like my lungs had pinprick holes in them, the air rushing straight out again. Even to this day, I’m not sure I can explain exactly what I was feeling. It’s not especially subtle and sounds very dramatic but it felt like the world was ending. I felt like a failure and I felt like the only thing people would see when they looked at me was a failure. All I was was this ‘u.’ All I was was ‘unsatisfactory.’ I couldn’t move past that thought. Everything else disappeared.

I don’t know how long I sat in that cubicle, crying and self harming, before my friends tracked me down. I wanted to stay there and hide forever but somehow, I dragged myself up and walked out to face them. I still remember the shock on their faces; I still remember looking at myself in the mirror, my face a mess of thick, mascara stained tear tracks and my arms covered in scratches. I looked as bad as I felt.

One of my best friends – someone I still consider a good friend despite the fact that we don’t see each other as often as we used to – took control of the situation, taking me off campus to a coffee shop where she gently coaxed the story out of me over hot chocolate. We both had to go back for classes but she arranged for us to talk to a mutually beloved and admired teacher at the end of the day. I wasn’t convinced but I was operating on autopilot, drained of the will to protest. So after my lesson (a lesson in which I didn’t say a word), we went to see this teacher and in her typical fashion, kind but direct, she told me about some of her experiences and talked me through my options. Then I went home and didn’t return for over a week.

It’s worth noting that my mental health had been deteriorating exponentially over the previous year, so this happened at a time when I was completely unequipped to handle it and it was a catalyst for a lot of big decisions. I dropped out of the physics course, partly because I wasn’t mentally healthy enough to manage the number of courses I was taking and partly because I was so distressed by the experience that I felt completely incapable of going back into that classroom and continuing with the course. Just thinking about sitting in that room triggered anxiety too extreme to function. And I can admit now that there was some shame involved too: I couldn’t bear the thought of my teacher and my class looking at me and seeing a failure. So I dropped Physics, completed the rest of my courses, and started seeking professional help for what were now obvious mental health problems.

To this day, I still struggle to open exam results. I work extremely hard and then, when the results are released, I’m very careful to open them at a time when I feel emotionally equipped to handle whatever they’ll say and when I have the time to process the emotions that I’ll potentially experience. I’ve talked about this a lot with my therapist, in general terms, but then we talk about it every time new results loom. Not long ago, she referred to the experience as ‘a trauma’ and the relief of having it validated for the distress it caused and continues to cause was so overwhelming that I swear my heart stuttered in my chest. After having so many of my experiences (and the ongoing problems they caused) invalidated, it was a really emotional moment. That day had a massive effect on my mental health and my relationship with education and still triggers debilitating anxiety.

Not all results days are like this. In fact, most of them aren’t and I hope that you – you, reading this – never have to go through an experience like this one, but just in case you do, here are some of the things that I’ve learned about coping with difficult results…


IN THE MOMENT

  • Get yourself to a safe place – Dealing with difficult emotions is hard enough in itself but factors like crowds of people, lots of noise, and so on can make it even more difficult. Whether you need to be alone or with a friend, somewhere quiet or somewhere too noisy to let yourself dwell (momentarily is fine, indefinitely obviously isn’t healthy), being in a place where you feel free to express your emotions can only make it easier to cope with the torrent of emotion.
  • Give yourself time to process your emotions – I always find that, when something huge and unexpected happens in my life, my emotions completely overwhelm me and while I know what I’m feeling right then and there, it often changes as the intensity recedes. I try not to make any decisions until everything feels more stable; if I do, I usually end up regretting them. So let your emotions flow and evolve and eventually simplify. Once that happens, everything will be clearer.
  • Talk it through with someone – Talking to someone (someone you feel safe and un-judged with) about what you’re going through can you help you process the emotions and make sense of what’s causing them, whether it’s a fear of disappointing people, a fear of damaging your future, or a fear of failure in general. Or something completely different and personal to you. And then, when you’re ready, they can help you put it in perspective and decide what to do next.
  • If it feels helpful, compare with your peers – Whether this is a good idea can only be judged by you. Sometimes sharing can be a bonding experience; for example, if the exam or module was marked universally harshly, the shared emotions can help you deal with the situation. However, if you decide to compare your grades with your classmates, be careful about who you choose to talk to: some people may approach the problem with potentially invalidating positivity, some may have done worse and be sensitive about it, and so on. It’s not a straightforward choice and one that only you can make.

