​Neurodiversity at University: One Year On


It was almost exactly a year ago today that I found out that I was going to be a columnist for qmunicate. At that point, I’d only had my diagnosis of Asperger’s for around four months, so I was in a place of serious self-discovery. How was life going to be different now that I had a label which exerted such a stigma?

When I was applying for the position, I had to write a sample piece, which subsequently appeared as my first column. I wrote it while on holiday, and I had no idea what to say or how to say it. How could I write anything useful or informative if I still had so much to discover about myself? But as soon as I put my fingers to the keyboard, I couldn’t stop writing. After an hour of passionate, relentless keyboard clacking that probably kept the entire hotel awake, I saw before me the most honest piece of writing I had ever composed.  In that moment, I realised that writing about my experiences would help me understand my own Asperger’s just as much as it would teach others.

Returning to uni after the summer was more challenging than I’d ever imagined. I realised that accessing help isn’t as easy as it seems on paper. I’ve been fighting all year to secure myself provisions, such as a quiet place to study in the library and a place on campus to go to if I need to calm down from a sensory overload (I stopped counting the number of times I’d have to leave campus and go back to my flat when I only needed half an hour in a quiet space). I face ignorance and adversity almost daily. But no matter how hard it’s been, it’s definitely given me the drive to have my voice heard, and doing so allows for a special kind of liberation.

Often, I wished that I’d never been diagnosed – I’d known for a long time about my autism – but the reason I pursued an official diagnosis was because I direly needed the right support. So many times I’ve wished that I could go back to pre-diagnosis times, because then I could pretend that if people were aware of my struggles, they’d help me more. However, it has taught me that any amount of difficulty I face is better from hiding from the world, because I belong here, on this campus, as much as any other student. And writing these columns is a testament to that.

No matter the emotions I felt throughout this formative year (and believe me, I felt them all), at no point was this journey a solo ride.  Because of how much I owe to this experience, it feels only right to pay gratitude to those who came along with me, individuals who uplifted me throughout the turbulent times and kept me rolling on the bumpy roads.

Thank you to my friends, who do not merely accept or tolerate my differences, but who endorse and celebrate them. Each and every one of you serves as a reminder for how much support and love is out there, and that for every instance of ignorance and hostility, there are numerous examples of empathy and open-mindedness alongside it.

I’d also like to thank my family, who I know would put up with me even if they didn’t have to. Not once throughout this entire journey have I felt that they would have me any other way, and that has given me the strength to exist unapologetically.

I would like to give special recognition to my late Nana, who passed away in March. As the widow of a columnist for the Cork Examiner, she would beam with pride whenever she saw my name in qmunicate. As a ninety-year-old devout Catholic, she was the magazine’s biggest fan. She’d read the online articles, as well as requesting copies of the printed magazines pretty much as soon as they were hot from the press. When my dad visited her house for the first time after her death, she had written ‘find out more about Asperger’s syndrome’ on her to do list, motivated by her meticulous reading of my columns, which was the most meaningful parting gift I could have ever asked for.

Finally, I want to thank my readers. I’m going to cut out the ‘if it weren’t for you I wouldn’t even be writing this’ mush, and tell you specifically about how indebted not only I am to you, but also the entire female Asperger’s community.

I’m writing at a time where there is very little societal awareness about females with my condition. Common traits in females with Asperger’s (namely masking, which is the ability to replicate social norms in order to ‘fit in’) combined with the male-centric diagnosis criteria, means that it’s often really difficult for women to recognise that they have the condition, let alone be diagnosed. Although it probably isn’t accurate, the highest male to female diagnosis rate on the ‘Gender and Autism’ section on the National Autistic Society’s website is 16:1. Bleak, huh?

Well, yes, and no. Although this is a difficult time to live with Asperger’s syndrome as a female, things really are getting better all the time. I’ve seen media coverage on the topic soar in the past few years, and I’ve noticed people being more accepting of my condition, even if I don’t present myself as being someone with sensory or social difficulties.

So I’m going to end with some advice, aimed at the six individual females who reached out to me after reading my columns and recognising traits in themselves, as well as everyone else who identified with my journey.

Don’t let the ignorance of others get to you. Find your tribe and never let them go. Don’t be scared to cause some havoc on the road to achieving the validation and respect you deserve. Learn from your experiences, and pass your wisdom onto others. This applies especially to the darkest parts of your life, because that’s where a lot of your empathy will derive from. Write, tweet, shout, march, sign, share, live unapologetically. Do whatever you need to do to ensure you leave the world more enlightened than when you entered it. I promise you that if you are persistent, you will be one of the first advocates in history for making things better for females with Asperger’s syndrome.

Exciting, huh?

[Sarinah O’Donoghue]

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