We spoke to Nidhi Sethi, a second year Medical student at UCL, about her experience giving back to the community through volunteering. Nidhi’s blog Behind the Smiles shares her experience with autism, and because of this she has now worked with many charities, organisations, and schools, speaking about autism to hundreds of people.

Nidhi sat down to chat about her experience being diagnosed with autism, writing her blog, and getting involved in volunteering.

Would you be able to introduce yourself?

My name's Nidhi. I'm currently in second year, studying Medicine. I’m from London, but my family currently lives in Dubai and I grew up there.

During lockdown, I was diagnosed as autistic. It was something that kind of wasn't a surprise to me, but it also was. I had difficulties growing up, but I was the first child so my parents just assumed it was normal. I saw everything as black and white and I used to get in trouble just for basically being honest. And then lockdown started and ,y mental health took a turn. My mom suggested to speak to the school counsellor. It wasn’t really something I’d thought about doing before. So I spoke to the school and then got referred externally and got diagnosed with autism.

When I got my diagnosis, I was 17, turning 18. It was quite a shock. Especially because why had it taken almost 18 years to get a diagnosis? Also, because of what you see in the media about how autism is presented, if I just said the word ‘autism’ to you probably wouldn't associate it with someone like me.

I think getting my diagnosis at the start was challenging in the sense that there was very little guidance. There wasn't a handbook or anything like that. It was literally like you're autistic. Go out into the world and it was like, “OK, well, what am I meant to do now?”

So I did a lot of research. Not only for myself, but also for my family, because I wanted to help my family and friends and make them understand what I find challenging and how autism can look different.

I decided to publish a website and write blogs about autism. It kind of became even bigger than I thought it would. It started off with just my website. Then I got inquiries from schools to go speak to schools, and then inquiries to collaborate with companies around the world.

Most recently, I held a webinar for schools in Dubai. They were about 500 participants and it was all free. It’s about creating awareness.

Would you be able to share a bit about the different types of volunteering you have been involved in?

I’ve worked with the National Autistic Society UK. I got asked to write in their 60th anniversary newsletter, so I wrote a little bit about masking, which I also mentioned in one of my posts.

In my first year, I was also a part of Spectrum, a charity at UCL. Me and a friend volunteered, and would go and visit one of the children who was a part of Spectrum. He was autistic and had other health problems. We went to visit him, mainly to give his family a bit of respite time. It was just a few hours, but I think they were really appreciative of that. And for him it was also quite nice to meet and interact with other people.

It was nice for him and also for us. I think this world can get so busy and there's so much going on, and just being able to give back to the community is really lovely.

I also do a lot of work in Dubai because that's where I grew up and I got my diagnosis. The place where I got diagnosed run a support groups for autistic individuals, so I've joined a few of those and spoken to them.

What are some highlights of your volunteering experience?

At the clinic where I got my diagnosis, they give you a reading list and a bit of information once you get your diagnosis. And my website is now on their reading list, which is quite amazing. When I started writing my website it was mainly for me and my family. And then when I published it, I said to myself, if I can help just one person out there, that's literally all I could possibly want.

Do you have any advice for people looking to get involved in volunteering or to start giving back to the community in general?

Yeah, I think it can be quite nerve wracking and overwhelming, going into volunteering sometimes, because you hear all these incredible stories of people doing this or people climbing a mountain and raising loads of money when in actual fact, even doing something small makes such a difference.

When I started this, I never had the intention of hosting webinars for 500 people or anything like that. It was literally just if I can help one person, that's all that I want to do and it's still those little stories that you hear that make such a difference.

So I think whether it's giving up 10 minutes of your time, or an hour – whatever it is, it makes such a difference to people's lives.

Thank you so much to Nidhi for sharing her experience with us! If you are looking to get involved in volunteering, make sure to check out our directory of all the current opportunities available.