My autism diagnosis was not end of world – just start of a new one

Written by: Laur Charleston
Published on: 3 Oct 2023

Autism

Image: © deeaf / Adobe Stock

Laur Charleston

Who am I? Laur the zookeeper, Laur the Teacher, Laur the vet? I’m going to become all three.

Envision this: you’re born into a world that circulates around written norms and social communication. Your interests stem different from your peers, the lighting is often too bright and overstimulating. And while you are feeling “different” you have no answers as to “why”.

At the age of 19 – 9 months after the completion of my Level 3 Extended BTEC Diploma in Animal Care and Management – I received an autism diagnosis.

The traits I held, including social and developmental difficulties and delays, went undetected and undiagnosed throughout my childhood and teenage years, but were summarised by my eating disorder therapist during treatment, which stemmed from the observations that I was struggling to articulate my feelings, engaged in strict routines and did not interpret sarcasm.

Neurotypical world

In essence, I grew up attempting to navigate a neurotypical world with a neurodivergent brain. I often felt confused, isolated and as though I was “broken”; I soon realised that I didn’t require fixing, I needed (and longed) to be understood.

Socially anxious. Introverted. Shy.

No… “just” autistic.

I am actively in recovery from anorexia nervosa, alongside being a passionate autism advocate, and I am excited to revel in my journey of growth, strength and acceptance. And to highlight the successes and downfalls (realities) of navigating life and vet school with disabilities.

I was often described as being “bright” and “not somebody who appeared to be autistic”. Within society, I symbolised a well-functioning individual. But beneath the realms of good grades, an ability to meet assignment deadlines and to socialise “well enough” stood an individual who heavily masked, reviled in self-doubt, an intense desire to fit in and for perfectionism.

A typical school day consisted of: a love of biology, English and geography, a want to be face-down in books with minimal noise. I was frequently asked why I never spoke and found that I required downtime to “recover” after school, following the prevalence of masking I had endured and the overwhelm that accompanied it.

Within the human world, I felt out of place and alienated. It can merely be described as looking at the world through a window or an alternative lens. I struggled to interpret the written norms of society and began altering parts about myself that, in turn, drove me further from the truest and most authentic version of me.

Laur and goatsWith animals, I felt naturally accepted and comfortable and maintained no worries about the possibilities of a communication barrier.

I often received compliments on the noted confidence I had around species, large and small. The worries over the clothes I wore, the communication I uttered and the social awkwardness I felt consumed by no longer held significance among herds of goats – be the goat in a flock of sheep.

I acknowledged my differences and began to make peace with them. I held alternate interests, with a preference to be up and out within the early hours of Saturday morning as opposed to aiding a hangover.

I realised that no amount of shrinking myself to fit in would make me match the happiness I felt after mucking out a stable, hoof-trimming a goat or shearing a sheep. I knew where I felt my best self and learned that it was something I could surround my career with.

Career options

When growing up, the future filled me with utmost dread and anxiety. I shied away from discussions around my career pathway beyond the firm knowledge that I wanted to work with animals. The opportunities felt endless, I kept my options open and my ideas flexible. I often anticipated the direction of my personal career pathway and compared it to my peers. I constantly questioned whether I was good enough and inadvertently placed by intelligence on the restricted academic radar, while failing to view myself as a “whole”.

As an autistic individual, I found the comparison to be time-consuming and overwhelming. I feared my differences; I now embrace them, my interests and my quirks. At the age of 18, I was expected to set out my career ambitions and life goals, but I found it painstakingly difficult to imagine a situation that hadn’t yet occurred. I opted to study zoology with animal behaviour as a first degree at Bangor University, which greatly supported my passions for animal welfare, conservation, evolution and the natural world.

I pondered over my career pathway for years, thereby considering venturing down the zoo-keeping, rehabilitation and lecturing pathways. The COVID-19 pandemic saw the alteration of my undergraduate degree – I was faced with unexpected change, which welcomed opportunities to think about my career.

I longed to become an animal management teacher and a vet, and narrowed my choices down to a dual career that would fuel my passions of working with young people, while simultaneously providing optimal animal care for different species. A mixed bag of academics and veterinary medicine filled me with drive and excitement.

Laur and friend.In 2022, I began working at Reaseheath College as a practical animal management teacher where I have been teaching animal management and land-based studies to students (KS4-Level 3). This heightened my confidence, developed my team-working skills and encouraged me to further believe that being autistic is not a hindrance on my life, or on my ambitions, but a stepping stone to accessing wonderful things and embracing new challenges. As I grew, my support network – or “herd” – also did, too. I felt joyous and accepted around like-minded people and developed an eagerness to share my neurodivergence with the world.

I found that my autism diagnosis dialled a “can do” attitude into me, upon learning that the autistic mind holds an array of strengths and admirable qualities that would heighten my personal and professional growth. This encouraged me to begin working on farms and to become a rare breed (golden Guernsey) goat owner.

The fear I held around meeting new people minimised drastically with the comfort of knowing that I would be around animals, acquiring new skills and expanding on my knowledge. I began vaccinating yearlings on commercial Boer goat farms, assisting with births and working closely with farm vets to gain an insight into some of the components expected to be embedded within my future career.

I applied to study veterinary medicine and surgery at UCLan (University of Central Lancashire) in 2022 and gained a place. My dream vet school. Although brand new and evolving, I admired the prevalence of animal welfare-embedded modules and mentions of inclusivity. I plan to undertake zoo internships and EMS placements, hopefully at Marwell Zoo.

I pride my autism in accompanying me with desirable industry-ready veterinary skills. Alongside my high empathy levels and key interests in animal welfare, I hold an excellent attention to detail, a strong ability to retain information and to be upfront and direct. I believe that the following qualities would support me in delivering news surrounding disease, illness and decisions to euthanise to those who’re most vulnerable.

I am looking forward to excelling within my chosen career pathway, in an inclusive profession, while advocating for students and vets with disabilities. An autism diagnosis has not been the end of the world, but the beginning of a new one dedicated to my passions and interests.