Stargazer: student on the spectrum shines bright
Written by Arianne Chavez
Faculty of Health Sciences, Curtin University
Curtin alumna, Jacinta Reynolds, is a very accomplished woman. Graduating from Curtin in 2017 with a Bachelor of Science (Physics), majoring in astrophysics, and with a string of scholarships to her name, she is also a writer, a talented visual artist and an engaging public speaker with a cracking sense of humour. Twenty-three-year-old Jacinta also happens to be autistic, diagnosed at 14 years of age. She was informed by two of the three schools she attended that she would never go to university, or complete a degree, and she would be dependent on other people all her life.
In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM V), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is defined by having difficulties in two areas; social communication and interaction, and restricted, repetitive behaviours or interests. The description is necessarily clinical for diagnostic purposes but doesn’t do Jacinta – warm, bright, passionate, funny – any form of justice.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2015 there were 164,000 Australians with ASD. Autism is diagnosed on the basis of behavioural criteria and boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed than girls.
Bullying and autism, the invisible disability
Throughout her childhood Jacinta, born in the United States and with a soft American accent, always knew she was different. When her family moved to England, and she attended a private girls’ boarding school, the increasingly complex social interactions of her peers left her confused and isolated. When Jacinta was 14, an astute teacher pulled her parents aside and told them she thought Jacinta was on the spectrum and that the condition was underpinning her social challenges.
“I wasn’t diagnosed until I was fourteen. I was at an all-girls boarding school, population about 300 girls. It was tough, because you live with half of them and half of them think you’re the weird American. I was weird,” Jacinta says.
“Most of the teachers couldn’t understand why I was getting bullied so badly, why I had what looked like symptoms of depression, until one of the English teachers turned around and said to my mum, ‘I think Jacinta might have a form of autism that is making her struggle in school socially with the girls’.
“She helped kids with dyspraxia, dysgraphia, all the rest of it, so she picked up on it straight away. It was the only reason she could see why [the] things [I said] weren’t coming out the way that I’d intended them to. I was not aware [of] what they were coming out as.”
When Jacinta was fifteen the family moved to Perth, Western Australia, where her father was from and his family still lived. Jacinta attended a co-educational Catholic school where the teachers supported and accommodated her natural gifts for learning, however the bullying from her peers continued.
“It was a good experience, mostly for the learning enrichment, but I still got mercilessly bullied. My year hated me with a fiery passion. They would go out of their way to isolate me,” she says.
“When you have an invisible disability, it’s a lot easier to make fun of people. When you’re autistic you’re invisible. Nobody can see your disability, they take advantage of it. Kids are inherently cruel. They’re trying to find their place in the world and they take that out on everybody around them. It’s horrible. I hated school. Every school I went to, I hated the kids and I loved the teachers.”
Pathways and presuming competence
While the incessant bullying and social isolation made school a traumatic environment for Jacinta, there were two teachers who made a crucial difference to her experience and set her on her current path. The first, at her school in England, introduced her to what would become her great passion: astronomy.
“I fell in love with it,” Jacinta says, simply. “I just fell in love with the way my teacher told all the stories and incorporated it into History and English and Science and Health, and it just went on and on and on.”
The second teacher, in Australia, told her she had the intelligence to attend university and, with the support of the school, that was where she was going to go. For a young girl, who had been bullied for years by her peers, and told by her teachers that she was not capable of higher education, the words were both a boon and a contract.
In the nurturing environment of the school’s Learning Enrichment Program Jacinta flourished academically. She worked hard and gained the marks to attend Curtin where, in 2013, she enrolled in a Multidisciplinary Science degree with a Headmaster’s Recommendation Scholarship. Jacinta’s goal was to become a science communicator.
Sink or swim
If there’s one word to describe Jacinta’s first year at Curtin it’s challenging. The social demands of University life were bewildering and Jacinta’s anxiety about making friends skyrocketed. The academic requirements of her course felt onerous and difficult to navigate. In what felt like an increasingly foreign environment, Jacinta began to flounder.
“Uni is very different to school. It’s the adult world. It’s not safe, it’s not enclosed. I didn’t know how to be an adult, to ‘do adulting’,” Jacinta says.
“I also had to do group work, which I thought was fine until I realized working in groups meant I had to socialize!”
Years of being bullied at school had taken their toll on Jacinta’s confidence. She battled on through 2013, however it was a lonely and unhappy experience. If 2013 was gruelling for Jacinta, 2014 was her year of serendipity. She changed courses and began studying physics, majoring in astrophysics, and, in a case of mistaken identity, she was invited to join the Curtin Specialist Mentoring Program (CSMP).
