This past 12 months for me has been an incredible year of achievements. I graduated from university with First-Class Honours in Physiotherapy, gained a full-time NHS job and opened my own private business. I celebrated promotion with my football team, was awarded the leagues overall top scorer and signed for a women’s national league club. I was nominated for Cumbria Woman of the Year for my coaching services and mentioned in the opening speech alongside some incredible local driving forces.
Whilst I celebrated these moments quite publicly, what I did not share were my coinciding personal battles. I want to share some of those now. Those around me may describe me as patient, caring, sociable, cheeky; others see my driven, passionate, confident, outspoken side; most at some point have seen a shy, reserved, distant person. I am often misunderstood as a person because unbeknown, I am not like everyone else. I have Asperger’s Syndrome. I am on the high functioning end of the Autism spectrum. This means I am intelligent, articulate, capable and on the surface come across like everyone else but, inside, my brain functions, processes and behaves very differently.
“Outside of my home I reside in constant fight or flight”
The traits reported in children; social deficits, sensory processing challenges, meltdowns, do not just disappear upon turning 18. Suffering with sensory overload, I am hyper aware of noise, sensations, my environment and people close to me. Outside of my home I reside in constant fight or flight. One of the hardest things about being an adult woman with Autism is socialising. People see the intelligence but are unaware of coinciding deficits in understanding people, emotion, interaction, intention… all things apparently key to forming bonds.
I find navigating social situations difficult, general conversation does not come easy and I regularly misunderstand people. I struggle fitting in. Often on the outside of social groups, I am rarely invited or included and mostly decline when I am. When I am in group situations sarcasm is lost on me and I rarely get the joke, I have learnt to laugh in the right place. Mostly, I just stay quiet to avoid making a fool of myself and feel awkward when I do engage. I have developed the ability to social mask enough to camouflage in. It does not mean I function normally and rarely means I am comfortable, it just prevents anyone seeing the true impact. I would rather people thought I was quiet then weird. I find this is my best coping strategy but negates active participating within social groups. I often feel at my loneliest when I am in a crowd of people. In many ways I have similar characteristics to the Big Bang character, Sheldon Cooper (although the writers claim he is not intentionally Autistic).
“I sustained a brain injury playing football…my whole life changed”
Growing up, I had a photographic memory, I could snap a photo of whatever I saw and recall it weeks, months later. Starting my degree, I found I could hold the human skeleton in my mind. I could layer ligaments, muscles on to it, rotate it around and even move the joints. I was only two months into my physio degree, when I sustained a brain injury playing football. In that split second, my whole life changed. Every Autistic person is different. For me, I was suddenly a very different Autistic person to the one I was before; the conflict that caused took several years to accept. I lost the ability to use my brain the Autistic way I had unknowing done for all those years, but it did not mean I could use it like other people either.
The impact of the injury highlighted all the complexities of Autism and stripped me of the way I had been unknowingly coped. It was as though someone had turned the volume up on the world. I suddenly became aware that I was different. I had to relearn how to learn, I lost my memory and photographic abilities, I needed constant supervision and spent two years under the care of a brain injury rehabilitation team trying to piece my life back together. I lost full function of my right side and had learn to adapt to writing left handed.
My natural personality is to persevere and knock through barriers, but I never fully recovered and will always live with the impact. It was not until I finally won the league that I could accept that playing football for my old team had cost me two years of my life. Realising it meant nothing to them, I finally walked away.
“Being diagnosed in adulthood finally offered some sense for the confusing memories I had growing up”
What I gained 3 years into my ‘recovery,’ at the age of 29, was my diagnosis of Autism. Being diagnosed in adulthood finally offered some sense for the confusing memories I had growing up, but it also challenged experiences I had had. It helped answer questions about why I am happier in my own company than others, why I used to find the unstructured nature of the weekend and summer holidays such a crippling contrast to the regimented school day and why I always seemed to be doing my own thing alone than with a crowd. It meant though that I had to wait 29 years for those answers and find many alone without realising. Recognised support stops at 18 so after 14 months on a waiting list for diagnosis and several more of assessment, I was given 3 hours of contact with the Autism service to understand the past 30 years and prepare for the rest of life. Deemed too complex, I spent two years thrown from service to service. As I could articulate what was causing me issues, it was assumed I could just flick a switch to stop it. The only solution most had was to throw medication at me. I am not ill, I do not need cured.
