The Road to Assessment (Part 1)

Recently, at the age of 46, I was diagnosed with autism. This may surprise some people but if you know even just a little bit about autism and female presentation autism and you knew me, you might pose the question, ‘Do you think you might be autistic?’ even if you couldn’t diagnose. In fact, I have been asked this question by a few followers on my Facebook page over the years. 

What led me to go for an assessment?

I’m a teacher who returned to a schooled environment in September of last year. I went back not as a primary school teacher but as a learning support teacher working with Y7-Y13 (age 11-18). Whilst I loved my job and knew this was definitely the area of teaching I’d like to be in, I started to experience the previous difficulties that I’d had the last time I was in a school and classroom. These difficulties weren’t really anything to do with teaching and my ability to do my job (I was always given great feedback as to my teaching abilities), it was more everything else around my job. 

What were the difficulties?

First of all I found the lights difficult. This is something that happened in my previous classrooms where I’d turn the lights off because they were too bright and/or they gave me a headache. I became known for this and colleagues would make light-hearted comments about how dark it always was in my classroom. I also opened the windows because, I don’t know if you’d ever been in a classroom 20 years ago, the heat was unbearable to me. One head teacher called my room ‘Dark Siberia’ because she found it cold and dark. Experiencing other parts of school showed me that my room was completely different and while I understood that I had sensory difficulties (I’d experienced them all my life and a professional once ‘diagnosed’ me with a sensitivity to heat and light, a precursor to sensory processing disorder which has since changed into sensory modulation disorder) it really showed me just how different I was.

I suffered from perfectionism. I say suffered because you really can suffer with perfectionism. If a display wasn’t quite good enough, I’d take it down and start again. If I’d designed a new spelling booklet for my pupils but then something wasn’t quite right, I’d redesign the whole thing. I’d only have perfectionism about certain aspects of the job which looking back, I can’t fathom why my brain picked those things and not others: it really was quite random. This perfectionism led to not sleeping because I’d be ruminating (another autistic trait) about something and not being able to switch off (autistic trait) due to overthinking it. This would turn into looped thinking (another trait) and the cycle just went round and round.

Everything had to be just ‘right’ but due to the nature of teaching, it’s a job that is never finished i.e., there’s always more you could do, I was mentally suffering with no real idea as to why. 

By the time I’d reached any holiday I was burned out both mentally and physically. 

Whilst this was difficult for me, it was easy to put down to being an NQT or a teacher early in their career because we’re all aware of the workload of teachers even 20 years ago. We know teachers work weekends, late into the evenings every night in term time and also part of the holidays. I was just doing what all teachers were doing but the toll it took on me was far greater than the 4 teacher colleagues I lived with at that time. I would also like to say that my class never suffered due to my difficulties because I’m an excellent ‘masker’ and perfectionism can only benefit the recipients of the outcome of perfectionism which is to the detriment to the perfectionist. A teacher who overworked relentlessly for their class does benefit the class because everything got done and was done again if it wasn’t right. There was no ‘that’ll do’ because that didn’t exist in my vocabulary at that time. 

Imposter syndrome

I taught for 4 years under my own imposed pressure and during my last year in the classroom I developed imposter syndrome. This is where your brain sends you signals that you’re not good enough for what you are doing coming from a base of extreme anxiety. I’d had a baby by this point, suffered what was diagnosed as depression and anxiety (which it wasn’t) and my whole world had been rocked from an existential point of view that I didn’t know had happened and my brain just couldn’t cope with my perfectionism, my anxiety, the not being able to switch off, the ruminating and I think this was just it’s reaction in order to try to protect itself. It’s a very basic reaction but a reaction all the same. 

Despite being highly qualified to do the job I was doing I began not sleeping through anxiety and not being rational in my thinking -I thought I wasn’t very good at my job and that it was only a matter of time before ‘they’ all found out. I felt I needed to leave as soon as possible in order to not be a burden on ‘them.’ 

At the end I couldn’t even talk to my head teacher about how I was feeling despite him being a very approachable and kind boss. My anxiety was such that talking to anyone about anything was too difficult, so my husband phoned and talked for me. 

