‘You did really good on that test, didn’t you?’. A voice of surprise, shock, perhaps even disbelief coming from a university lecturer who is aware that I have a learning disability. I’d like to say that it was an isolated incident in my life, but it’s something I’ve become accustomed to, especially since I was diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, and autistic-like traits in my late teenage years, the latter of which has currently come under review once again by my mental health team. I’ve been told by many people that I should be grateful that I was never ‘officially’ diagnosed with autism – an ableist point of view I wish people would retire.
If we pretend it’s not a problem, it won’t be one
Let me explain a bit about my life. My late diagnoses were not due to lack of awareness or severity of symptoms but rather my parents’ ableist beliefs that they wouldn’t let go. They didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t the ‘ideal’ child. Even though I would be considered a ‘masker’ in most situations, I was always called as ‘strange’ or ‘different’. When people actually started approaching me to ask/tell me about my symptoms, I was taken aback. I had no idea that these thoughts and behaviours were not the norm. I just thought that everyone had been told to ‘keep it all in’ and they had formed the ability to do so earlier than I had. I had no idea that people had flagged these symptoms to my parents from an early age.
I’ve always tried to believe in myself, even when others around me didn’t, but it can get difficult sometimes. In one way, getting diagnosed late was a blessing because I wasn’t ever put in the disability box that others struggle to overcome. However, it did affect me in many other ways. I was often referred to as ‘over-dramatic’ or ‘over-emotional’. The attitudes of ‘keep everything in’ and ‘if we pretend it’s not a problem, it won’t be’, have plagued my life in the form of eating disorders and depression. I have bounced through different types of disordered eating, restricting, bingeing, purging and over-exercising, among others. However, just as with my neurodiversity, it was ignored for many years as I struggled on. Not to even get into my parents tightly held uber-Catholic views, including stringent homophobia and ‘traditional’ (sexist) views. Although it’s not directly needed for this discussion, I am a pansexual feminist who doesn’t really understand the concept of religion – making me even further from the ‘ideal’ in my parents’ eyes.
Being neurodivergent in higher education – my experience
Yes, I’m aware there is a lot to unpack there, but we are not going to get into all that. I am going to focus on my mental health and neurodiversity and their effects on my academic journey, with a few ‘highlights’ discussed below. You may wonder, with everything going on; how did I manage to get through secondary school and into university in the first place? In part, it was wishful thinking that helped me; a long-held wish for a time when my parents would have less influence on my life.
Did things change in the first year I got to university? Unfortunately, no. It took me nearly eight months to get the academic supports I needed as I had to go to specialists and get more documentation. I also found it very difficult to escape the ideas of ‘deal with your own struggles’ and ‘other people have it worse’. They had been so ingrained in my mind that I thought I couldn’t reach out for help, even when I was self-harming or feeling suicidal. I just struggled on.
To make matters worse, when I finally reached out for help, I was assigned to a counsellor at my university (who no longer works there) who told me that all my problems were due to a lack of ‘faith’. That set me back a great deal. I started thinking I couldn’t reach out for help. If this is the response that I was going to get from mental health professionals, then they clearly didn’t think that there was anything wrong with me.
Maybe I was just being over-dramatic and exaggerating how I felt? So, fuelled by this thought, I stopped trying to get help, and my depression and anxiety got worse. It took me hours to get out of bed, and some days I just couldn’t. I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone.
My disordered eating got worse; I started bingeing more than once a day. I felt like I was hitting rock bottom and then I fell down the stairs at work leading to back, hip and ankle injuries. This led to me losing the one thing that was keeping me together at all, boxing. Ultimately, that led to me hitting my actual rock bottom a few months later. I was trying to juggle my injury with full-time college and working an average of 30 hours a week to pay my rent. My exercise level went from excessive to zero, but no one told my brain. My disordered binge eating continued, and I started to put on weight at an alarming rate. However, I was so detached from my body at this stage that I didn’t even notice I’d put on any weight until I put on over 25 pounds (11 kilograms). Even then, I still couldn’t see it visually. Honestly, I nearly had a breakdown before I reached out to try and get professional help again. Luckily, I saw a G.P. that did take me seriously and referred me to the university psychiatrist. Unfortunately, that waiting list was a mile long, so I was placed on a mild anti-anxiety medication until I got an appointment several months later.
When I finally got an appointment, I did find the mental health services beneficial and the counsellor assigned to me this time around was much better and helpful. I felt supported, and with a bit of time, the right medication, and taking the time to develop some good coping mechanisms, I did start to feel a little better. I was given the option to get extensions on any assignments or exams if I thought I needed one. Still, most of the time, I didn’t take them because I felt as if I was somehow cheating if I did. I’m not sure why; I just felt like I didn’t deserve the accommodations to which I was entitled.
Some of my peers reinforced this idea when one of them found out I was working on an assignment after it was due and told everyone else. I felt terrible; I had just asked for a little extra time because it was an assignment that had a very short turnaround time, and I was not in a good place. It made me think twice about asking for any accommodations again for both my mental health or my disabilities.
