'The one thing you can be in any journey'
08 November 2021
When Connor Bishop was diagnosed as being autistic at the age of 19, it answered a lot of questions he had about himself. Why he felt different to those around him, why others didn't make sense, why he struggled socially when a lot of people talked at once. He carried negative labels from childhood teachers around with him – "naughty", "lazy" – and he didn't know why he was treated differently. As he grew up, he personalised it all and blamed himself.
When you're sitting in that room being diagnosed, all these questions are flurrying through your head and they're all being answered. Then you go through a stage of this is who I am, this is who I've always been, I now have to go through a journey of finding out more about myself. When I was diagnosed, I realised it was the environment, not me. I suddenly understood cause and effect, and my experiences had a different context. Others weren't accepting who I was and I didn’t know who I was," said Connor.
One thing Connor did know about himself was how much he loved sport. At the age of nine, he discovered boxing at a children's boxercise gym and became an amateur competitive boxer in his mid-teens. Curvature of the spine later forced him away from the ring, but his love of sport never waned.
"I thought to myself, if I can't be an athlete, I’ll go and help athletes," he said. So he undertook a BSc in Sport and Exercise Science at UEL, graduating in 2020. For his final year dissertation, he wrote about how autistic people can benefit from exercising in nature.
He said, "Being in nature allows me to think better, remain calm, and helps me focus. Sport and sport science is always evolving as we find new ways to help athletes improve and grow, and it’s the same with nature always changing - it's fascinating to see those parallels."
After his undergraduate degree, Connor went on to do a Master's in applied sport and exercise sciences with a specialism in sports psychology, and is due to graduate this November. "The mind is the most important aspect in any sport," he said, "and it needs to operate the right way. I'm fascinated by how it can influence or limit the body."
At the University of East London (UEL), Connor found lecturers and staff who gave him the support he needed, who allowed him to express himself and ask the questions he needed to ask so he could have a sense of control over his studies and feel that he belonged. "It's important that neurodivergence in students, which includes autism, is recognised so it can be supported. It's important to give neurodivergent students a voice and allow them to self-represent wherever possible so they can play a part in making the university experience as inclusive as possible."
Connor knows how important it is to be understood and supported by those around you - and how important it is to understand and accept yourself. He is determined to help others find that in themselves, too.
Connor plans to build a career around fostering sporting achievement in underrepresented or under-supported people from diverse backgrounds, such as those with physical or mental disabilities, those who, like him, are neurodivergent, or where there are knowledge gaps in the participation of women in particular sports.
He said, "Sport gives people a voice. I want to see how I can help people be their authentic selves and stand up for themselves and progress. We need more diverse idols and we do that by allowing others to progress and come forward.
"I'm still on a journey, as are many people on the autistic spectrum. You don't stop learning about yourself. We're all individuals who just happen to be autistic. We all have interests and talents. There's a saying: If you've met one person with autism, you've only met one person with autism. The one thing you can be in any journey is yourself. People will be interested, it's just a case of finding where you belong. We are all unique."
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