Challenging the Normative: Academia and Neurodiversity

This week’s guest post is by University of Stirling PhD researcher Rosie Priest. Here, she discusses the specific difficulties she’s encountered throughout her time in academia and how the exacerbation of those issues during the pandemic encouraged her to seek help.

When lockdown came in March last year, I did what I always did, what we all did, and said ‘it’s okay I can adapt’. It felt eerily familiar to other ways I’ve adapted before. My friends and colleagues all lamented how the extended screen time was exhausting our brains and bodies, but all in all it could be worse. It reminded me of my first few years at university, studying for an undergraduate degree in Art History; new, unexpected struggles were widely met by other people as it could be worse. Struggling to concentrate in lectures, continually faulting and failing to submit work on time and an inability to sit still for extended periods, meaning the 3 hour-long exams felt like physical torture, were widely understood by other people as par for the course in gaining an undergraduate degree.

During my undergraduate degree my mental and physical health were on a constant rollercoaster. The mental highs experienced when achieving top grades and praise, were often cut short by the imminent anxiety that I had forgotten to attend lectures, drifted off in class, forgotten about a piece of work, or talked too much in tutorials. I’d often find it easiest to focus around midnight as there were fewer people in the library. The only way I could manage my time effectively was through pacing my time with cigarettes. I was often stuck between choosing to smoke and choosing to eat. I had to work part-time in order to support myself and this compounded my inability to focus and my anxiety. By the time I finished I was mentally and physically strung out.

Being seen as ‘smart’ has always been a large part of my identity. The rush of receiving praise for my work is something I became addicted to quite early on in my life and is probably a large factor in why I am pursuing a PhD now. However, I learnt early on to not say when I was struggling. No one praises struggling. When I grappled with numbers at school, I felt a deep shame and embarrassment for not being able to follow along. I often acted rude and difficult to hide my struggling. My inability to understand things clearly unless verbalised meant I was constantly talking, and I was constantly being told off for talking. I remember very clearly a French teacher saying, ‘we don’t need to hear what’s inside your head, Rosie’ and I responded ‘yes, but I do’. The thoughts in my head were so loud and cluttered the only way to order them was to talk them through. I experienced emotional flashes of extreme frustration and upset which would explode when being asked to answer before having had time to process information. I constantly felt ashamed and embarrassed about my behaviour and inability to work like the other children and young people in my classes. And whilst I would often be put in a corner in a classroom or made to sit outside due to my disruptive behaviour, I managed to scrape some A-Levels together.

That shame and embarrassment erupted in my masters’ degree. I struggled to keep up with lectures, which would often be over several hours. I found myself thinking of anything other than what was being discussed and would become completely lost and disinterested. Tutorials were similar; I would glaze over when other students would be discussing their research. I became disconnected and anxious.

A stock image of a person standing in the middle of a street holding a sign that says 'Better Days'.
How can we ensure that learning environments are inclusive and accessible for all? Photo by Hoang Le on Unsplash

So, I developed some incredibly rigid systems. Just as in my undergraduate degree I would pace out my working days with cigarettes and work until midnight in the library, but now I also surrounded myself in what needed to be done. My bedroom walls were covered in year calendars, month calendars, weekly plans and daily to-do lists. In order to not become distracted, only things which had been scheduled would happen. I saw my friends less. My days were scheduled by the hour. I started to hand things in on time, even before the deadlines. I worked in a corner of the library without a window, facing the wall most days. I would stand outside the library reading aloud when I was struggling to take in the words from the page.

When lockdown hit, these rigid systems I had put in place became unavailable. For starters, I moved in with my partner who doesn’t smoke. I stopped. For the first time in 11 years, I had lost the tool I used to pace my day. I also didn’t have my walls covered in calendars and post-it notes. My partners’ kitchen table became my workspace and every movement and sound they would make, the creeks of the upstairs floorboards, the tree branches outside their window, the arrangements of teacups, the smell of their coffee and the discolouration of the walls were a constant distraction. I couldn’t hide in the library until midnight. I couldn’t read aloud. I was struggling. But then again, everyone was struggling. It could be worse I kept telling myself.

It couldn’t though – I was struggling so much I lost all confidence I had what it took to be in academia. My dissertation supervisor started to receive work half finished, unedited and late. I was constantly on edge and not sleeping from the shame of not managing to get words onto a page. I could barely muster the concentration to focus on lectures and feedback sessions with my supervisor over video chats. My mind was constantly wandering, but to nowhere. I cried after most video chats from not having taken anything in. Being told that everyone else was struggling had made me feel some normality around it, but I soon realised what I was experiencing was very different. In part because my partner was there watching me struggle and was able to say, ‘you shouldn’t feel this upset and frustrated’. I am so thankful for their support as I reached out to the learning support team at Stirling University, who responded to me within hours.

A year on since reaching out to the university’s learning support team for advice and I have been diagnosed with a learning disability and ADHD. I’m learning how to learn again – but with the support in place that I don’t shut everyone around me out like I have in the past. The shame and embarrassment I previously felt was often triggered by my brain just not working in a normative way. And whilst now the hardest thing I face is figuring out how to put my hand up and say “I am neurodivergent” when I need to, this blog has been an important part of that process. What I’ve learnt is to not say it could be worse but to ask, ‘how can this be better?’.

Rosie Priest is a first year PhD researcher at the University of Stirling working in collaboration with the National Galleries of Scotland. Rosie’s research explores the ways contemporary collaborative visual art practices impact young people. Rosie gained an undergraduate degree in Art History from the University of Glasgow in 2009 and went on to gain an MA in Art Festival and Cultural Management at Queen Margaret University and an MSc in Applied Social Research from the University of Stirling. Rosie is a socially engaged artist and has worked for organisations such as the Edinburgh Art Festival, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Heart of Glass, the National Galleries of Scotland and Stellar Quines Theatre Company. Rosie has also worked independently for smaller charities providing collaborative art interventions across Scotland for a variety of communities. Rosie maintains her passions for music and feminism by hosting a monthly radio show, “Sounds of the Second Sex”, on the independent Edinburgh radio station, EHFM, playing music only by women (including cis, trans and intersex women, as well as non-binary and gender non-conforming people who identify in a significant way as women, femme or female). Rosie is a neurodivergent member of the LGBTQIA+ community.

If you’re interested in writing a guest post, email Danielle.Schwertner@glasgow.ac.uk

Featured photo by Luke van Zyl on Unsplash

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