Post uni summer part 1: Graduation

Does my brain look big in this?

Does my brain look big in this?

It seems that in the excitement of graduating, camping, job searching and doing nothing, I have been neglecting my blog. Not that there’s anything particularly odd about that, except that I have almost let a couple of highly blog-worthy events pass me by. Almost, but not quite. Starting with: graduation.

You know those social events that you like the thought of, enthusiastically agree to, then find about as draining as running a marathon? My graduation ceremony, for all its highlights, was a perfect example. Lots to remember, people on all sides, uncomfortable clothes? Check, check and check.

Most people tend to stress about the actual ceremony the most. If anything, that was the least of my worries. I mean, you sit with people you know in designated seats, you’re shown where to walk, you’re shown what to do and then you do it. Yes, you have a huge audience, but other than that, piece of cake.

But before that, the number of things to remember alone was enough to make me need a lie-down. Where and when to collect your clothes. Where and when to go for photography. What to do during the ceremony. When to return your clothes*. What to do about collecting tickets. To name a few.

Previously, I rang the graduation team. I explained to the lady on the phone that I am mildly autistic and have trouble dealing with piecing together lots of information from different sources, and could she please just summarise the essentials. She told me that everything I need to know was on the website, the brochure and in emails. I repeated what I just said, and got what I needed. Phew!

I also had a number of people say to me ‘smile, it’s your graduation!’ I’m not expressive at the best of times, and at that point I was so mentally overloaded that eventually Mum just took me off to a quiet, empty room somewhere, and we stayed there until the ceremony. Graduation organisers, for any graduands on the autistic spectrum, or possibly with mental illnesses, more places like this would be a godsend.

Despite what it sounds like, it was a good experience, and I am glad I went. I got to see certain familiar faces, quite possibly for the last time (get your tissues out. Or not, either way). I participated in that rite of passage that is throwing my mortarboard in the air in a group photo. My family were supportive and patient throughout it all.

And finally, I really can say that I’ve survived uni, and am ready for whatever challenges and opportunities (and clichéd graduation speeches!) lie ahead.

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*Not all your clothes. Just your hired graduation ones.

Moments at uni – the good, the bad, and the manic

Most fun: going on a field trip to the Birmingham BBC studios. Namely, having my picture taken with a dalek, seeing where live morning TV, music and The Archers are recorded and being in a short radio drama about being eaten by a cannibal. (3rd year)

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Most embarrassing: reading out a short story I’d written to the class, and the main feedback from a guy going on about how bad it was and how it didn’t fit the requirements given, while punctuating every criticism with “no offence.”* (1st year)

Most stressful: 3rd year group projects, InDesign, no water in the flat…pretty much all of this year!

Weirdest: many moments with certain people on my course present. Ranging from listening to a detailed imitation of sex noises, to everyone’s boobs being given names. Like ‘Ben and Jerry.’ Or ‘Trinny and Susannah.’ Or in my case, ‘Ant and Dec.’ (3rd year)

Stupidest: realising I no longer had my bag of books, not finding it anywhere on campus, reporting to security, then going back to my flat and finding it in my room. I tried to tell security “it had been found”, but they wanted to know where and by whom… (3rd year)

Most annoying: when I was in the DMU choir and I told them I couldn’t make it to a performance, as it clashed with the day I had just told the Derby Telegraph I would be changing to. When I got roped in anyway, the people in charge swore blind they heard me say I could make it… (2nd year)

Funniest: when political debates in Journalism lectures got so heated, many minutes were wasted by two students (not quite, but almost) shouting over each other about freedom of speech, should kids be interested in politics, etc. Meanwhile, the rest of us – lecturer included – would be watching in wide-eyed silence. ‘Twas quality entertainment. Yes, I do think someone should have brought popcorn. (2nd year)

Overall worst: almost missing my only exam (1st year). Or being told I didn’t need to come back for more counselling before I’d explained how low I was, emotionally (2nd year). All in the past.

Overall best: my final marks – 70%, 66%, 66% and 61%, and 66% (a 2:1) overall. Woo!

And on that note, happy graduation to my fellow graduates!

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*In his defence, he was autistic. I had this theory that we were put together because we had the same condition, so of course we would work well together.