The CSMP is a unique peer support program for students on the autism spectrum established in 2014 by Program Managers, Dr Jasmine McDonald and psychologist, Theresa Kidd. Mentors on the program support mentees in all aspects of University life and, in return, gain experience working with neurodiverse people and a more grounded and informed understanding of what autism is. For many mentors, who may have learnt about autism from a textbook as part of an allied health degree, the program provides an invaluable opportunity to broaden their academic knowledge with ‘real world experience’ by working directly with the experts on autism: autistic people.
Since its establishment, the CSMP has been evaluated by a number of students undertaking postgraduate studies in psychology and occupational therapy and members of the Curtin Autism Research Group (CARG).
For Jacinta, the CSMP was a lifeline. It offered a quiet place of refuge, with likeminded peers, and all the encouragement and support she needed to continue on at University and achieve her goals. The positive social experiences she had with her mentors, a neurotypical student cohort, boosted her confidence in her ability to interact with other students on campus and in her course.
“If you saw me at the beginning of my degree and compared me to how I am now, there’s really no comparison,” says Jacinta.
“The Curtin Specialist Mentoring Program helped me grow as a person. I wouldn’t be here without their support and their belief that I have a unique gift to communicate. If it weren’t for my mentors who helped and guided me [through University] I wouldn’t be here.”
With the guidance of CSMP staff and mentors Jacinta also worked as a volunteer at Scitech for eighteen months to gain experience as a science communicator, her ideal job. With autistic adults almost six times as likely to be unemployed as their neurotypical counterparts, it was imperative that Jacinta was strategic about how to transition from University to paid employment. A significant barrier to employment for autistic people is often the formal interview process, which can be extremely stressful for someone on the spectrum. Work experience – or showing not telling – is often a better way for an autistic person to demonstrate their skills and potential.
Post Curtin life: an employee, ambassador and advocate
In 2017, Jacinta was awarded her bachelor degree, the only female in a group of seven to graduate in astrophysics. She is now a CSMP Ambassador, regularly giving talks and presentations at autism-related events. While she is an accomplished and entertaining public speaker, she still battles significant stage fright, and has grappled with the stress of appearing ‘typical’ in such public arenas.
“I get really nervous. You know those butterflies people talk about when you meet somebody new for the first time? I get those times twenty when I’m walking up on the stage. My legs shake so badly it looks like I’m having my own personal earthquake,” she says.
“I’ll stand behind a lecturn until the nerves settle down or I’ll wear dresses and skirts, which hides it. I taught myself techniques to manage the stress of talking to people I’ve never met, who don’t know me, who don’t know my opinions. It’s that fear that someone will take what I’ve said the wrong way. And I think that’s everybody’s fear, but it’s more so when you’ve spent your whole life being judged by people who don’t know [about autism].
“People when they hear the word ‘autism’, they make their own judgements automatically. And you have to spend most of your time, when you’re standing up there talking, convincing them that if they’ve made the wrong judgement, then they’re wrong because they don’t know [about autism].
“You have to spend most of your time presenting as normal as possible. I think it was about my second presentation when I decided You know what? I give up. I’m not going to pretend to be something you want me to be, and I’m going to be myself. And that’s the most important discovery I made for myself. I stopped trying to be the perfect candidate, or the perfect speaker, or the perfect whatever, and really focused on what I wanted to try and get across to people.”
Deciding to simply be herself was a moment of clarity that was to pay real dividends for Jacinta. When a paid role for a science communicator came up at Scitech, she applied for it and was granted an interview, which included a presentation on a scientific topic for five-to-seven year olds. Jacinta spoke passionately about how fridge magnets stick on fridges. When she’d finished, she left the room and hoped for a positive outcome. She got a phone call six hours later; the panel’s decision to hire her was unanimous. For Jacinta, it was a dream come true.
“Scitech is an awesome place to work. We’re such a diverse team with lots of different scientific backgrounds, weird quirks and amazing personalities. It’s why I love it so much, it just feels like a big supportive family and I feel so safe and secure there,” Jacinta says.
“My job includes selling tickets at the front desk on some days, on others I walk the floor and communicate with parents, teachers, and kids and talk to them about science and try and engage them in tinkering activities.
“On Thursdays I work with the Professional Learning team, organizing their survey data and doing stats for them. I have learnt so much about myself, social skills and communication skills from being there, and there is so much more to learn!”
While Jacinta has landed her dream job, her University journey may not be quite finished. She’s considering returning to tertiary studies to undertake a Master of Education, and hopes to use her experiences to educate, inform and encourage students, teachers and administrators in secondary education.
“I’d like to see a program like the Curtin Specialist Mentoring Program in all universities and all schools,” Jacinta says.
“I’d like to work with teenagers and young adults on the spectrum and their teachers too. I feel like I need to go out to schools and talk to them. Show them what can be done, and that it can be done.”
The Curtin Specialist Mentoring program has a range of resources, which are available for universities across Australia to implement their own peer mentoring program, and can be accessed here. The CSMP website can be accessed here.