I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, which is a condition on the autistic spectrum, when I was around the age of fourteen or fifteen. I remember the woman who diagnosed me saying to me and my dad that we should choose a few things – like learning to eat properly at the table, or dealing with major behavioural breakdowns – which we could work on and try to improve. The rest would stay the same, and there was no point trying to change everything because I was autistic. I still am, and I always will be.
She was right to say that I’ll always be autistic, and that will have certain consequences, many of them negative. But that doesn’t mean that I or my parents were ever going to let it define me. When I got to Oxford I expected the best and found the worst. I expected to be surrounded by people who were shy and quiet like me, and found some of the most confident people I’ve ever met. I expected to be able to easily get involved in societies, and found myself hiding in my room out of fear of meeting new people. From the moment I got here I wanted to be in the Labour Club. I turned up to one meeting, and despite meeting very friendly and chatty people, I spent the entire time judging myself, wondering if I was doing it right, questioning whether I was convincing people I was ‘normal.’ To this day, I haven’t been able to get involved in the society.
I spent four terms like this, in total anxiety, doing what I said I wouldn’t do, letting my Asperger’s define me. But in the Christmas vac of my second year I spoke to my parents about all of this, and they supported me wholeheartedly. I arranged to meet with a counsellor regularly and I got more and more support from the Disability Advisory Service, which I’d been registered with for the duration of my time in Oxford. I went to see the doctor who diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder and gave me relevant medication. But most importantly, I got involved in things. I met people through doing plays, through RAG, through rowing, through feminism, through LGBTQ campaigning. And all of these aspects of Oxford changed me. It stopped me being defined by my Asperger’s. It made me go and meet people from my college, people from other years and other social groups. It prompted me to start going to breakfasts and dinners in college – in my first year, I never dared to set foot in the dining hall without a close friend by my side.
I always will be autistic and I am right now. But there is so much potential in every autistic person, and I’m so proud of what I’ve got out of my time at university. I know what it’s like to feel like everything is shit. I know what it’s like to feel ignored, side-lined, left out, lonely. But every single student here is fantastic and has so much to offer a brilliant institution, and everyone deserves welfare support and the chance to succeed, particularly vulnerable students with disabilities like my own. Having a disability at Oxford is really, really tough. It’s also turned out to be really fucking amazing.