Novel preview in progress – or how not to help an Aspie

Nearly seven months ago, my course mates and I were at the beginning of the end. Several essays, one booklet, two group projects and four presentations later, and we are facing the final curtain. Of university. With one more week until the final deadline, I am about to finish writing my dissertation* – a few extracts of a novel that I had been planning for years now. Presenting the first preview of…When You’re Strange.

The story mainly focuses on 16 year old Eleanor and her struggles with secondary school and parents who can’t agree on a possible diagnosis. Some of it is inspired by my real life experiences, some is supposed to portray humourous insights about people and inspiration for kids on the spectrum. So, how many of these failed attempts at understanding autism have you heard?

Extract 5

‘Excuse me, sir?’ Mr Adams?’ Eleanor asked, before she could stop herself.
Mr Adams paused, still facing the staff room, and looked over his shoulder at her. ‘Yes, Eleanor?’
‘I, um, I’m sorry about the other week…in PE…’ she faltered. Why did this have to be so hard? She didn’t even know what to apologise for!
‘It wasn’t a hard game.’
Eleanor took a deep breath, trying to remember what it said in the leaflet about explaining to other people. Say it like it is.
‘I have Asperger’s Syndrome, which means I have trouble with reading people and physical co-ordination,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ Mr Adams looked down. ‘I’m…sorry.’
‘Why?’
‘Never mind. It’s ok. I had an Asperger student a few years ago.’ He paused. ‘But everybody’s clumsy or awkward sometimes. We can’t make allowances for anyone having an off day. Do you understand?’
Eleanor shrugged. Not really.
Mr Adams went on. ‘Besides, although you made a few errors, I didn’t see you struggling too much. But if you ever need extra help, just let me know.’
‘Ok.’ She looked at the floor. Had he understood?

 

Most students I have known feel like they can’t be free of their dissertation soon enough. If anything, if I want to turn this into a proper book, I could be spending many more years on it. But if I can get it published, it will be one goal crossed off my bucket list. I’m glad I chose to go to uni, and I don’t regret it for a minute. It has pushed me one step further along my chosen path, and on the day I see my name on the front of a book, it will all have been worth it.

And on that note, happy Autism Awareness Month!

 

 

*Known as a Portfolio, in Creative Writing speak. But would you have understood what I meant if I had used that word instead?

Entering third year and a possible Facebook page

Here’s a little “expectation-versus-reality” scenario. Imagine your first year at uni – whether past, present or future. Everything is new and scary but so full of possibilities. Perhaps for the first time, you are seriously learning about what you really want to do, and you have three years ahead of you in which to become as well educated as those third years you see in Open Day talks.

Then comes second year – possibly the university equivalent of middle child syndrome. You’re not all fresh and naïve anymore, but hey, you’ve still got time.

Now onto third year. Suddenly you are grappling with the realisation that you have less than a year to achieve your education-based goals before your life is devoid of structure and meaning. It seems that third years today are not as prestigious as the third years of two years ago.

I think I discovered this when I took part in the Journalism News Day last Wednesday during the reading week. Journalism staff and students alike got together to form a mock news desk, and I found myself working with a couple of first years. We were sent out to do a vox pop i.e. pester some unfortunate passers by for their opinions on a certain subject. What was that subject? The tampon tax and the self-explanatory free bleed protest outside Parliament. I’m sorry, but you did ask.

It was through doing this that I realised both how much I’ve learned (about the course and uni overall) and how dumb I still feel. Interviewing strangers about periods isn’t my strong point, as shown by how the girls I was with had to help me with the talking. We got a good handful of quotes, however, and after submitting them, I spent the rest of the day writing an article on the same subject for the News Day’s publication here: https://leicestershirepress.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/sanitary-protection-petitions-and-the-period-protest/

As you can see, finishing uni can be trying. I’m trying to figure out a career, write part of a novel for my dissertation and also get over a sad friendship breakup with a certain ex-housemate. But despite what it sounds like, I’m still happy with my course, and have big dreams for the future.

Which brings me onto my next point. I’m aware that many aspiring professionals in their field of expertise create their own Facebook page to publicise whatever they do. Over this year, I have been wondering whether or not I should get my own page to promote my blog and any other writing I do, in order to increase my chances of a career as an author. I know this is supposed to be good publicity, but I’m a bit sceptical.