I just wanted to not feel this way anymore and I thought that leaving my job would be the answer which it partly was but the anxiety (always there but more manageable) and imposter syndrome has been with me constantly since.

I’ve taught throughout my 20 years of being a teacher but in many different settings. I’ve tutored, taught music, taught sewing (a special interest that turned into a business), taught home educated children and also taught my own children. If I have a ‘calling’ then teaching is it; it’s just been my brain that’s been the problem for me to be a teacher in a school. 

In March 2021 I interviewed for a learning support TA job and, due to my experience, I was given a role as a learning support teacher. I then had 5 months of ridiculous anxiety before starting the job. I experienced thoughts of feeling inadequate, being an imposter and that they’d ‘find me out’ as soon as I started. Despite having a huge amount of knowledge and experience my brain just wasn’t playing ball. By the time I started I wasn’t sleeping and was worried about how my brain would cope back in a schooled environment. But I did cope and I thrived and I was given more hours and even went for a promotion and got that job too. I am good at what I do, I just know that my brain has a little difficulty realising that. 

What made me go for the assessment?

I had noticed that the lights were hurting my head and my eyes were so tired. I talked about this with other colleagues who all didn’t have an issue. The lights felt like stadium lights no matter which classroom I was in and although I know have Irlen’s lenses due to my Irlen’s Syndrome (these are the coloured lenses that you may have seen people wearing) and they did help I still felt the brightness on my skin. The noise of the corridors and the dining hall hurt my ears and the randomness of the heat difference of the classrooms was troublesome to me. Sometimes I was too hot though I did spend a lot of the winter shivering. I have now a couple of ‘coatigans’ to help when I didn’t even know what a coatigan was!

My anxiety started, the ruminating started, and this culminated in waking up at 3am with whatever was on my mind going round and round. Talking to my husband didn’t help and I know I got stuck in looped thinking. My perfectionism was kicking in but, for once, imposter syndrome didn’t start. I’m glad my brain had figured out that that would have been ridiculous due to my knowledge and experience of this niche area. 

Social anxiety (of which I haven’t mentioned but I do suffer from) made things difficult for me too. Initially I found going into the dining hall difficult if I didn’t have my department colleagues with me. The queuing was anxiety inducing as was working out where to sit and if you add in the noise and the busyness, you can see it was always going to be a tough challenge for me. 

This led to some quite long and soul-searching talks with my husband. I shared that I’d been taken to the Drs when I was younger due to my ‘being on the go’ all the time. I was an overly active child who really didn’t stop talking, moving or being interested in everything around me. The Dr said that I was just hyperactive and that there was nothing wrong with me and that was that. I looked back on this and wondered if I had ADHD because many people have commented throughout my life how I can multitask many things at once. I thought the hyper focus on LS, the ruminating and my work ethic meant I probably did have ADHD so that’s what I initially went for an assessment for. I loved my job and didn’t want to burn out again so I felt an assessment would give me the information I needed to understand my brain and to find support that would help. 

Once I’d filled in the paperwork (there are many questionnaires), my husband had filled in his paperwork (there are many questionnaires for those who know you) and I had had the hour-long session with the psychotherapist (to find out if there were any other mental health reasons as to why I was experiencing what I was) I had the date for the 2hr appointment with the psychologist. 

I don’t like planning too far ahead in advance because I find the anxiety of waiting for important things to happen quite unbearable. When the day came, I was a bit of a mess of anxiety and the ruminating and looped thinking was wearing for my Husband, I’m sure. It wasn’t until 5.30pm so I had the day feeling uncomfortable and out of sorts. I couldn’t settle to anything and wished that the appointment was in the morning so I could have just got it over with. At 4.45pm I received an email to say that the psychologist couldn’t now make the appointment time and could we reschedule.

I just cried. 

I sat at the table and sobbed and sobbed like I’d never sobbed before. It was pretty uncontrollable if I’m honest. All the pent-up anxiety about the appointment was just too much at that time. My husband emailed to arrange a new time and explained how upset I was and how anxious I had been about the assessment. 

A new appointment was made, and I saw the psychologist 2 days later. 

Click here to read -The Road To Assessment Part 2


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