By Anjali Das
As part of World Autism Acceptance Week, Psychology graduate Anjali Das writes about her work placement with the ACoRNs team and the experiences that have influenced her future goals and passion for autism research.
One year ago, when I finished my degree, I would have laughed in disbelief if you asked me where I would be now.
I am writing this blog, as a BSc graduate in Psychology and Cognitive Science, in my office, where I work 9-5 on a salary, as a Graduate Associate for the Wellbeing Team at Sussex. I work alongside incredibly experienced, resilient, and inspiring adults, who are committed to improving students’ lives at university; managing challenging situations to do with their safety, mental health, and general wellbeing. I also work with Autism Community Research Network Sussex, under the guidance of Professor Nicola Yuill, as a placement student, looking into developing their reach and spark a conversation around the latest developments/controversy in the field of autism.
So, how did I get here? My passion for acquiring and sharing knowledge about mental health and neurodevelopmental conditions is rooted in both my personal and academic history. My curiosity towards understanding the human mind originated at the age of 16. I volunteered at a care home at the time. Attending each week, I was drawn into conversations with an amazing woman who had Alzheimer’s. The content of our conversations was always the same as she wouldn’t remember that we had chatted before. From repetition, and the connection we had established, she was eventually able to remember my name. This experience motivated me to explore the field of psychology.
I have since dedicated four summers gaining practical experience with individuals and groups of children with mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders such as Anxiety, Depression, Attention Deficit Disorders, Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC), Down’s Syndrome, and Dyslexia, among others. My role involved working closely with neurodivergent young adults, ensuring their safety and wellbeing during tasks and activities throughout the day. I managed various challenging situations, observing patterns of behaviors and examining triggering events for each person carefully. I assisted those who struggle with communication and socialization by facilitating an inclusive and exciting environment to support the development of such skills.
Having worked most closely with higher needs individuals with ASC, I became fascinated with the differences in presentation in each individual and curious about how their brains work. I became motivated to understand each of their triggers and how they respond to them, and my problem-solving nature allowed me to find the best way to help them calm down and manage the difficult situation. Most importantly I saw them, day in and day out, rise above any mistaken beliefs about their abilities. This experience developed in me an intense desire to work with children and young adults on the spectrum to address the marginalization and underrepresentation of the experiences of the Autistic community. Most families I met through this experience seemed to live under a veil of misinformation. In addition, their community’s knowledge of the disorder relied on media portrayals that often do not represent the full spectrum of autism. It is my belief that the best way for autism research and practice to genuinely meet the needs of children, young people and their families is to involve the community from the start. I was thus inspired to apply for the ACoRNS placement.
I began working with the Autism Community Research Network Sussex (ACoRNS) after completing my degree and so far, the placement has been incredibly eye opening and rewarding. It has allowed me to make valuable connections with people working on improving autistic experience in education within Brighton and Hove, and beyond. I have been involved in research and important conversations with ACoRNS and the Children and Technology lab on topics related to Autism. Once a month, I chair a meeting called the Autism Reading Group (ARG), wherein I provide research material (Psychosis, Pathological Demand Avoidance, Employment etc.) to the attendees, and we discuss/critically analyse it in that hour. A group is attended by a mix of people, ranging from autistic individuals, people interested in the topic, parents of children with ASC to Clinical and Educational Psychologists – all offering important insights from their own lived and professional experiences! I then proceed to write up the conversation into a blog post and publish it on the ACoRNS website. In addition, I am tasked with running their social media, and helping with event planning.
These conversations have helped all those engaging with our work understand autism better and as a spectrum condition, rather than succumb to the stigma surrounding the condition. I find our work to be incredibly valuable.
The role has come with its own set of challenges. Chairing a meeting with people much more experienced than me, talking about topics that they are experts in, has been daunting at times. Through repetition however, I was able to put a positive spin on the self-doubt and started viewing the ARG’s as an opportunity to learn from the best in the field. Another challenge has been around writing blog posts about topics that can generate controversy such as ABA as a form of therapy for autism. I have had to be incredibly careful with the terminology and have had to become aware of the prejudices that already exist before drafting a blog. Repetition and guidance have made me a lot more confident in my abilities.
The placement has shown me how beneficial our work has been to the community’s understanding of the condition, helping eliminate certain misconceptions surrounding autism, by providing educational tools and platforms to break them. My research, experience with ACoRNS, and my own lived experiences have enabled me to secure my current position within the Wellbeing team. I have been able to offer a valuable student perspective on the types of support needed which has helped me shine in this role. I will be using this role to carry on spreading awareness about neurodiversity and mental health among our university community. I also hope to take my knowledge forward and apply to a masters in neurodevelopmental sciences. Lots more exciting things to come!
I want to use this opportunity to thank all the inspiring people that I have met and learned from and who have helped me develop thus far. The children I worked with taught me best -you are more capable than you or anyone else might think.
Anjali Das graduated from Sussex in 2022 and is currently on a work placement with the Autism Community Research Network Sussex (ACoRNS).
Read this article to find out more about World Autism Acceptance Week and how you can get involved with autism research at Sussex.
Current Undergraduate students can access information about the placement scheme on the ‘Psychology Placement Information’ Canvas module. Peer to peer advice and support is available via our Psychology Student Connector and for general enquiries please email the psychology placements team at firstname.lastname@example.org.