The hardest thing about receiving an adult diagnosis is that I have lived all my life the way I am. Suddenly, the world saw me differently, I stopped being ‘Nat’ and was seen for the Autism and Brain Injury first. I spent two years sat in meetings trying to find the best way to support me through uni. At the time I felt like I was completely incapable of being independent. While all university students face challenges, mine were very different. I had to overcome so much every morning before I even got to the 9am lecture. I would arrive at the station to find a 1-minute delay to my 7:13 train. 1 minute may sound manageable and normal, but for me, change is unsettling. That is just not how it was meant to be.
“Eye contact is the first thing you will notice disappears when I am finding life hard”
My senses are heightened, suddenly the busy waiting room feels claustrophobic, the noise unbearable. Laughing from across the room sounds like screaming in my ears. I feel a stabbing pain when the woman next to me brushes her arm against me. It feels as though someone has turned the lights up, they are beaming down, the tannoy booms a further 3-minute delay. Will those 3-minutes increase, the uncertainty is crippling.
The train arrives in the wrong formation to normal. I approach my seat to find someone sat it in. I am too shut down to speak and the thought of someone close to me is too much. I find two empty seats, but it’s not my seat. No matter how high I turn my earphones up, all I can hear is the rustle from a crisp packet in front. Then suddenly someone sits next to me. They speak, I have no idea what they have said, I just stare blankly out the window and count the heartbeats thumping out my chest. I am overloaded, I am trying to turn the world down by tuning out.
I finally arrive to uni to find the classroom has changed, we are in the room with round tables. Round tables force me to make eye contact, I am enclosed, stimulus either side, in front of me, under the table, no escape. Eye contact is the first thing you will notice disappears when I am finding life hard. I find it painful and avoid it to minimise how much stimulus is incoming. I was overloaded, and it was only 9am, I still had a full day of lectures and socialising ahead. My lecturers were aware but none of my peers.
When uni first changed to round tables, I could not enter the room. That day was an exam, I opened the door, froze unable to speak, shook my head and walked straight back out. Over the next few months I managed to enter the classroom, but I never settled enough to sit down. I spent the final months of my degree stood at the side of the room throughout my lectures. I did uni very different to everyone else. Often there were days I never even made it to university, and others where I spent the whole day like I did on the train – blocking the world out until I was home. While my class worked in groups, I sometimes worked alone. While everyone sat in class together during an exam I was isolated away from noise in a room alone. While everyone else socialised in between lectures, I spent mine in meetings and private sessions with lecturers and support staff. While everyone else was on placement, I sat at home because no one would take me or something else had gone wrong. While I should have been enjoying my summer, I was cramming placements in.
“I never set out to prove them wrong, my motivation was always to prove me right”
I seemed to spend a lot of my time trying to convince the physio world nothing was wrong and pleading with the medical world to see the difficulties. This never stopped me learning, it spurred me on. I spent all the hours I could reading about physio, completing my work, attending extra courses and private tuition. I never set out to prove them wrong, my motivation was always to prove me right. Physio just seemed to make sense. I could function with patients in ways I could not in normal life.
When uni finished, the support withdrew, and I was just left alone; me, my Autism and my life ahead. It was hard to comprehend the relationships that felt so true and genuine to me were only professionals doing their jobs. The moment I left uni I regained my independence, I regained some control over my life. I set about creating my own business. Having my own business means I am finally free of the constraints I have experienced for so long and I can just focus completely on my client. I must no longer seek approval for who I am, I am solely judged for my ability as a physio. I refused to let my experiences as a student influence my career path and I currently work alongside a wonderful team in my NHS role.
