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In conversation with: Student Abbie Phillips on autism and ADHD at work

7 August 2023

In conversation with Abbie Phillips, a Student Experience Team Member working for Unite Students in Sheffield.

Abbie, who is autistic and has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is starting her final year of a four-year Criminology and Psychology degree at Sheffield Hallam University in September 2023.

Here, the 21-year-old writes about her experience following Unite Students’ recent report, ‘An Asset, Not a Problem: Meeting the Needs of Neurodivergent Students’.

“Looking back there were things that would have helped me adjust to living in university halls, but as I didn’t know I was neurodiverse, I wasn’t able to ask for help. Before arriving, I remember collecting all the information possible about Sheffield and being desperate for a floorplan of my room to be able to imagine myself living there – without knowing there was a reason why I needed this information.

I joined Unite Students as a Student Experience Team Member in September 2022. It’s a fantastic role with a lovely team – we work very well together, welcoming students at reception, helping with flat viewings and running a host of events. Unite Students does a great job with encouraging, not just accepting, diversity – especially within the hiring process and allocation of teams. I love that the company takes into account people’s personalities when assigning locations. It’s very clear Unite Students is a supporter of neurodivergent colleagues and students and that has been a huge help to me and others.

I arrived at university in 2020 on the brink of a national lockdown. It was all very daunting. I made friends easily, but felt I had to conceal parts of my personality to fit in. I finally felt accepted, but at what cost? From the outside looking in I was okay, but inside, I was falling apart. The constant demand to socialise along with having to motivate myself to complete work online whilst sat alone in my room, brought all the issues I’d managed to repress to the surface. My world crumbled.

As I was smart and didn’t fit society’s idea of what ADHD or ASD looks like, I flew under the radar. I eventually reached out to my GP for help and was sent away with misdiagnosis of anxiety and depression, an all-too-common occurrence in females with high masking autism/ADHD. I accepted this as I had no other explanation. Having both autism and ADHD (AuDHD), makes it even harder to recognise and my opposing traits mean I appear neurotypical on the surface. No one is exactly alike, so why should this be the case for neurodivergent people?

I’ve quietly struggled my whole life; I thought I must have been a blip in the system, or an alien sent to the wrong planet. I knew I was different, but to me, it didn’t seem logical that I was an anomaly, so I concluded at a very young age that I was simply born wrong. I wasn’t behind educationally, in fact, quite the opposite: I was advanced for my age, learning to speak and read much earlier than my peers. So why would anyone notice I was struggling? I knew simple things seemed more complex for me, but maybe everyone felt this way and was just better at managing it?

I didn’t grasp social cues and the unspoken rules of society: it was easy for my friends, but nothing came naturally to me. My mind was my biggest secret, and all my energy went into pretending I was normal. This, along with trying to figure out what was deemed socially acceptable, was exhausting. Most of the time I managed to keep up a good act in public but every now and again, the mask would slip.

There are as many positives to being neurodiverse as negatives and if you asked me whether I’d rather be ‘normal’ I’d say no. I’ll take being autistic and ADHD over wishing I was someone else any day. I’m not a mistake, and I wasn’t born wrong, I was born AuDHD.

Neurodivergence is still very misunderstood, but without the platform of women across the world sharing their experience on social media, I would never have sought out a life-changing diagnosis. I feel it’s my responsibility to raise awareness and change the narrative, if I help one person it will be worth it.

Unite Students’ neurodiversity report is based on a survey of more than 2,000 university applicants and was carried out last summer. Among its findings, it highlights that students need a high level of information about their accommodation prior to arrival. This includes accurate visualisation of the accommodation, such as up-to-date photography, floor plans, and details of the facilities. This is very important and would have helped me immensely before I started at Sheffield Hallam.

On top of this, there was agreement that having at least one or two other neurodivergent students in the flat would be ‘reassuring’ and help them to settle in. Applicants added that the experience of moving into student accommodation and having to move, unpack and then meet new people all on the same day was ‘overwhelming’. They highlighted that an option to move in early – even by one day – would make the process easier. I would completely agree with this – for students like me, creating an open discussion where you’re able to ask questions about accommodation before moving in would be very helpful.

Creating a safe environment where students can express themselves freely and meet people like them, maybe for the first time, is incredibly important. By flipping the perspective and encouraging a fresh start in a positive way for students who have struggled so much with feeling inadequate, we can make university accommodation a place where they can finally thrive with people they connect and relate to.”