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People with Mental Health Issues and Neurodiversity Should be Able to Thrive in Academia

I am diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and an eating disorder. This combination of differences and issues has made my time at university more difficult, sometimes insurmountable, often darker. It has meant things have not been easy. However, I believe that this does not have to be the case. I believe people with mental health issues and neurodiversity should be able to thrive in academia.

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This is a guest post by Naoise Gale for Disability History Month.

Hello all! My name is Naoise Gale and I'm a third year Modern Languages student currently on my year abroad. I am principally a poet, translator, enthusiastic singer, dodgy dancer, and a music fan. It just so happens that I also have an unseen disability. In fact, I have four.

I am diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and an eating disorder. This combination of differences and issues has made my time at university more difficult, sometimes insurmountable, often darker. It has meant things have not been easy. However, I believe that this does not have to be the case. I believe people with mental health issues and neurodiversity should be able to thrive in academia. Or at least muddle along as well as their non-disabled counterparts.

So, what are my disabilities? Autism, my main diagnosis, is the silver thread that runs through my life, making seemingly innocuous tasks impossible, and certain tasks blindingly simple. Defined as a neurodevelopmental disorder causing "persistent difficulties in communication, interpersonal relationships and social interaction," autism is neither a flaw nor a curable disease, but a different way of thinking, feeling and existing. For example, I don't experience a longing for companionship; I find myself fatigued by simple tasks such as showering and responding to emails; I often wish no one would talk to me at all so I wouldn't have to navigate the myriad of illogical social norms that govern most social interactions. I have been told I come across as quirky, or perpetually nervous. In fact, I am both of these things, as a result of my autism. Life seems extremely overwhelming - a constant assault on the senses, a demanding stew of chaos. Life with autism is difficult. Add mental illness into the mix and... well, you get the picture.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a year into university, after a fit of mania that briefly upended my life and sent me scattering towards insanity. Bipolar disorder is characterised by extreme highs, or 'mania', and extreme lows, 'depression'. During manic episodes, people engage in risky behaviour, spend too much, can't stop talking, can't stop moving, can't stop at all. We are human spinning tops, rapidly cycling out of control. We survive on ridiculously small amounts of sleep, yet have bucketful’s of energy - we may finish a term's homework in one night, develop a sudden interest in abstract art, or burst into the kitchen beaming and skipping before proceeding to make sixty cupcakes for a reason that cannot be logically explained (all of these are personal examples, may I add).

At the end of the manic episodes, we crash, usually falling below the midpoint of a normal mood into a deep, soul-quaking depression. Everything is pointless. Everything is too difficult. We cut people off. We fall behind on work. We stew in bed all day, miss lectures, miss our friends’ birthdays. As you can imagine, trying to engage in education when you are careering in and out of these states is extremely challenging, nigh impossible. It was only when I was diagnosed and found a medical regimen that worked for me, that I was able to begin functioning as a human being, never mind as a student.

During my first two years of university, I missed out on a lot. Autism was the main culprit - my autism lead to spells of agoraphobia which kept me holed up in my room, too terrified of socialising to go to lectures, too terrified of life to leave the sanctuary of my room. This caused me to fall behind, as my lectures were not recorded. In the beginning I scrambled to catch up, but then I fell victim to my first bipolar episodes, one week believing I was invincible, and it was essential I wrote this poem immediately, rather than doing my homework, or catching up on notes, the next being consumed by such a deep chasm of depression that it was impossible to get out of bed, or shower, or brush my teeth, never mind drag myself to the library. The isolation commonly faced by those with autism and mental illnesses did not help the situation: I had few friends and was not confident enough to ask those around me for support.

During my first year of university, I was a walking disaster zone. My eating disorder was cataclysmic. My room was a bombsite. My grades were atrocious, at least compared to the string of A*s I had maintained at school. My mind was like living hell. It was suggested to me several times that I take a year off or drop out. The problem was, neither my autism nor my bipolar disorder was going to go away. This was something I would have to learn to manage. And learn I did.

In my second year at university, I fared slightly better. I started eating disorder therapy. I was prescribed medication that stopped the constant oscillation between mania and depression, though it made me very sleepy. I was diagnosed. I was awarded the Disabled Student's Allowance, which meant I was given a mentor who helped me to organise my life, improve my time management skills, and who simply listened when I needed to talk through the problems I was facing. I joined three societies, and even made some friends. During this time, my room was still a mess, my homework still late and shoddy, my attendance abysmal. But I was learning the skills I needed to survive at university. And gradually, things began to fall into place.

I am still a young woman with autism, bipolar disorder, social anxiety and an eating disorder. I follow a meal plan. I take medication. I am not magically less intense, or more sociable, or more 'normal', whatever that is. I am not a cardboard cut-out of a perfect student. I am human. I am fallible. I am disabled.

But I am much more productive, much more stable, much happier than I once was. This is due to my own efforts, the university's efforts to accommodate me, and my decision to grasp onto any and all help offered. I would really advise those of you struggling with unseen disabilities to seek the support of the university disability services, who have been invaluable to me. Also remember that you cannot do better than your best. There are people out there who believe in you and will support you if you ask for help. Be your own advocate. And don't be ashamed to take time out if you need it.

I am now living in Italy, studying online and generally enjoying life. I learned to adapt situations I didn’t like to my own needs. Now I don’t try to force myself to be a social butterfly; I also don’t allow myself to hide out in my room all day. I schedule my days, as this gives my autism the sense of structure and continuity it craves in a world which often feels unmanageable. I do not try to work constantly, I allow time for non-academic pursuits, and for self-care. I am strict with myself, but not unkind. Sometimes I make mistakes and I have to dust myself off and I start again.

I am now determined to succeed in my degree so I can go on to do a Master’s in Creative Writing. And if I can make academia work for me, despite my unseen disabilities, so can you. Go get ‘em!

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