For one thing, I feel embarrassed about tooting my own horn too much. For another, how effective would it be anyway? Chances are, the only people who would “like” it, would be existing Facebook friends who are genuinely interested. Although I suppose this would be a relief for those who inwardly groan every time my blog pops up in their News Feed. Also, if I continued to share my writing on my Facebook account as well, then people who are interested would just be getting it twice.

Before anyone advises me, I’m not expecting cries of “Do it, Grace!” so that I can say “No, I couldn’t possibly…oh alright then!” I suppose what I’m asking you all is: do you think this would be a good idea?

Fresher’s week for the autistic student

When I was new at De Montfort, I had an idea to write an article for the Demon newspaper about Asperger’s and starting university. When I was in my second year, I actually wrote said article for the Demon website. Come third year, and it has just occurred to me to adapt it for my blog. As follows.

As a new student, you may have been given all sorts of university related advice. Make the most of it, have fun, work hard, play hard…sound familiar? But being on the autistic spectrum can make a new and busy environment feel more bewildering than exciting. So if you’re unsure what to make of it all, here are just a few things to bear in mind.

Don’t rush into joining social groups.

Joining societies is an easy way to make time for what you enjoy doing the most, as well as an opportunity to get to know people. Remember, though, that the university lifestyle is a busy one, so you may want to get accustomed to your routine first. Societies are always worth a try, but make sure you know you have time before you make any definite decisions.

Be open and matter-of-fact about your condition.

That doesn’t mean it should be the first thing you tell people, but when the opportunity arises it will help them understand any difficulties you have. If you are talking with someone about your uni experience so far, explain that you are autistic and struggle with change or being around lots of people. Similarly if anyone is confusing you, explain that you are autistic and ask them to repeat what they just said. They will understand you better, and you never know if they are having similar experiences.

Look for opportunities

May sound simple, but as an Aspie, retaining information that hasn’t been told to me directly is something I’ve always found hard. Listening out for events that your lecturers might mention or noticing posters or Facebook announcements is a good start. However, if you’re like me, it might be easier if you think about what sort of opportunities you are interested in (social events, work experience, voluntary work, etc.) and research them.

Don’t take on more than you can manage

You may feel like there is a lot of pressure to join societies and be as sociable as possible. Do go a little way out of your comfort zone if it means finding activities you enjoy, but don’t push yourself so hard that you are too exhausted to enjoy yourself – or, more importantly, study. Most students’ goals for uni are to learn as best as they can and have fun, so don’t be too busy to manage either!

Chat to people

It might feel difficult, but if you look around you during a lecture, these are the people you will be working with for the next three or four years. Don’t worry if you take a while to make friends – this is surprisingly common. When you sit next to someone, introduce yourself. Ask them where they’re from, what they think of any work that’s been set, how they’re finding uni, and be prepared for them to ask you the same. Remember to listen as well, when it’s their turn to talk, and try to show an interest in what they are saying!

Hope that was helpful. Now go on and make the most of it!

Farewell flat, hello home, and a list of life lessons

Assignments done, no more news articles and I am now a free woman. I’ve been trying to think of things I’ve learned from my first year of living independently. Actually I did start a list in my diary, but if there are two things I’m wary about discussing on the internet, they are periods and blunt opinions on other people. Anyway. Without further ado, here is the polished version of said list.

Illness. Independent-living beginners of the past, you weren’t wrong when you warned me that viruses run rife during the first term. Independent-living beginners of the future, yes it can happen to you. You have an immune system of steel, you say? Just keep telling yourself that when you look/sound worse than people who have gone home sick, and your housemate thinks you should have done the same a week ago.

Societies. Not wanting to neglect my musical side, I joined the DMU choir. As is often the case with societies, I was hoping to get something out of it. Making friends? I could count the number of names I learned on one hand. Having fun? Well arriving at uni at 4.30am and waiting five hours for a bus to a competition in London may be a real joyride for some…Fitting in? When I sent a WhatsApp message saying I was quitting, no-one replied amid their group discussion. Basically the virtual equivalent of saying something out loud and everyone just continuing their conversation without noticing (I’d had a few non-virtual experiences like that as well).

