Lizzie Coen spent a big chunk of her teenage years in a psychiatric hospital. Diagnosed with depression and anxiety, she also suffered from an eating disorder. At the age of 14, her autism was formally diagnosed.
“I can’t explain how bad my mental health was,” she says. “When I came out of hospital, I just couldn’t go back into mainstream school, because I was way too overwhelmed.”
Coen was also selectively mute: sometimes, autistic people find it so challenging to process sensory information such as noise and crowds that they become overwhelmed with anxiety and unable to speak.
“I was heavily medicated in hospital,” Coen says. “I don’t think they knew what to do with me, and there can be a lot of paternalism with autistic people, where neurotypical people think they know what is best for us. Nothing I said was taken seriously by some of the medics. I wasn’t listened to.”
Coen’s parents were supportive, but struggled to find the right help for her.
I was very institutionalised from being in hospital. Up until then, I had not had a good experience at school at all— Lizzie Coen
“I always wanted to study psychology but, with the way that I was, I would go into an autism unit in school for a few hours a week, and even that was too much for me. I didn’t see much of a future.”
Then, when she was 17, Coen started a course with National Learning Network (NLN) in Sligo. NLN, the educational division of the Rehab Group, is a supported training service which provides a range of flexible training courses for people with a disability, mental health issues, illness or additional support needs.
[ ‘I like to think of it as a journey of self-discovery for those who come in’ ]
In all, there are about 70 different training courses across over 50 locations in Ireland, providing certified courses and specialist support to people aged 16 and upwards who may otherwise find it difficult to gain employment, or who need personalised support to progress to third-level or further education.
“I was apprehensive when I started and I still didn’t talk,” says Coen. “I was very institutionalised from being in hospital. Up until then, I had not had a good experience at school at all. It had always been a disaster, even before I ended up in hospital
When a student begins a course with us, we sit down with them to develop their person-centred plan and what they want to achieve from the course— Lucianne Bird, National Learning Network
“Although I wasn’t able to go through the traditional route to learning, I was going to NLN to keep my mum happy. She [had been] really concerned that I didn’t have any structure.”
Coen started on NLN’s 18-month transition programme and, afterwards, completed their customer service course in order to get the QQI level four retail skills certificate.
“Little did I know that I would gain so much more than that over the three years. At NLN, we were all at different levels and different ages. I felt that I had a bit more control and more of a say over my own education, and it was really flexible.
“I didn’t have to do an intensive piece of work at a set time: I could do the work, but I could also go and have a break, wander to the bathroom if I needed to. Little things like being able to get myself a drink of water and work at my own pace really mattered. I could be more independent and I could work at my own pace.
“I loved the class dynamic. I was surrounded by other people who had similar difficulties to me and we all worked independently, with very little pressure. We got to make decisions for ourselves while also having access to support from our instructor, Elaine, or the resource teachers if needed.”
Lucianne Bird, director of learning for the NLN division at the Rebab Group, says the key feature of NLN is flexibility.
“When a student begins a course with us, we sit down with them to develop their person-centred plan and what they want to achieve from the course. This might include paid employment, going to mainstream university or being supported to take up an extracurricular activity, such as public speaking.
“Students on NLN courses take part in a range of modules, from communication skills to career planning, literacy skills, IT skills, interview preparation, music, artwork and digital skills. Students on any particular NLN course are given the time and support to work at their own pace. There are no starting dates; students can begin a course at a time that suits them,” Bird explains.
“There is no onus on them to ‘keep up’ with the rest of the class. We strongly believe in providing holistic support for students. Building confidence, making friends and being active participants in their local community is vital to the NLN student experience.”
I’ve always been good academically; it was coming to the classroom that was the biggest struggle— Lizzie Coen
NLN training courses offer certifications spanning level two to six on the National Framework of Qualifications, and Bird says a typical day varies depending on the student and the course.
“Some courses involve work experience, whereby students spend two days a week at a work placement, and the other three days in the NLN centre. Some are blended learning, which involves some remote studying. On the days when students are in their NLN centre, they arrive at 9am and leave at around 4pm.”
[ Stefanie Preissner: ‘Motherhood is so hard, and so lonely, and so mysterious’ ]
Coen says that her instructor, Elaine, was a transformative figure in her life.
“It was in her course at NLN that I realised I could go to university. I had thought it would be too much for me and that I would end up dropping out, but I came around. I’ve always been good academically; it was coming to the classroom that was the biggest struggle. But I was provided with a home youth liaison from the Department of Education to complete the Leaving Cert, and I got some hours of one-to-one tuition from them. And the NLN staff continued to contact me even after my course, which was nice.”
When I tell people that there was a period of time when I didn’t talk, they don’t believe me— Lizzie Coen
She is now studying psychology at John Moores University in Liverpool. She hopes to support autistic people in psychological and psychiatric services and to use her own experiences and understanding to bring about changes in how mental health services work.
“I chose to study psychology because I have a vested interest in it,” Coen says.
“I’ve had so many difficulties and I’ve met so many people with difficulties. It’s also because I’ve seen how the mental health system is, especially when it comes to dealing with people who are autistic. Everything is so separate: you’ve got your autism services and then your mental health services, and the two do not talk to each other a lot of the time. Autistic people can experience mental health difficulties, like anorexia, differently; autism can play a big part in that and make it more difficult to recover from, because aspects of autism can maintain and facilitate certain behaviours.
“In my first year in college, I worked with people to make inclusivity and accessibility a standard in universities instead of something that you had to apply for.”
Coen says she has completely changed as a person.
“When I tell people that there was a period of time when I didn’t talk, they don’t believe me. It was less about the qualifications I gained from it all, and more about the space provided to have structure while still being independent. I am truly so grateful for the time I got to spend there.”
Supported education: In numbers
7,258: Number of people who benefited from National Learning Network support in one year.
90 per cent: Graduates of National Learning Network courses who progress to employment or higher-level training and education courses.
70: Number of National Learning Network courses available nationwide.