Read on to learn how peer supporter Hannah co-created NT LIFE’s new Neuro-divergence Group…
As a peer supporter, the idea of a neurodiversity group came very early to me. I recognised that I had the opportunity to create a group that could help neurodiverse people find a safe place to be themselves.
It is particularly important to me as I am neurodivergent myself.
I first came to understand what it means for me to be neurodivergent whilst studying clinical psychology at the University of Sunderland. My lecturer/personal tutor initiated the idea of my being autistic, after she had become aware of my mental health struggles. She is autistic and specialises in Autism Research. I became aware of autistic masking, and the reasons why mental health support may not be suitable for autistic individuals.
After doing my own research to understand the different presentations of autism, I started to identify as autistic (through self-diagnosis). This was a difficult process for me, due to the stereotypes portrayed in the media and throughout my education, I never thought I could be autistic.
I self-referred to the adult autism team in December 2021. At this time, I also proposed my final year dissertation –
“Mental health outcomes of autistic masking within the LGBT population”.
My research information highlighted how people from minority groups such as those being disabled, or in the LGBT community are more likely to face mental health difficulties. I proposed that masking neurodivergent identity and sexuality could contribute to this. I found this a very empowering piece of research to conduct, it gave a voice to people who often do not get listened to in terms of experiences of mental health issues. This shows how intersectionality plays a huge role in the complex identities that neurodivergent people have.
In April 2023 I joined North Tyneside Community Treatment Team as a Peer Supporter. This job encapsulates the passion I have for giving a voice to individuals with lived experience. I aim to show people that you can live a fulfilled life despite living with mental health issues and neurodivergent conditions. When I first started volunteering at NT life, as part of my role in North Tyneside I suggested the idea of a neurodiversity group to Ali and Julie who were both keen on the idea as they highlighted the need for some support for neurodivergent people in the area.
Jess and I started to plan over the summer how we would like to facilitate the group. Jess is also neurodivergent and contributed heavily to the planning and delivery of the group with me. As it was a new group, Jess and I suggested some topics for the first 6 weeks, that we believed, from our lived experience, would be helpfu. They included masking, neurodivergent life hacks and special interests.
In August 2023 I had my autism assessment and received my diagnosis, this was a huge relief for me and felt like the first step for me to truly understand myself. This experience felt important for me to reflect on as I planned the sessions and delivered them to the participants due to how fresh the diagnosis was for me; I was able to bring some of this experience to the group and this could help those who may not have received a diagnosis yet or still on a waiting list.
The group began in September 2023. All the participants contributed to a group agreement, with most of the discussion around ensuring that everyone is comfortable in the environment, particularly in terms of sensory needs. This was important as a number of the participants were quite anxious in group settings and did not know what to expect.
Participants were involved in discussions, which allowed them to share their own experiences of what masking means to them, both the positives and negatives of masking neurodivergent identity.
We discussed our special interests, without the fear of being judged or embarrassed. This helped us get to know each other better and celebrate the different passions and interests we have.
We found our interests were incredibly diverse and included topics such as Netball, Shrek, mechanics, and linguistics.
Over the weeks we noticed improvement in the confidence and assertiveness of participants.
Participants in the group have shown each other kindness and acceptance. We recognise that people have been vulnerable and recognise how challenging this is, at the same time people have connected with each other over a shared understanding of being neurodivergent.
When gathering feedback participants reported that they appreciate “being around people who get it”.
Moving forward this group has ran for 3 terms and we look forward to seeing it continue. Participants help co-create the group by suggesting new topics they find interesting and helpful, with ideas including – education, mental health and wellbeing, and revisiting special interests. Co-production is an instrumental part of the groups here at NT life.