Cayla's story

This was the first time I had dealt with professionals who were genuinely knowledgeable about my precise difficulties.

Thanks to the unique function of ‘Devon Adult Autism and ADHD Service’ (DAANA) - at the age of 29 I have finally received diagnoses (Asperger’s and ADHD) which, on reflection, have been perversely evident throughout my life. I have always resisted assuming the attitude of a victim – and it is only now that I can admit to, and openly acknowledge my lifelong pervasive mental health difficulties, without feeling defeatist or ashamed.

My intense battle with attention deficits was no secret through my schooling. Classic symptoms were repeatedly discussed with teachers and other professionals – yet accurately recognised by none. Despite having a ‘genius’ IQ, the frustration of being consistently unable to achieve anywhere near my potential caused immense distress, and left permanent scars to my self-esteem. Never being able to express my capabilities, let alone gain acknowledgement for them, also only added to the social isolation I experienced due to very different behavioural autistic traits.

I always fought to stay in competition with others in every way. I had less social drive and little inherent understanding of the way ‘most’ (or ‘neurotypical’) people think, yet I strived to learn their behaviours and psychology, and practice communication and social skills to the point where I developed much greater understanding and social aptitude than my ‘subjects’. However, no matter how acute my perception and social initiation, it was essentially synthetic, and I still lacked the natural motivation and connection to sustain ‘regular’ relationships. I constantly switched between friendships and masks, juggling social focus, and struggling to find my true identity.

Along with psychological and related studies, and also gymnastics coaching, a huge amount of what I have truly learned about myself and communication with others came from my behavioural/ training work with horses. Physically immersing myself in equine psychology and interspecies communication formed an experiential learning platform that nothing else could simulate. Having worked closely with many animals, and also supporting others with learning difficulties and complex mental health issues, I have recurrently become a mediator between 'neurotypical' people and autistics and/or animals. I hope, at some point, to be able to utilise my expertise in these areas to create an ‘Equine Assisted Training’ programme for professionals and personal relations who provide some aspect of support for individuals on the autism spectrum.

I had self-diagnosed all of my ‘disorders’ a long time before finally being able to access appropriate official assessment, and for a long time this simple referral seemed impossible to acquire. I lost count of the amount of doctors, psychiatrists, therapists and mental health professionals I explicitly described my issues to only to be patronised, ignored, and completely misunderstood. Eventually, after a lengthy discussion with a GP, whom I had to educate as to the afflictions of adult ADHD, they agreed to attempt to search for an appropriate service to refer me to.

After several rejections and deferments, it was, seemingly miraculously, recommended that I was referred to the   DAANA service in Exeter. Due to extremely limited funding, I remained on their waiting list for over a year before they could see me, but as soon as that time came, everything started to fall into place. The assessment was so thorough and this was the first time I had dealt with professionals who were genuinely knowledgeable about my precise difficulties. I felt respected and acknowledged throughout the process and also their ‘post diagnostic course’ where I met others with similar difficulties and experiences. This was invaluable and revealed a common extreme struggle to access appropriate support and diagnosis, and also a frequent attitude from others disputing the relevance or benefit of gaining a diagnosis. As yet, I still don’t quite know how to explain why this process has been so dramatically beneficial for me.

But I believe that the simple acknowledgement, recognition and confirmation of the difficulties that have plagued my life yet been consistently denied by others for years, has sparked a powerful psychological revelation. Personally, I haven’t even really learned anything new about myself, but I am only now beginning to truly accept myself for exactly who I am and challenge myself in more appropriate ways.

As well as the DANA team, I am eternally grateful to my recovery coordinator for her on-going respectful and dedicated support – in my experience is it rare to find someone with such genuine attitude and aptitude for their work. Also I am thankful to psychiatrist for going above and beyond to help me in times of need, my GP, the only GP that has ever really listened to me, and to my CAT therapist for her insightful enthusiasm in navigating through my monster-maze of a mind!

My life and mental health are by no means smooth sailing now, and probably never will be, but I am now becoming better able to manage relationships, be honest with myself and accept support. As such, I can focus more of my energy onto things that are particularly important to me, and have the confidence to at least try to fulfil my hopes. I am currently fundraising to support conservation of critically endangered Chimpanzees in equatorial Africa. Wild chimps could become extinct in as little as 15 – 20 years due to ruthless poaching for bushmeat and pet trade, deforestation and human encroachment. There are many organisations working to combat this situation and I intend to join forces with the largest Chimp sanctuary in the world ‘Chimfunshi’, and do everything in my power to spread awareness and fight to save our closest genetic relatives. 

My website promotes awareness of issues facing wild and captive chimpanzees, sells my charcoal wildlife artwork, and advertises other fundraising activities. I also hope to eventually apply my combined studies in psychology, neuroscience and primatology to humane ape research which will in turn benefit our understanding and support of ASD.

I do not see high functioning autism as a ‘disorder’ whatsoever, rather the difficulties associated being largely environmental, due to the lack of awareness and comprehension from society. The work that DANA is doing is fantastic, but the need far outweighs the means they have to provide the service. I hope that the more people like myself that speak up and prove how important this type of service is, the more its significance and support will grow, and its capacity will be able to meet the growing demand as awareness spreads.