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Speech therapist overcomes mental health challenges after years of struggling  Speech therapist overcomes mental health challenges after years of struggling 
When Firdous Sulaiman walked across the stage to receive her degree in Speech, Language and Hearing Therapy on Tuesday (12 December), it was a... Speech therapist overcomes mental health challenges after years of struggling 

When Firdous Sulaiman walked across the stage to receive her degree in Speech, Language and Hearing Therapy on Tuesday (12 December), it was a triumphant conclusion to years of struggling.

Having had to repeat three years of her studies at Stellenbosch University (SU), a car accident in 2020 became a catalyst for major change in her life. While receiving therapy for post-traumatic stress after the accident, Sulaiman was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia.  

The subsequent interventions and support Sulaiman received radically changed her life. From feeling despondent and doubting that she was ever going to graduate, she ended her final year as one of the top students in the class of 2023.

This remarkable turnaround and Sulaiman’s tenacity to keep going after failing three academic years, earned her a Rector’s Award for Excellence in Academic Resilience in October this year.  

Receiving the award meant the world to her because it recognised the perseverance and drive it took to achieve success, Sulaiman says. She always yearned to receive a medal or certificate, she adds. “It’s with great happiness that I’m now able to say that when it mattered most, at the end of my undergraduate journey, I received recognition that trumps all the previous awards I wished I’d received. My uncle told me something quite profound as he congratulated me on the Rector’s Award. He said anyone can be recognised for achieving top marks and distinctions, but it takes a special person to be awarded something specifically for their character.” 

Getting help 

Sulaiman recalls that at the end of matric, a parting message pained her: “You have so much potential”. “I never had it easy at school. I always had to work hard beyond my capabilities and never saw the results I expected. All I ever heard was that I had to pull up my socks because I could perform so much better. When you have mental health issues, it looks like you’re lazy, as though you’re not taking studying seriously. I would do my best and give 110%, but it was never good enough. Because I didn’t show the typical signs of being dyslexic – I’ve always been a good reader – teachers couldn’t understand why I didn’t perform better.”  

Only after the dyslexia diagnosis did Sulaiman realise that being a fluent reader does not mean you fully comprehend what you’re reading.  

The therapist Sulaiman saw after the accident, Karin Huyssen, advised her to get help from SU’s support structures for students with disabilities. “She referred me to the Disability Unit, and she recommended that I get special assistance such as extra writing time during tests and exams.”

Huyssen also wrote to the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at SU to advise how they could accommodate Firdous’ special needs in the classroom. Huyssen recommended a speech therapist who specialises in treating autistic patients. The Disability Unit funded the sessions which helped Sulaiman navigate exams and other academic challenges. 

She also started seeing an educational psychologist, Lamees Chetty, at the Tygerberg campus. Sulaiman credits therapists and lecturers, along with the unwavering support from her parents, with helping her through her struggles and motivating her to get back on track after making a difficult decision to interrupt her studies in 2020.  

“I had been pushing my body and mind beyond its limits for four years. I didn’t allow my mind the rest it needed, I didn’t take care of my sensory needs and debilitating anxiety but ended up using it as fuel to push myself. It took a lot of counselling and education to convince me why an interruption to my studies was the best move forward. Educating myself on my diagnosis and my needs was a major game-changer which impacted not only my academic life but also my relationships with family and friends,” Sulaiman explains. 

Until she started taking medication for anxiety, Sulaiman thought it was normal to feel nauseous every day. “Apart from medication, what worked for me was seeing specialists and getting special concessions from the faculty. A specific lecturer was designated for me whom I would see once every two weeks to address any issues. I had extra tutorials with the module coordinator once a week which made it easier to maintain my academic focus.”  

Sulaiman also found inspiration in a support group for autistic and neuro-divergent students to help them navigate challenges. Better understanding her needs enabled her to forgive herself for not performing as well as other students over the years.  

Becoming an advocate for mental health 

Small adjustments changed the trajectory of her life, such as taking care of her sensory needs. “In classes and during exams I was allowed to take time out when I felt overwhelmed. The results of these changes were amazing. Last year was the first year I didn’t need to repeat any modules. This year, my lecturers were shocked that the student who had always been struggling had become one of the top clinical achievers in class,” Sulaiman laughs. 

She says it’s difficult to describe what graduating at the end of 2023 means to her. “I was so used to constantly struggling that it feels unreal to do so well.” Being celebrated for her achievements is a novel but wonderful feeling, Sulaiman admits. 

Over the past two years, she has become an advocate for mental health awareness, also at home where she advised her parents to get help for her younger brother who was struggling at school. “He has also been diagnosed with dyslexia and autism and since he started getting therapy and accommodations were put in place for him, he’s now a straight-A student,” Sulaiman says proudly.  

Being neuro-divergent has made her a better speech therapist, she believes. “I’m able to personally relate to patients who struggle with disabilities. I don’t need to mask when I’m around them, I can just be myself.” Although she is keen to eventually research how to best accommodate the needs of autistic patients in speech therapy, Sulaiman now looks forward to taking a break from academia to start working as a speech therapist.  

“I am so fortunate to have truly fallen in love with speech therapy through finding myself. Within my community, I have identified a lot of misunderstandings and miseducation regarding mental health. Parents often only start seeing it as something to be addressed once it impacts their child’s academic performance. In many instances, speech disorders are a result of underlying neurological, physical, or psychological differences. As a speech therapist, I’ll be able to identify warning signs and advocate for intervention where appropriate. I also plan on providing education and promotion to communities that are most at risk,” Sulaiman says.  

As she celebrated graduating with friends and family, she reminded loved ones of a famous Albert Einstein quote: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I have stayed with problems longer.” 

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