Becoming a Psychologist: Part 1
I’m full of energy and ideas. It’s like being a helicopter, always hovering around to look at the big picture. Maybe not so crash-hot on the details, but with a razor-sharp vision for unlocking people’s strengths.
That’s because I have dyslexia, a learning difficulty related to reading. Words on a page just take longer than usual for me to read. Writing can sometimes feel like a chore and my spelling is terrible. But dyslexia gives me the ability to connect with people, including speaking on stage. I’m able to visualise and connect items to the bigger picture. And it hasn’t stopped me from becoming a psychologist working with autistic people.
As October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, I want to share my story to break the silence on people who have dyslexia. Here is part one of this story about my early life and how I became a successful psychologist.
It was clear to me from an early age that reading and writing were not natural strengths. One of my prep teachers thought that I struggled with an intellectual disability. In Year 4, I completed a cognitive test that identified challenges in spelling, writing and maths. But nothing came out of that testing. At the time, teachers didn’t have the knowledge to help students like me. But my father had dyslexia and my mother was a special education teacher. I credit their support and help for getting me through my school years. They instilled confidence in me as I was growing up. But I was worried that I was ‘dumb’, because I kept getting C grades despite the enourmouse effort that I put into my work.I remember that one time, I had an exam in high school for business principles. I thought I did okay but actually failed it because I lost a huge amount of marks for spelling mistakes.
To make up for academic struggle, I turned to sport. I excelled at running and athletics. I scored top marks in Physical Education (PE) classes in high school and played soccer with my friends during lunchtime. I even went on to play water polo for Queensland. Sports helped me develop a confidence that I didn’t have in my academic studies.
Getting into University
My high school marks were pretty average. I got into Rockhampton University to do arts, although my interests lay in business and working with kids.
Although my dyslexia continued to challenge me in university, I didn’t want to access “special needs” or “disability support” services. I wanted to prove to myself that I’m capable of overcoming these challenges. I wanted people to see the positive side of dyslexia.
But like many dyslexics who still hide their challenges today, we fear to be exposed on our reading challenges. We don’t want to be humiliated for having dyslexia. I remember one time where I applied to study psychology at a university and completed a hand written application to go there since I was getting good grades. However, I didn’t get in because of the spelling mistakes and messy handwriting on my application.
Eventually, I scraped into a psychology degree at the University of Queensland. Not all of my studies received credit, so I had a lighter study load. With more time and a part time load my grades improved. But then there was statistics. I failed the subject. My working memory struggles made it difficult for me to hold the maths in my head. Back then, you had to calculate equations and T-scores by hand. This kind of math is now replaced by computer programs.
To add insult to injury, the University of Queensland said that I had to retake the statistics course at a different university and do another prerequisite subject in order to progress. I still have the piece of paper with those instructions ending with ‘good luck’. It was the most aggravating piece of paper ever, but it also motivated me to pass the subject again and show what I was capable of.
Despite my struggle with numbers, I excelled at analysing and proposing solutions in my clinical work. I think my university struggles influenced my approach to clinical practice. Often psychologists are very good at focusing on the specific issue which is great, and I can do that. But I can see a bigger picture. I can look at the person’s life. One of their major issues could be their functioning or the inability to find employment. This interest early in life will shape my professional practice in years to come.
My friends and a helpful lecturer got me through my degree. My mother helped to proofread my assignments, so I wasn’t turning in work that was riddled with spelling errors. Having a Mac computer during my studies also helped with correcting my work, looking up words in a thesaurus or moving sentences around on a page. I took almost 10 years to finish my psychology studies that are usually completed in six years.
But I didn’t become a psychologist straight away. My professional career got off to a slow start. I searched without luck for work in disability support services in Australia for about six months. Discouraged, I moved to London and stayed with family and friends, hoping for better luck in the job search.
I became a recruitment consultant for the travel industry. Sales is an industry that attracts a lot of dyslexic people, so it felt right at home. It was a well-paying job, albeit stressful at times. But at the back of my mind, I always felt that there was more meaningful work to be found in helping autistic kids. I felt my struggles were potentially debilitating but that when managed I was fortunate compared to so many other people.
So I quit my job. I started teaching autistic children at special schools, completing a postgraduate teaching qualification along the way. For many years, I worked at a special school and then briefly at a mainstream school in the UK. I mostly worked with kids at the Year 3 level in mainstream, so I could pick up the common spelling errors typical of that age. I was a very good teacher and I could connect with the kids, but I still had to work hard. Eventually, I made the move back to Brisbane, spending time as a regional autism consultant for Brisbane Catholic education schools. But I didn’t want to work in the education forever and wanted to help people with similar challenges to me. I decided to kickstart my journey as a clinical psychologist.
I finished my Master of Professional Psychology, and due to my years of practical experience and relationships developed along the way I began working with Professor Tony Attwood and Dr Michelle Gartnett, who are considered well-renowned experts in autism in Australia. They run the Minds & Hearts clinic in West End, Brisbane. And after a few years, I could finally call myself a psychologist. It would pave the path for the work that I am doing today.