Personal stuff. While I’m particular about what I disclose on the internet, I’ve learnt that you can’t be too pernickety about toilet/hormone/generally embarrassing details when you are two friends living in a relatively small space together. Although why I’ve only just accepted this after so many years with my family is a mystery.

Mental health. On a more serious note, this year did, at one point, lead me to question my emotional stability for the first time (nothing to worry about, I hasten to add). Mum and I both thought that student counselling would help my self-esteem, and the first couple of sessions were good. When I returned after a particularly difficult few weeks after Easter, I was politely but sternly told that this wasn’t just a drop-in service and I couldn’t keep coming back when there was nothing wrong with me. I felt so ashamed and embarrassed, I couldn’t think of anything to say for the rest of the session. The moral of that story? Just don’t take these things for granted.

So there you go. As this year comprised coursework (which I finished) and work experience (for which my Derby Telegraph internship sufficed), I grew bored of feeling loose-endish at the flat and decided to come home. I have to say, I felt sad about packing up the bedroom I’d become attached to (pictured above). Also I think all the coursework, flat stresses, Demon articles, choir events and trips to Derby are catching up with me if the recurring headaches and nausea are anything to go by.

But on the bright side, I have reminded Bouncer how to come when called, eaten my own weight in home cooking and returned to Leicester to make a fool of myself at a church Ceilidh dance. As you do.

And now for a post script from Tango:

 

 

University Mental Health and Wellbeing Awareness

Good evening and happy Valentine’s Day! Has anyone else celebrated by having a lovely date with themselves at home, sleeping, gorging on pancakes in front of Netflix and listening to “Single Ladies” on YouTube? As I thought. Only the cool people.

There is also another annual event happening next week, and no, I don’t mean pancake day. No, I mean the little known University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day on Wednesday 18th February. As a regular Demon contributor, I have written a number of special needs themed features for the website, and what better way to raise awareness? As follows:

Mental health. We all have it, it’s all around us. Some know plenty about it, others don’t. Some don’t know how to talk about it while others fear judgement of their own mental health. Which is why this week, universities across the country will be taking different steps towards raising awareness.

Everyone’s heard of depression, bipolar disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, anorexia and many more conditions. Of course we have, awareness is increasing all the time. But it can be hard for anyone in good mental health to grasp the reality and the nature of mental illnesses. I’m guilty; even writing about it is helping me learn more! Think about how many left-handers you know. According to statistics, you may know as many lefties as mental illness sufferers.

Approximately one in ten people in the UK have experienced some form of anxiety related problem. These include panic attacks, phobias and OCD. Panic attacks cause very frightening physical symptoms that can make a person feel suffocated and overwhelmed. Phobias can become so strong they can prevent a sufferer from living an everyday life just from the fear of encountering whatever they are afraid of. OCD is caused by an attempt to reduce anxiety through rigid, repetitive behaviours and thinking patterns.

Then there is depression. It can be hard to distinguish between a sufferer simply being difficult and them really struggling to battle inner despair. The key to this? Be rational, compassionate and open-minded when interacting with them. Cut them a little slack if it helps them, and keep any criticism objective and sensitive. Getting the balance right could mean the difference between stopping the person from spiralling into irrationality and saying the exact things that could push them in that direction.

Eating disorders affect one in 20 young people in their teens and twenties – ten times more girls than boys. Like OCD, these disorders cause people to become stuck in repetitive, unhealthy attitudes towards food. Binge eaters may resort to it for comfort to help mask underlying emotional problems. Anorexics may see their diet as the only part of their life they can control, and will eat as little as possible no matter how much they love food. Worst case scenario, the body will run out of carbohydrates and fats, before eating away at the non-essential proteins and finally the essential proteins. This leads to organ failure and death – a painful way to go, indeed.

The aim of University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day is to promote awareness for all mental illnesses battled by staff and students alike. At DMU, there will be a chance to wear knitted friendship bracelets to represent your willingness to raise mental health awareness. You can also take a poll on whether you would be willing to speak up about your own mental health. If you’re not at DMU, what is your university doing? As I haven’t struggled with mental illness myself, I feel hesitant to end with any advice. But I do know one thing that applies to any life struggles. Whatever your situation, there is always hope.

For the original version, go to: http://www.demon-media.co.uk/?p=9958