My name is Rickesh Advani, and I returned to further education to become a mature undergraduate reading Humanities, Social and Political Science at Cambridge University, at the age of 28. I have high functioning autism and ADHD and it has defined my experience. I found it easy to meet people and make friends, but not keep them. I struggled to feel understood, accepted, or adequate. I could never quite identify my differences but could not ignore them.
After an attempt on my life due to feelings of aimlessness, I spent 6 months in a residential psychiatric ward at Guys hospital, at 14 years old. Returning to school, to be expelled soon after. Having just been diagnosed, both the school and I lacked any understanding of my challenges, and this left me vulnerable to seeking inclusion with the wrong crowd.
My challenges did not stop there. Post education I went from job to job. Being young and resilient I never stopped to understand the difficulties I was facing. And this was only further masked once within a myriad of short term employment.
I had kids and eventually became homeless at 22, when the relationship with their mother brokedown; and I started again. And, amid my process of redevelopment I dismissed financial security for following my newfound passion; championing social equality.
From a council studio flat I felt invigorated to harness my experience to support others. And it is only looking back now, two years into university, at the age of 30, that I can realise the most critical elements of my success: passion and a healthy social support network.
Coming to Cambridge University, mature and living offsite, I was forced to face the inevitable challenges of making friends. Coming from a background working with the most disenfranchised, I was not at all prepared for the social expectations of university. I come from a slightly more relaxed generation where inherent values superseded political correctness. So, the nuances and unwritten rules provided a veritable minefield for potential faux pas.
With all the experience and best intentions, even I couldn’t help but to occasionally fall folly to the existing cultural norms. This is only further compounded by having autism and living with the struggles it provides me; including: understanding boundaries and interpreting others perspective.
These and many other concerns are daily challenges in all situations, and one cannot simply learn from experience. I can easily find myself overwhelmed, deeply anxious or overtly self-analytical, wanting to withdraw. I can also be totally extroverted, engaging in deeply thought provoking, and sometimes, controversial ideas.
I cannot help how I see and analyse the world. I cannot stop my oppositional mindset that wants to operate with exclusive logic, in a bureaucratic system. Having a consciousness that thrives with disentangling and challenging concepts. But I can always do my best to be sensitive to my audience.
Yet, I have found it all too easy to come to university and feel lost, isolated and alone. To believe everyone around is doing better. An idea harder to shake in a selfie addled arena, where the competitive nature of shameless self-promotion is rife.
Being autistic, every relationship is a challenge. Each comes with expectations and commitments that create guilt and anxiety. But I truly see the value and importance of judgement free friend zones.
I have learnt that following passion opens doors, and that the unimaginable becomes possible, as our own growth becomes perpetual in our pursuits of passion. But equally, none of us can be successful entirely independently. Each of us benefit from the company and support of others, be that a very exclusive friendship group, or a wide network of associates.
I know as good as many how scary and difficult it can be making friends. I understand how easy it is to withdraw or seem ok on the surface, but to be struggling internally with acceptance. I know how easy it can be to turn to modifying ourselves, our morals or beliefs, or engaging in activities that make us uncomfortable, simply to ‘fit it’.
However, making the sometimes awkward and difficult journey of meeting the right people, and finding a space where one can truly be themselves without fear of recrimination is vital. And although it can be difficult to find this space, it is worth it when established; and it is certainly easier to find, when following and being driven by one’s true passions.
Therefore, the take away from this is to always follow what inspires you, no matter the risk of deviation from an existing path or idea. And to live open-mindedly being less judgmental to differences.
By embracing the fullest breadth of diversity, we can truly support equality, and furthermore, broaden our most valuable asset, our social support network.
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