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Race Against My Mind - Burnout on the Spectrum     

Guest blog by Nathan Mann

Just to get this finished was an extraordinary achievement. I voice dictated most of this, so it was not so much of a chore to write. It has been months of extreme highs and lows. When I started this, I was going through one of my exhausted days, so I thought it would be the best time to rekindle the cathartic reasons I started writing in the first place.     


I have been feeling like I have a constant mental wall: Job applications, creative writing, and even simple things like sending emails have often felt mentally draining. There is so much uncertainty in my life and I struggle to sleep because my brain is more wired and body less tired than during the day (despite reading before bed and having less screen time). I am also even more sensitive to noise and the stresses that social interaction can bring.   


The beginning of the end 

The road to the present began when I had a blog on the Ambitious about Autism website published in June 2023. At the time, I was working for a TV production company as an unscripted development researcher (a job I had been doing for eight months, not long after graduating university). I sent the article round to my work colleagues, who loved it so much the co-founder and CEO wanted me to be an on-screen contributor to a neurodivergency TV show idea. Sadly, like a few months earlier (when I pitched a separate idea of my own to a very enthusiastic commissioner), the broadcaster turned it down. Talk about sliding doors moments.     

I unexpectedly received an email from the same CEO around a month later saying that due to the company’s serious financial situation, they would be bringing forward the end of my contract. It was a bitter blow given not only did I love the job, but my brain benefitted from the routine. It was certainly a lesson in the brutal world of television: Only a month earlier they wanted to make a tv show with me appearing on the small screen, yet now I had lost my job.     


However, I still believed that because of the experiences I gained with them, I would eventually be able to find another job in television. So far, no such luck. I apply for jobs without getting so much as a response most of the time. As an autistic person, I always do job applications very thoroughly. I watch around three of the previous shows that the tv production company I am applying for have made. This takes three hours, not including writing the cover letter and getting the whole application as good as it can be. To do all that and not even hear responses is incredibly dispiriting.  


In an ideal world companies would reply to all job applications, giving feedback however brief. That sense of clarity will also help us with future applications, making employment for the frighteningly high number of autistic people that do not have work more likely to get jobs that suit our needs and passions.     


A fresh start? 

But all was not lost. I got a temporary fixed-term job as a Creativity Champion with 64 Million Artists. I taught fellow autistic people scriptwriting skills and appeared on an episode of their podcast.   


I also have a big creative passion for writing and studied it for my undergraduate degree at drama school. While still working for the production company, I was inspired by working in television to write an autism sci-fi tv drama series called Modern Love. The show centres on an autistic TV developer who after having a sensory overload, goes back in time to his birth year of 1999. To complete a pilot script and treatment was a monumental achievement given I had wanted to write a television script for years. I turned to Cathy Crabb, a writer I had been introduced to at university, who gave me enormous amounts of help. That led me to enter two writing competitions at the start of 2024: Grass Routes and Thousand Films.     


Unfortunately, after sending in my applications for the competitions, it is like two negative parts of my brain have been fighting each other in a mental boxing ring ever since. The blue corner has been desperate to not stand still: Keep thinking up and writing new scenes, alongside getting the pilot and treatment out to industry professionals. However, the red corner has been wanting a complete break from Modern Love because of the mental energy that preparing and sending the entries took. This conflicting thinking has not only led me to not get the rest I need, but to also get extraordinarily little joy out of a form of creativity that I feel so passionate about.     

I have not heard from Grass Routes yet, but I recently received an email from Thousand Films: Sadly, my Modern Love pilot script was not taken forward. This wound will heal, but upon first reading the email, I felt what I suspect many 16-something-year-old footballers feel when they are released from clubs: The desperation to make it, then feelings of hopeless despair and total bewilderment chucked in to a simmering pot of deflated tension.     


There is no main set route to make it as a tv writer (something difficult to comprehend for us autistic people), therefore everything you try can feel like a gamble. Furthermore, there are few opportunities like these that could get you the attention of producers and commissioners (especially for working-class and neurodivergent people). Therefore, to not be successful with Thousand Films felt devastating in the immediate aftermath.     


