Autistic author and campaigner urges students to think differently

AN autistic author and campaigner returned to her old school to offer a fascinating insight into the challenges she faced when she was a pupil.

In a moving and inspirational speech, Allie Mason, special guest speaker at Ripon Grammar School’s annual prize giving ceremony, urged students not to build their identities around how others value them, but around what they value in life.

The author of The Autistic Guide to Adventure, who was only diagnosed three years ago, said: “If you had told me as a teenager that a decade later I’d be back here giving a speech to hundreds of people, I’d probably have politely declined and then gone on to hyperventilate in the library, which did happen.

“Striving to fulfil someone else’s vision of you leads you to neglect the person you actually are. I learnt that the hard way, so I hope sharing some of that journey will help some of you avoid following in my footsteps.”

Speaking to a packed hall of more than 900 people, including parents, governors, staff and civic dignitaries, she said: “It’s been wonderful to see so many students acknowledged for their hard work this year, and to experience the varied talents of the different performers as well. You should all be very proud of yourselves.”

But, diagnosed with autism at the age of 23, she explained how her own academic career was not straightforward as she struggled with the sensory elements of being in the classroom, suffering three mental breakdowns, or autistic shutdowns, during her GCSE, A-level and university years.

“When this happened at RGS, I was fortunate that the sixth form team took my wellbeing very seriously, arranging for me to study from home for a time, before re-joining my classmates on a reduced schedule.

“While I received the best support I could have asked for during my time at RGS, it was a very difficult period of my life.

“It felt like everyone had been given a handbook as to how life works, that I’d somehow missed out on.

“I’d always been a chronic overachiever, the perpetual people pleaser, but I was getting overwhelmed by the simplest things such as noisy classrooms and glaring fluorescent lights.”

Allie left RGS after A-levels in 2015 and went on to graduate in Christian theology with first class honours from York St John University, later taking an MSc in education at the University of Oxford.

She explained how her late diagnosis transformed her life: “For the first 23 years I had been defining myself by how I compared to neurotypical standards. I built my identity around being that chronic overachiever and ignored many other aspects of my life.

“I’m inviting you to think about why you do the things you do and why you don’t do the things you don’t. And I’d like to ask you to consider, are there things you’d love to try, but you’ve never made time for them because they might not lead to external validation?

“Maybe this summer is that time.”

Students received a host of prizes for achievements, progress and integrity in areas including academia, music, drama and sport.

Chair of governors Elizabeth Jarvis praised RGS's outstanding academic achievement, with the school being named ‘Top state school in the North’ by The Sunday Times for the tenth year in a row.

“But, although it's important, our purpose as a school is not just about academic achievement. Students leave this school with wider skills which enable them to be successful in the modern world.

“Students’ achievements and rewards are not based on who they are, where they come from, who they are related to. Students at this school are rewarded on their own merits. We are values driven, where leadership, integrity, collaboration, kindness and care for others integrate together to create the culture of growth and development.

"And this hidden curriculum - underpinned by the wonderful relationship between staff and students, the hard work and dedication of students and the vast co-curricular offering - is what make this school so very special."

Headmaster Jonathan Webb reflected on a year of academic endeavour and success but, as always, a year of challenge: "Those of you who have missed out on a prize, keep striving and working hard. We can’t always win prizes every year, but you follow your personal goals and you will succeed in life."

Student speakers reflected on a year of music, drama, sport, work experience, volunteering and outdoor education while the audience was treated to dramatic and music performances by junior drama cast members, the School House small vocal group and the brass ensemble.

*The Autistic Guide to Adventure (Jessica Kingsley, £14.99). For more information, visit Allie Wrote - Autistic Author