ONCE YOUR EMOTIONS HAVE SETTLED

  • Talk to your teacher(s) – Not only do your teachers know the system, they will also have seen and helped multiple people through experiences similar to yours. They will have useful advice and experience that they can share with you that will hopefully make it easier to decide on your next steps.
  • If you get feedback, assess areas to improve on – If your results come with feedback, read through it carefully and think carefully about how you can perform consistently in the areas you excel at and how you can improve in the areas you lost marks in. Having clear goals for your future work can improve not only your future performance but also help with negative feelings around your recent grades.
  • Think about whether you want to resit – Retaking exams can be a smart route to take because resits can give you extra time to learn the material and they can help you boost your overall grade. And if that overall grade affects your next steps, it may be possible to continue with that original plan, just a year later. However, resits eat up time, can distract you from whatever comes next – whether that’s working on new modules, new experiences in a gap year, etc – and challenge your mental health with added anxiety and pressure. Again, only you can make this choice but I recommend talking to multiple people with various viewpoints before making a final decision.
  • Consider getting extra help – Whether you’re starting a new module or resitting previous exams, support from a tutor or mentor might be helpful, both in your approach to learning and your overall grades. You might also find that you need some support with your mental health after upsetting results or in the face of moving forward in education so you may want to talk to your school’s counsellor or the pastoral care team or even your GP. It may also help to talk to a teacher, not specifically for mental health advice but for advice on who to talk to concerning this matter.

Despite the trauma of that day and the vivid images that come to mind whenever I recall it, there are three things that I actively choose to focus on:

  1. The absolute kindness of my friend – I don’t know how that day would’ve gone if my friend hadn’t come to find me, taken care of me, and taken me to talk to a teacher I trusted. While I wasn’t capable of properly acknowledging her help at the time, I am so grateful that she was there and that she looked after me in my most fragile state, nonjudgmental of my emotions, accepting of my self harming, and thinking only of how to help me. Whether we’re friends forever or our paths diverge, I will always remember and appreciate it.
  2. The words of my teacher – I so appreciate my teacher sharing her story with me and what she’d learned from it, even if I wasn’t really taking it all in at the time. I didn’t know it at the time but she helped. She really helped. I can’t remember her exact words (much of that day is a blur) but in essence, she said: there is always more than one path to get to where you want to be. I didn’t truly understand it at the time. I had a plan and I was going to follow it but looking back, she was right. I may not be literally where I wanted to be but I’m metaphorically where I wanted (and want) to be and more importantly, I think I’m where I’m supposed to be, if a little battle-scarred.
  3. It was the beginning of a very important journey – It was a horrible day with far reaching consequences but it was that day that really made us realise that something was very wrong and we needed to do something about it. Of course, if you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know that my mental health journey has been and continues to be full of twists and turns but if not for that day, who knows how much longer I would’ve struggled before something pushed us into action. I thought it was the end of everything but in fact, it was the start.

This post turned out to be a lot longer than I’d intended but I hope it has been somewhat helpful. I hope you remember that whether your results are good or bad, whatever you feel is valid. You have spent years working towards this moment and it’s natural and totally okay to have strong feelings about them. It would be odd if you didn’t. You’ve worked hard for this. So feel what you feel and do what you need to do to make sense of this big, messy experience that you’ve gone through. It will be okay – maybe not in the way you expect but it will be okay. I can promise you that.

So I Wrote A Thing For World Mental Health Day

(Trigger warning for self harm.)

Today is World Mental Health Day.

If I’m honest, I’m not really sure what to say. I’m in the middle of the worst depression I’ve ever experienced and I’m very aware that my perspective, my opinions, my hopes are distorted by that. If this was a video, I might just sit and cry. But this day is important so I’m trying to pull myself together and put something out into the world that is (hopefully) positive (and maybe helpful).

This year’s theme is the mental health of young people. When it comes to things like this, I’ve never felt comfortable talking about anyone’s experience but my own. So that’s what I’m going to do. I hope that’s okay with you guys.

My experience at secondary school was a very mixed one. I spent the first three years dealing with some complicated health problems but by the time I reached Years 10 and 11 (ages fifteen and sixteen for those of you who don’t know the education system in England), I felt really settled. I loved learning, particularly English, Maths, History, Psychology, and Philosophy (real shout out to my teachers in all of those subjects). I got real satisfaction from working hard and that was reflected in my grades. I came out of secondary school with not unimpressive grades, especially when you consider I missed most of the first three years. So I felt pretty good about going into Sixth Form (A Levels/ages seventeen and eighteen).

But that was when it all started to unravel. I really, really struggled. I’d gone from completing the work with ease to barely scraping by. I couldn’t understand it: I was trying so hard and it didn’t seem to make any difference. And I couldn’t see it at the time, but my anxiety was getting worse and worse and what I now know to be depression was creeping in. But I didn’t know it was happening so I just kept pushing forwards. I spoke to a couple of people about the high anxiety I was experiencing but each one told me that anxiety is normal and that was the end of the conversation.

It all came to a head when I failed an exam, something that had never happened before. I’d been told I was all set for an A* and I came out with a U. I was absolutely devastated. I know now that our worth as human beings has nothing to do with grades but I was eighteen years old: I had only ever been valued based on my grades. It’s no one person’s fault but that’s how the education system in this country works. It needs changing.

