Black History Month- Vanessa-May's Story
By Vanessa-May Gavaris
What is it like, being autistic and a black woman in the UK? That is the question I am sure you want an answer to. My name is Vanessa-May, and I am an autistic black woman who is 24 years old. I am currently working as a trainee psychological well-being practitioner also known as a low intensity CBT therapist and currently studying at UCL. Being a black woman and autistic is, getting an extremely late diagnosis at 20 years old, and wondering constantly whether I was a bit strange or was there something different about the way I thought or perceived the world. But I will expand on this a little later.
When I was younger, I was often described as “bright”, “enthusiastic” and a “ray of sunshine”. It was never detected that I had autism as a young girl, as my doctor said I was ahead of my peers and couldn’t possibly be autistic. News flash, they were severely incorrect. Primary school was mainly a breeze for me, other than sometimes not understanding social cues, but when you are a child, everyone is kind of unaware of their environment, so I got away with being different, in fact I was debatably popular because I was good at sports, music, art and general studies. My parents gave me a good structure and always allowed me to be my authentic self at home, so I never knew that I was different. My mother would constantly tell me I was “unique and beautiful”, and I truly believed that. I should also mention we later came to realise, 3 out of 4 of us were neurodivergent hence why I never felt different inside my home.
Unfortunately, I was rudely awoken when I entered the secondary school territory. I would like to say the American TV Show: High School Musical, lied to me. As an autistic person I really took it literally that high school/secondary school would be amazing. Secondary school was truly horrific and that was the nicest way to put it. I discovered quite quickly how different I was, and it was devastating as I really had no clue. What I learnt is that secondary school children notice very fast when someone isn’t neurotypical and make it their duty to ruin your life. For some reason, my teachers never noticed it. In fact I was ‘’ gifted and talented’’ the poster child for being ‘’ bright and smart’’. I was talented in music and gifted in science & maths. I was severely depressed and anxious because I was thoroughly bullied and sent loads of nasty messages online. I never understood what was wrong with me. Why did nobody like me? I quickly shifted from being “bright”, “enthusiastic” and a “ray of sunshine” to being “depressed”, “socially anxious” and a “pessimist”. I really started to hate myself and I barely had any friends. I had a few teachers who looked out for me and made sure I knew people were only mean because they were envious, but it didn’t feel like that for me, it felt like an endless cycle of bullying and isolation.
Eventually, I finished school and went to university to study Cognitive & Clinical Neuroscience, I loved it and I still do love it, I studied it to understand myself better as at this point, I had gone through CAMHS and had been told I was clinically depressed, but I thought there was more. Anyways, we did learn about Autism in university, but I never thought I had it because the only people they would show us with autism were white men and I am definitely not a white man. I went on to be told by a psychologist that they thought I had borderline personality disorder which I thought “YES” finally something that fits me. But it didn’t.
I had another psychologist call me ‘’ aggressive’’ and prescribed me with antipsychotics. I now know that was racism, but at the time I thought something was wrong with me. That is what it is to be a black person, to endure institutionalised racism at every turn you take and even within the system that is supposed to help you. I was already on antidepressants and then given antipsychotics to ‘’fix me’’, but I knew I didn’t need to be fixed? I spoke to my GP who also told me, I did not need antipsychotics and that it had impacted my body as I was having very shaky hands. I was undergoing therapy and really struggling with black and white thinking and my therapist at the time hesitantly said ‘’Vanessa, have you considered you might have autism’’. I became fixated on it and made it my special interest and I realised ‘’OMG, I am autistic’’. I was so happy to find something that made sense, that I wasn’t ‘’insane or bizarre’’ I was just different!!! I was diagnosed with ‘’Asperger’s’’, but that is a deeply offensive term due to its historical beginnings, so yeah, I found out I was autistic, and my entire world changed. I had a purpose now.
I went on to get a Masters in Mental Health at King's College London, I had a newfound purpose and that was to become a clinical psychologist. To be able to help people like me to get the diagnosis they need and to see someone who looks like them and understand how they feel. Eventually, I would like to specialise in helping diagnose black women with autism as soon as possible as undiagnosed autism in women can cause a lot of unneeded traumas, and when you are a black woman there are so many other challenges you must face like racism and abuse. If I can help limit the pressures that come with not knowing who you are then I would like to. And that my friend is a brief overview of what it is to be a black autistic woman.
Keep up with Vanessa-May on Instagram @vanessamay_xo