“Kicking a football is the only time I feel normal”
Often in Autism narrow interests exist, mine are football and learning about the body. Kicking a football is the only time I feel normal (although the head injury means I have had to adapt my game). Although, the social side and fitting into a team does not come so naturally.
In new situations, starting a new job, going on a course, joining a new football team, it takes me time to settle the environment before I can function. Usually, they involve uncertainties, difference in routines and people keen to know who you are. It can take a while to learn people’s humour and personalities. Knowing things like how many people will be on the course, planning my route and where to park, what colour kit we will be playing in on Sunday all help to make my day more manageable. Gradually over time, I settle and can start to interact on a confident level.
“My life changed at the dinner”
My attendance to the Cumbria Woman Of The Year intensified all of this into a daunting 4 hours. Invited somewhere new, alone, where I knew no one and had to interact on a social level with what I assumed would be a room full of confident and accomplished women. These are things that simply felt almost so impossible, I very nearly did not make it. Instead I deliberately turned up late, hoping to slide in unnoticed and avoid any formal pleasantries and awkwardness. This was not the case, in fact I was greeted and well looked after by my host. The conversation flowed, across a dreaded round table, in a manner that allowed me to flit in and out without pressure.
My life changed at the dinner. I met Deborah Brownson, the Creative Director of The Autism Plan. Since my diagnosis I have had caring, supportive people around me trying to help and understand but all from a point of learning from me. This was the first time someone was talking to me about Autism. Speaking to someone who had insight and spoke so normally made me feel that for the first time I did not have hide or explain. I have never been ashamed, but I have always had a deep sense of privacy sometimes to extreme lengths to prevent people knowing. Talking with her over the past few months normalised Autism and inspired me to finally speak up.
“A doctor once told me that unless I could understand human emotion…I would never be a real person”
Once you tell someone you are Autistic, they never seem to unhear it. I revealed it on a need to know basis through uni and in employment. Often, okay experiences were overshadowed by those who wrote me off, judged, or suffocated me like a child. I was frequently told I could never be a physio. A doctor once told me that unless I could understand human emotion and interpret what a person is feeling by their expression or tone, I would never be a real person. This is a concept lost on me, why assume when you can just ask.
The most wonderful thing about my Autism, is that ill opinions, judgements and criticism from other people rarely sink in, unless constructive. I used it as motivation to write my third-year dissertation on the ‘employability of people with Autism as physios.’ I have a way with patients/ clients/ people that others assumed I was incapable of achieving. My problem was never being a physio, my difficulties were always functioning in busy noisy office environments as a person with Autism and in convincing someone to see beyond the Autism.
The most frustrating part of having Autism for me is that I do not see it as a disability. Sure, it impacts every moment of my day, all day, everyday but it comes with such wonderful simplicities and gifts. I have incredible drive, passion, focus, all things that helped me achieve what I did. While Autism provides so many potential barriers, I never let them stop me. I always find a way to bounce back from whatever I am facing. My train journey to university was horrific but I did it twice daily for 3 years. I was described at the end of my course as “resilient.”
“I spent 29 years of my life knowing something was different”
We talk about discrimination and not treating those with disabilities differently. The very nature of having a disability entitles that person to receive reasonable adjustments to ‘make life fairer.’ Granted to our benefit, but, ironically, we are treated differently because we have a disability.
When you have a disability that is not visible on the surface, these adjustments can stand out and not make sense. This support is invaluable, but it also creates a preconception that I am not able, that I am not capable. I did have wonderful support to get me to where I am now, and to those people I will forever be grateful. Very few people though, even my family until recently, knew about my Autism. I spent 29 years of my life knowing something was different and the past 2 years not wanting anyone else to know. I am an incredibly private person but for me, this is my ‘coming out.’ I owe everything to my beautiful partner Rob who shows unquestionable patience, support and devotion.
For so long many who have known have seen the Autism first and never thought I could achieve anything because of it. I hope that in reading this it has increased more awareness that Autistic people can be just as capable and that many live normal lives all around you, fighting against preconceived perceptions every day to achieve great feats.
I want people to see what I have achieved first, and then see the Autism.
By Nat Broad