Abbey’s story: A journey towards self-love

June 2024

As a child and teenager, Abbey struggled to accept her autism and felt like she didn’t belong. But by connecting with other neurodivergent young people, getting peer support and educating herself about neurodiversity, Abbey is slowly learning to love herself

Abbey was diagnosed with autism when she was just three years old. But overcoming the challenges her autism has brought, accepting her diagnosis and embracing the person that she is has been a much longer journey for the now 23-year-old.

Abbey tells a sadly familiar story about her early years at school – she was bullied at primary school for being different, struggled to ‘fit in’ and blamed herself, and hid herself away if she became overwhelmed or distressed. Although she had a few supportive teachers at primary school, she says “there wasn’t a place where I could fit in and feel okay”.

Things were better for Abbey at secondary school, because she went to an academy with a dedicated space (including a quiet room and a sensory room) for autistic and neurodivergent students to hang out and get support. She also had one-to-one support in lessons, which helped her to achieve well academically.

Abbey is now in the second year of a BA in Acting at Northbrook College in Worthing, after completing her post-16 education there, and says she’s made some amazing friends at college and University. But despite becoming more independent at college, Abbey was still struggling to accept her autism, lacked self-confidence and had issues with health anxiety after contracting Covid-19 in late 2022.

Abbey will soon go into the final year of her acting degree. Here Abbey is assisting some fellow college students with a photo shoot for a costume project around body dysmorphia

After a prolonged period of feeling low, Abbey decided to go and see the wellbeing support team at Northbrook. “I was looking for groups that supported neurodiversity, so that I could connect with other young people with similar challenges,” says Abbey. “From my own research, I couldn’t find much outside the University environment. But one of the wellbeing officers put me in touch with the young people’s service at West Sussex Mind.”

Connecting with other neurodivergent young people

Abbey started having one-to-one support with a specialist youth mental health worker in Worthing and, shortly afterwards, West Sussex Mind created a neurodiverse group, which now meets twice a month online. Abbey started going to the group in early 2023 and still goes to the meetings.

“The group has been extremely helpful to me,” says Abbey. “People feel comfortable in the group – it’s a quiet environment and it isn’t too overwhelming. There’s no pressure and we share with the group when we want to. There’s a lot of mutual understanding there and I feel I can say what’s on my mind.

“I’ve learned so much more about myself through the group and that’s really precious – to be able to learn to understand yourself. Because, let’s face it, no one teaches you about being autistic.”

Finding peer support

At one of the neurodiverse group sessions, Abbey was introduced to Naomi, one of West Sussex Mind’s youth peer support workers, who is also autistic. Abbey asked to explore peer support with Naomi to help her accept her autism, and they had six sessions together, in which they shared experiences and Naomi gave Abbey resources and suggested coping techniques.

“I felt listened to in a non-judgemental environment,” says Abbey. “I really enjoyed being able to talk to someone who understands the feelings that I feel, and I was able to ask my own questions – about socialisation, how to cope when I’m feeling distressed, stimming and dealing with my health anxiety.”

As well as being autistic herself, Naomi had also previously studied acting, so Abbey and Naomi were able to discuss some of the challenges of acting when you are on the autistic spectrum. Naomi also offered practical advice around stimming [self-stimulating behaviours common among some people with autism to regulate senses or emotions], helping Abbey to become aware of some of her habits that make her feel socially vulnerable. Abbey said she felt self-conscious about playing with her hair in college and so Naomi suggested that she tie her hair up or wear a hairband to regulate this, while also trying to be more present in the moment.

“Peer support has helped me to seek out resources to improve my understanding of myself and to better manage my mental health in the longer term,” says Abbey. “Although some days are better than others, I feel like I’m finding ways to cope. For example, I’ve felt quite low recently and have argued with family and said things I regret. But I can be kinder to myself now. I know that it doesn’t reflect who I am and that these feelings will pass. I’m finding better ways to cope and seek support if I need it.”

Towards a brighter future

Abbey will soon enter the final year of her degree course, in which she’ll do a showcase live performance as part of her assessment, and she’s feeling nervous but excited about her final year at Uni.

“When I was younger, there wasn’t a place where I could feel okay about myself. I couldn’t accept my difference and I hated that other people couldn’t understand how my brain works.

“But now, I feel confident about who I am, my social skills are improving and I’m bold enough to put myself out there and to challenge myself. I want to get my degree, make myself proud and achieve something I thought I’d never be capable of.”

We wish Abbey every success in the future!