By Benjamin Anderson |

I undertook my PhD because of my mental health.

I am a high-functioning autistic student at the University of Edinburgh. For those who are unfamiliar with it, autism is a lifelong disability that impairs how individuals socialise, among other issues. They can struggle to understand emotions and verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as develop anxiety, repetitive behaviours, reliance on routine, and an intense focus on hobbies and interests – history in my case. Personally, I possess no filter, I can’t read a room so I will say some ridiculous things at serious moments, I will take things you say literally—so if you tell me to “break a leg,” for example, I will tell you to get in the sea—and I struggle with anxiety.

Anxiety and routine possess an intimate and interdependent relationship. The absence of routine can exacerbate my anxiety and the worse my anxiety becomes the harder it is to return to a routine. I used to hate school holidays because there was no routine. A routine, therefore, offers me the chance to lead a much more relaxed and settled life, and higher education offers me the opportunity to continue living in a routine – albeit one that I must create myself—that revolves around my obsession with history. Over the course of my undergraduate degree at the University of Stirling, which possesses an excellent disability team and autism volunteers, I became more resolved in my determination to become an academic because of the excellent support that I received and continue to receive. 

The support I receive hasn’t always been there: at school it was non-existent. These were much different days to today. People were aware of autism but were largely ignorant of it – often assuming you were either a dunderheed or Rain Man. Instead of helping me to achieve my full potential, some teachers defined me by autism and anxiety. I undertook my PhD, therefore, to demonstrate that autistic people are also regular people who are capable of achieving just as much as anyone else in this life. I suppose I equally undertook my PhD to counter the assumption that only smart people undertake PhDs. I’ll be honest, I’m a total fud. I just make sure I’m the hardest worker in the room.

The journey to get to where I am now has been long. I have created good and bad memories along the way, and I value all of them as equally important. Good memories remind me of what I have achieved; bad memories remind me of why I am undertaking my PhD. There are three distinct memories that I use to push myself through tough times:

Memory 1 takes us way back to the early noughties: Westlife are taking the world by storm and Britain and America are marching into Iraq for the bants. I was around eight or nine years old when my primary school headmaster told my mother and I that I would not survive high school. My autism, he believed, would lead me to dropping out before I even sat an exam. I would leave school with no prospects and no future.

Memory 2 takes place some eight or nine years later when I was a senior at high school. There was one teacher at the school who was not particularly fond of me for some reason. To be honest, I wasn’t fond of her either because her teaching style resembled the P. E. teacher’s style from Kes.[1] For example, she’d call us idiots when we got an answer wrong – proper old school teaching. Anyway, there was one day when she physically prevented me from going to a university open day at my school. Standing in the doorway, like Jamie Bhatti at Dusk on a Saturday night turning away half-cut students, she refused to let me in because I had “no chance of going to uni.” That was an incredibly tough episode and I remember crying at home because I feared she might be right.

Like I said, I grew up in different times; today, there exists much more support for autistic school pupils, which allows them to achieve their full potential. I can only speak from my experience, and I’d like to hear otherwise, but higher education has been very open to autistic students. Luckily, I found a fantastic and sincere history department and learning disability unit at the University of Stirling who pulled out all the stops to help me achieve a first-class degree, finish top of multiple classes, and achieve the highest grade in my degree for a European history dissertation.

My biggest criticism of higher education towards autistic students, however, is the lack of support for those graduating. For many it is our first venture into the big bad world, and it felt like I was pushed into it and told to get on with it with little support. I think universities should make a more determined effort to facilitate as smooth a transition as possible from university life to post-university life. One suggestion could be a closer relationship between the disability unit and the careers services that takes a more adaptable approach to teaching disabled students how to deal with things like stress and anxiety when job searching, coping with interviews and pressure, and learning how to network.  

I suppose the lesson I’ve taken from all of these experiences is this: negative experiences are only negative if we allow them to be. Rather than allow negative experiences to define me, I have defined them and used them to push me on to study my PhD. Today I am now a strong, confident young man at the University of Edinburgh working every day with a smile on my face because I am doing what I love: writing and reading history.

Benjamin Anderson is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh working on Vermont Loyalists during the American Revolution. New to twitter, he can be found talking about Vermont and sharing pictures of Sully at @Ben_Anderson44.

Photo by Geran de Klerk on Unsplash


[1] Just in case you’ve never seen or heard of him before https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9nDHupVqVw.