Kate Truman has been passionate about literature, programming, and mathematics since primary school. She is now a data science PhD student at the University of Canterbury. She received OCD and autism diagnoses in her first and fourth years of university respectively.
Being diagnosed with OCD and realising that I am autistic has given a new perspective on my considerable distress during secondary school. Connecting with peer communities and accessing therapy has enabled me to have a much more positive undergraduate and postgraduate experience. But I wish that my mental health and social needs had been picked up years earlier.
Moral scrupulosity theme OCD first began to affect me in late primary school. I was very focused on the school’s ‘value of the term’ programme, which encouraged honesty, responsibility and so on. At the time, I was praised for my consistently high standard of behaviour. Similarly, I received diligence and reliability prizes throughout high school. I now realise that this seeming perfection was actually a symptom of something more sinister. I was not being honest only for the sake of the value, but because I could not tolerate the feeling that I might have been dishonest.
The OCD was relatively dormant until I reached late intermediate/early secondary school. I suspect it is not a coincidence that a surge in symptoms coincided with the development of more complex social interactions with my peers, as this is an age at which autistic females may struggle with fitting in. On the surface, my academic achievements and classroom engagement demonstrated no cause for concern. I completed nearly one hundred NZQA assessments, and consistently achieved excellence credits. But OCD affected me for each and every one.
School tests and exams provided an opportunity for OCD to latch on. Terrified of seeing someone else’s answer, I would choose my seat as close to the front of the room as possible, and maintain an awkward posture to keep my field of vision firmly on my own desk. If a room had posters hung on the wall, then that was another sight that had to be avoided at all costs, even if a poster of a periodic table was not relevant to my foreign language exam. Interpreting the rule about no written material being allowed in an exam to the fullest extreme, I made sure my clothing did not feature any brand names and would choose the plainest stationery items possible. When studying, I would often trace words on my skin with a finger, which I now recognise as a sensory seeking strategy which helped me focus. At the time, I was afraid that the words would magically become visible during the exam, which would mean I was cheating. I would rub my skin in an attempt to rub off any indication of the utterly invisible shapes I had made.
At morning tea and lunch time breaks, I would avoid others in my class, preferring to hurry to the library, so that I wouldn’t overhear others discussing the assignment or have people ask me for help. I did not know how to explain to them that I could not cope with thinking that I was in any way dishonest and that was why I did not want to help them, so felt forced to isolate myself instead.
In English, I began to dread writing essays, particularly on prescribed texts, due to the requirement to discuss each author’s intentions in their choice of language or plot development. I froze up when asked to speculate on something that wasn’t concrete fact. I could not know with absolute certainty what an author or film director had intended, and struggled to present a convincing argument of my opinion when I felt forced to caveat it with disclaimers that I was only making guesses. I found some workarounds – rather than claiming that the author was making a comment on beliefs that lead to conflict (which might be untrue), I would instead write that the reader could reach this conclusion based on the work. Thus, I was representing my opinion, which I could do accurately, rather than extrapolating into unknowns. While my writing was still to a high standard, each essay could cost me hours of anguished contemplation and minute rewrites. Despite a love of reading and being the head student librarian, because of this I opted not to take English in Year 13.
Some physics and mathematics internal assessments required collecting data in a team before conducting individual analysis. This was another source of stress – what if I accidentally revealed some of my plan for the individual work to my team? What if they told me their ideas? When internals took place over several days and we were not allowed to work on them outside class, I would police my thoughts at home. If I caught myself contemplating the work, I would tell myself off and try to firmly focus on something else, despite this being incredibly difficult to achieve.
In digital technology projects, I would provide excessively long bibliographies of my online research as I needed certainty that I hadn’t committed plagiarism by leaving any source out, even if it meant I provided websites that I hadn’t actually found relevant to my project. When I collected survey data, I would obsess over whether I had taken enough precautions to keep the responses secure. Such was my concern that a project completed during term time would trouble me throughout the school holidays.
Given free choice over my literature reviews in Year 11 and 12 English, I analysed Kate de Goldi’s The 10pm Question and Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, which depict characters with anxiety and OCD respectively. Although I was undiagnosed, the relevant characters’ reassurance seeking, due to the discomfort caused by uncertainty, resonated with me.
The only prescribed text I studied in school which dealt with mental health or neurodiversity was Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. I chose the text from a selection of several options because I knew the main character was autistic and I was curious about it, despite being undiagnosed at the time. I chose to do my Year 12 speech on autistic women, which led me to get relevant books out from the public library. Ironically, having covered unusual body language in my speech, I then had to re-submit it due to initial lack of physical gesturing as I was speaking.
Staff would frequently talk about anxiety management in school assemblies, particularly related to assignment and exam stress, but I finished school without hearing them mention intrusive thoughts or discuss neurodivergence, meaning that I reached university with almost no knowledge about the conditions I would later be diagnosed with. I’m confident that some of the teachers would have been providing support for known neurodivergent students, but as I flew under their radar it was never brought up to me.
Although unaware of my particular challenges, some approaches that teachers applied for the entire student population were helpful. An emphasis from teachers that perfection was not expected, and my dean’s effort to get to know each student individually and send personal emails if she thought we might be struggling, were comforting and lessened my stress levels. When I saw the school counsellor for a period of a few months, teachers were very discreet about my reason for missing class.
By Kate Truman