The faculty response to me asking for accommodations for my mental health or disabilities was pretty much the same. There were procedures in place that they were supposed to follow. There were a few super supportive lecturers, who asked me if there was anything else they could do. They told me to point out if there was ever anything in their content or teaching that I found inaccessible. However, some felt as though asking for the support I needed was an attack on them or acted like it was a major inconvenience.
The first situation that comes to mind when I think of this was the time I had to go to the university ‘access office’, the department that dealt with everyone entitled to disability support. One lecturer refused to give me any accommodations when I found the teaching style completely inaccessible. He colour-coded the content on his slides, half the writing was in white, and the other half was in blue. He left the white writing off the slides he published online. There was confusion from the get-go as he failed to tell anyone that some content wasn’t going to be published online. Even when forced to clarify, he still did not leave anywhere near an appropriate amount of time to take notes on the content. Even those without a disability couldn’t get things down; I had no chance. My dyslexia is classed somewhere between moderate and severe, so I read really slowly. Before I escalated things to the access office, I tried to reason with him many times, but there was no change. It took several weeks and a meeting between the department head before he relented.
Another time, during the last year of my undergraduate degree, I was placed on a new medication by my psychiatrist, and I reacted badly to it. Honestly, I didn’t know if I was coming or going. When I took it, I was so tired but still sometimes couldn’t sleep. When I could sleep, I could not wake up. The psychiatrist would not listen to me and keep telling me it would settle down, but it didn’t. I eventually got off the medication after about eight months, but it was a difficult time. My work and my attendance were negatively affected, and I received permission from the mental health services to ask for extensions on my assignments. One lecturer, although required to comply, felt that I was ‘giving excuses’ and ‘probably just going out every night and partying’. This particular individual is also the one responsible for the comment in the opening line. He’s not the first to assume I’m unintelligent because I am neurodiverse – and I doubt he’ll be the last.
How can you support people with disabilities?
I think the most important thing to say about supporting the neurodiverse or anyone with a disability is to have a support system in place. It doesn’t need to be perfect from the get-go; a basic system can be expanded on once it’s in place.
An important thing to remember is that ‘neurodiversity’ is a word that is used for a range of conditions, and the supports needed will vary. Generic supports can include a quiet workspace, grammar software, task descriptions or format templates, and text-reading software. There are excellent open-source softwares available, so ‘we don’t have the money’ is no longer applicable. An easy way to ensure you are supporting the neurodiverse to the best of your ability is to just ask them if there’s anything precise they require.
In an ideal world, I would like everyone to take all the stereotypes about neurodiversity and throw them away. Especially the ones you’ve heard about the neurodiverse being lazy, not dedicated, or using their diagnoses as an excuse. They’re simply untrue. No one is giving excuses, merely an explanation.
Absolutely do not say things like ‘Oh so you’re only a little autistic’ or ‘You don’t look like your neurodiverse’. Don’t do it. Definitely, do not try and ‘catch’ someone out if they say they need something to work properly. For example, I generally work best with some sort of background noise (at an acceptable volume), like a podcast or music. However, if I am anxious or stressed about a particular task, then I can’t work with any noise. I can’t count the number of times that people have said ‘See, I knew you didn’t need music or a podcast to work’. Don’t do that either!
Another thing I would like to say about the neurodiverse is that giving us slightly more flexibility around the structure of the working day can be helpful, at least for me. I know how to maximise my own productivity, and sometimes that means taking shorter, more frequent breaks or working 8-4, so I can avoid the busy hours on public transport. To emphasise, this is what works for me, not every neurodiverse person.
Finally, I feel the need to specifically address conferences and seminars as I have heard so many stories of conferences being inaccessible. Make sure you have basic services in place: a sign-language interpreter, subtitles/transcripts for any videos used, minimum font and spacing sizes for posters and presentations, and making sure all conference events have wheelchair accessibility (which includes the routes between events). No one wants to be an afterthought; we just want to be able to take part. There is nothing worse than being told ‘we won’t be able to accommodate you’ or ‘we didn’t think we’d need that’ when you ask.
Thoughts for the future
I am currently nearly finished the first year of a research MSc. in Food/Sensory Science. My mental health is much better than it was, and I have a great supportive supervisor (Shoutout to her!). In my new position, I haven’t encountered the same attitudes as I did during my undergrad, which is encouraging. I am hopeful that this will be the norm one day. Being able to have access to the supports I require is allowing me to further my education while (hopefully) contributing to knowledge – watch this space.
I’m trying to be more vocal about both my mental health journey and my neurodiversity as I want to get rid of the stigma of speaking out. Struggling for so many years has given me some perspective, and I would encourage everyone to try and get help if you need it.
Help can come in many formats, and it doesn’t have to be regular therapy or medication if they don’t suit you. However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with either of them. The neurodiverse and people with poor mental health are just trying their best, the same as everyone else. I’m here to remind you that even if 5% is all you have to give, that is more than okay. You and your contributions are valuable.
Linda Corcoran (she/her) is from Dublin, Ireland. She holds a BSc. in Food Science and is currently a Teagasc Walsh Scholar completing a research MSc. in Food Science at University College Cork and Teagasc. Being a neurodiverse, LGBTQ+ woman, Linda is very passionate about disability awareness, as well as equality, diversity, and inclusion. She is also an advocate for mental health awareness and works as part of the @PhD_Balance team.