Hi Everyone! I’m Lauren Smith, I’m 20 years old and I was diagnosed with High Functioning Autism aged 12. My diagnosis bought a huge sense of relief and the realization that I was on the road to self-discovery. It enabled me to understand why I faced so many challenges on a daily basis and why I was struggling to connect with family and people at school. I had selective mutism for a couple of years, which made it near on impossible to develop social relationships. School was an overwhelming, frightening and chaotic environment – the teachers either refused to listen or were unable to adequately meet my needs, I was bullied by three girls who I considered to be my friend, I couldn’t eat lunch for six weeks, making myself physically ill, as entering the canteen caused a sensory overload and I was unable to comprehend social cues leading to me feeling frustrated, isolated and unworthy. I experienced severe anxiety and depressive episodes. Although I was very academic and excelled on independent projects, the difficulties with the ‘missed’ aspects of school nearly landed me with a nervous breakdown. So, aged 14, I was withdrawn, home-educated and referred to a tuition service for anxious students, which was my lifeline. Things were taken at my pace, the teachers listened and offered appropriate support and there were smaller classes. I, therefore, learnt to engage with my peers, develop confidence and gain my GCSE’s. However, unfortunately, upon entering a bustling, unsupportive, mainstream college, I regressed. I had to devise my own coping strategies and learnt to focus on using my experiences to empower others. Although I am not very independent and still need support to maintain a positive mindset, I volunteer for a local disability charity, fundraise and have written a book – Tick Tock: It’s Time to Listen – documenting my experiences of education. I am slowly developing my social communication skills and am learning to develop and maintain positive friendships and relationships through a monthly social group I have set up. I am currently studying a distance-learning degree in Special Education, with the ambition of setting up an autism awareness business, delivering training and offering support to young people. At times, I become overloaded with information and am easily fatigued, leading to regular shutdowns and meltdowns. I often find that I am trapped in my own world – my mind is a whirlwind that I cannot escape from. There have been numerous occasions where my mental health has deteriorated, however I have been a fighter from birth, so I face challenges head-on and muster through. I am a firm believer in making the most out of life and giving back to a community of people that have supported me at my worst.