Continuing with the football analogies, this latest setback has made me feel more alike to one of my favourite football managers, Marcelo Bielsa. He is seen as obsessive and quirky (two qualities I certainly relate to). He also has a reputation for being loved and admired worldwide, overachieving in relation to the expectations of his football clubs, but of also being somewhat of a nearly-man when it comes to winning the biggest trophies.     


I have been thinking about my parallels to his football career throughout my life. I have often impressed people and companies; TV executives (including at UKTV and the BBC), BBC Apprenticeship and Channel 4 training interviewers, the audience at my Adele scratch musical, and people who have read my Modern Love script and treatment.     


I have also over-achieved beyond what I thought was possible: For my UKTV pitch, the senior commissioner loved the comedy-panel show I pitched her, and work colleagues told me that 75% of newbies do not get as far as I did with their first tv idea. Additionally, when going for the BBC Apprenticeships in Production and Digital Journalism, I got from thousands of applications (and three application stages) to the final interview three times over two years. Despite all of that, I did not get over-the-line and get on those schemes, linking to still not managing to get new tv job, a tv commission for one of my own show ideas, or a script on stage or the small screen (yet). I know I should not be hard on myself (especially in relation to the latter two) as I am still so young. It’s just when familiar patterns of getting so close but not winning repeat themselves, it’s easy during periods of low mood and mental exhaustion to believe things will stay that way forever.  


Indeed, singer Susan Boyle went through some of those same feelings very publicly when she was first thrust into the spotlight. She was diagnosed with autism years later. Us autistics can panic during knockbacks, especially when dealing with heavy emotions and uncertainty. However, as she has proved, they do not have to define us. 


Things to be grateful for 

However, I am surprising myself with the resilience I have shown. I am still disappointed, but I got over the first tidal wave of Thousand Films disappointment quicker than I thought I would. As a teenager, rejection in friendships, relationships and creative projects could linger for what felt like a frighteningly long time: I was terrified of going the same way now. I have an extraordinarily long and detailed memory (something to thank my autism for), and I am not exaggerating when I say I have never felt any rejection as intensely painful and mentally paralysing as Thousand Films. The fact that I felt somewhat calmer the day after is a reassuring sign that I might be stronger than I thought I was. Writing this has certainly helped give me a sense of release.  


The initial rejection has also not dented my confidence in my writing ability, nor Modern Love as an idea. I am still young and am determined to learn and improve, but I fundamentally believe I that not only do I have good storytelling and raw emotive qualities that audiences like, but Modern Love is also an idea that has a unique premise with engaging characters. As a writer from the autistic community, we are crying out for plays, films and tv shows that are written by us and for us. I am determined to play my part in that.   


I also must remember that even though I did not get on the Channel 4 Production scheme, it led to me gaining work experience with the tv production company who eventually kept me on until last August, so other doors can still open.  


Let’s keep looking on the bright side…many football managers say they only feel like proper managers when they have been sacked: I suppose I can say I am a proper writer now I have received a rejection email!  


Among all this, there is one other thing that I am hugely grateful for: Late last year I met a lovely guy called Louis on Bumble’s speed dating platform. He is also autistic and has now become one of my best friends. He understands and accepts me so well and always encourages me to carry on with my writing with warm, optimistic encouragement and inspirational quotes! Having that kind of a friend is the sort of thing that as a teenager I thought would make my life complete. Now I have it, and it is great for me. However, one lesson of neurodivergency in adulthood is there will always be fresh trials and tribulations. 


Final reflections 

As I almost end this blog, I want to wish the people who have had their scripts shortlisted by Thousand Films all the luck in the world. As creatives, we must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with each other, and I hope they get so much joy out of whatever comes next on their journey.   


Lastly, I would also like to thank Harvey Cantwell (stage name HRVY) for his latest song, 25. I have long admired him as an artist, but this song is my favourite of his. It resonates a lot with my current situation, not least as I am turning 25 myself in July. I did not assume all of Harvey’s life would be perfect (being in the music business must be full of highs and lows). However, because he has a girlfriend and is living his creative passion (having a boyfriend and getting a script or show commissioned are my two big dreams), I did not think he would be feeling some of the same things I currently am. The lyrics are so relatable: I just feel so different.     


But maybe it’s just a little part of life, this!     



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