But back to this little story. I don’t remember much after I opened the envelope and saw that U but I ended up in one of the less used college toilets, self harming repeatedly with a broken paperclip. I don’t know how long I was there (long enough that the automatic lights went off and I was plunged into a very appropriate darkness) but at some point, my friends tracked me down and coaxed me out of the stall. I still remember seeing my reflection: my make up all down my face, my hands shaking, and the scratches barely hidden by my long sleeves. One friend took me to a nearby café, bought me a hot chocolate, and just talked to me. And eventually I told her what I’d done. Her kindness and gentleness was so healing, not for the whole problem but for that very difficult day. I will never forget it and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay it.

After that, I dropped out of that course and clawed my way out with two A Levels and an Extended Project, far less than I and everyone had expected of me. I went straight into a music course but had to drop out two days in because my anxiety was so bad that I just couldn’t cope. I spent a year grappling with the anxiety and depression, trying the first of many antidepressants (so many) and trying to retake some of the exams in the hope that I could improve my A Levels (I didn’t end up opening the results of those until after I finished my degree, three years later, but that’s another story). During that year, I tried desperately to get help from the NHS to no avail: my anxiety was so bad that talking to people I didn’t know was practically impossible and they refused to help me if I wouldn’t talk. Eventually we were forced to go private, something that I’m endlessly, endlessly grateful has been possible. And I only managed to get my diagnoses when my university said they weren’t able to help me if I didn’t have an official diagnosis.

It still upsets me to talk about. I asked and asked and asked for help but no one either seemed able or willing to help me. I would not be as twisted up now had that not been the case. The information and support was not available to me, it wasn’t available to my family, and it wasn’t available or deemed important enough (I’m not sure which is worse) to the medical professionals I saw. That has to change. It is not acceptable.

Now that I’ve told my story, I want to include some other important, relevant stuff.

The first thing is that I want to link you to Hannah Jane Parkinson’s recent article in The Guardian. She makes the very important distinction between mental health and mental illness. And this is where, I think, physical health and mental health are most comparable: your mental health is something you take care of (or don’t) everyday, by eating and sleeping well, exercising, talking through your emotions, and so on. Mental illnesses, similarly to physical illnesses, can be caused by not taking care of your mental health but there can also be genetic factors, environmental factors, and just hard stuff going on in your life.

WAYS TO HELP YOUR MENTAL HEALTH:

  • Talk – Talk through your feelings with someone you trust.
  • Keep a journal – This way you can air your thoughts and feelings in private.
  • Keep in contact with friends – It’s really easy to get busy and fall out of touch but spending time with people you love and feeling connected to other people is so important.
  • Exercise – This doesn’t mean every or any kind of exercise will help. On a personal level some types of exercise can potentially hurt your mental health. You just need to find the one that does help and then it will really help. I always recommend swimming because it’s non-weightbearing and therefore causes less strain on your body when you’re potentially already struggling with physical symptoms, like fatigue.
  • Eat well/drink sensibly – Everything we put into our bodies affects our minds.
  • Be mindful of your commitments – Yes, social interaction can be really helpful but if you’re taking on too much, it will take more from you than it gives you. And then you won’t be able to cope as well with whatever else is thrown at you.
  • Ask for help if you start to feel mentally and emotionally overwhelmed – Fortunately it’s starting to become easier to access support and counselling but even if it’s a struggle, it is a struggle worth going through.
  • Spend time with animals – It’s scientifically proven that being with animals is good for your health!

WAYS TO HELP YOUR MENTAL ILLNESS:

  • Work with a medical professional/therapist that respects and understands what you’re struggling with – Finding one can be the mission of a lifetime but having that presence in your life whose sole purpose is to help you through your struggles is incredible.
  • Medication – If you’re prescribed medication, take it diligently.
  • Try to keep track of your triggers – Knowing what they are doesn’t always prevent them from sending you into a complete spiral but even one spiral avoided is progress.
  • Create a support system – This isn’t something you can necessarily do without help but, over time and with the help of people who care about you, building a circle of trusted people who will support you through whatever it is you’re going through is so special and helpful.
  • Take time off if you need it – This is one I think we all struggle with. It’s a learning curve for a lot of us but it is important and can prevent small problems from becoming big problems.
  • Find a stress reliever – Whether it’s reading, or watching every episode of your favourite TV show, or doing something artsy like watercolouring, taking a break from all the stuff in your head is well worth doing.
  • Create a safe space for yourself – Living with a mental illness is exhausting and so having somewhere where you can just exist without thinking or masking is so important.

And of course, there is overlap between these two lists.

Where we go from here, I’m not sure. The information about mental health and mental illness is spreading and spreading and more and more people are speaking up. Now we need the right systems to support it: doctors, treatment, government officials who advocate for positive change. For now, that’s all I know. For now, I’m just trying to manage one day at a time.

(And a gentle reminder, my debut single, ‘Invisible,’ which I wrote about my experiences with my mental health is available on iTunes and Spotify and all those places and all proceeds go to Young Minds, a charity that supports young people in their mental health.)