Paralympic champion Jessica-Jane Applegate speaks about the challenges and misconceptions of her ‘hidden disability’ as an S14 swimmer, to mark the end of Autism Awareness Month.
Autism is sometimes referred to as an invisible or hidden disability, and throughout the month of April, organisations and charities acknowledge Autism Awareness Month, placing a focus on the experience of individuals impacted by the neurological and developmental disorder.
“It’s quite difficult to explain because I’ve lived with it all my life and there are ways I’ve adapted without realising," says Jessica-Jane when asked about the perception of her autism.
The two-time Paralympic swimming champion goes on to discuss how tendencies acquired over time can mask the outward visibility of the disability.
“I was diagnosed really young at nursery, that I had a learning difficulty and I’ve had support the whole way through, going through school and everything, so I would like to say I’ve probably had it easier than others that go undiagnosed for a long time," she adds.
“It’s one of those things, I learnt to adapt and get on with life. I’d guess we all do, and probably every person with a disability you’ll talk to will sometimes try to hide it in a different way and carry on in society.”
As a victim of bullying in school, Applegate at times wished she could just blend into the crowd. However, swimming played a key role in helping her find a way through her formative years, providing a space the S14 athlete felt part of a team and able to flourish in her own identity.
“I’d finish a day at school and swimming would be like my outlet, it would be somewhere I could calm down," she recalls.
“I was never separated from anyone and I was always part of the group as such and part of the team. It was really nice to have somewhere I could be me and didn’t have to worry what everyone else thought of me. In the water I found peace because when you’re swimming you have your ears covered and you can’t hear anything, so I would relax my mind and everything would feel okay.”
In swimming, Applegate has found prolonged success under the wings of Alex Pinniger at the City of Norwich Swimming club – a partnership now stretching over a decade. Lady Dannatt, Lord-Lieutenant for Norfolk, recently presented an award to Jessica-Jane that commemorates her international achievements.
That steadfast relationship has been one Applegate feels both have learnt from in terms of understanding the requirements of their athlete-coach dynamic.
“I moved to Alex [Pinniger] about a year before I made the team for the London 2012 Paralympics, and it was a learning curve for him as well as me. It has kind of grown from there - I enjoyed the training I was doing, he learnt how to coach me and I learnt how to be coached by him over the years and now it just flows as I’ve been there 12 years this year. He knows when I’m in a bad mood and I know when he’s in a bad mood!" quips Applegate.
“I have my set printed out in terms I understand, and when I’m in training sometimes if Alex is busy with another swimmer, my teammates know ‘Jess won’t always get the clock right, we must tell Jess when to go’ or they tell me what we’re doing next and support me in that and we get on with it.”
Unexplained or constant change is an element that can cause heightened anxiety as a symptom of her autism. As a result for Jessica-Jane, transitioning between her foundations in Norwich and travelling with the British team to competitions does therefore introduce potential discomfort. That being said, experience tells on how best she finds this can be mitigated.
“It can be difficult for me at times. I obviously don’t see the [British Para-Swimming] staff day in day out in the same way, and over each of the Paralympic cycles the staff can change and that is more difficult for me to deal with. Building that connection with new people that don’t understand what makes you tick, how you work or the terms you need to be able to understand for things being explained is harder for me," she says.
“Before I go away, Alex will have a call with the British team about my sessions and will send over the details for my lane coach to print out and run while I’m away - that’s one of the things we’ve adapted to be able to work better when away and deal with those situations better.
“I think I have quite a strong relationship with a few of the staff that have stayed a long time now and they kind of know what I can deal with and what I can’t deal with to help integrate those new relationships, and my mum is really good at having meetings with other staff, to talk to them about how’s best to approach me in conversation because I’m someone that if I’m stressed I can turn into a bit of a recluse, won’t come out and won’t tell anyone what is wrong - which drives everyone mad I guess, but that’s just my coping mechanism.”
Across her career, Applegate has been supported by and an ambassador for the charity Mencap – going to speak in parliament, attending their sporting and specialised events run for athletes with learning difficulties to provide support.
Using her platform of swimming through interviews and social media campaigns, it has been rewarding for her advocate for the next generation of intellectually impaired athletes.
“The biggest thing working with Mencap is I’ve learnt, when I first started I couldn’t quite get my head around why male S14s had an event at the Commonwealth Games but the females didn’t, and I thought surely that’s not fair – so I wanted to talk about that more, because I wanted us to be included and Mencap offered me a platform to be able to get into the Houses of Parliament and talk about these situations.
“It’s just about little me sitting there and able to have options of what I wanted to do when I grow up - it would just be great to increase those options for inclusion across the board in sport and society.”
Applegate - who added a Commonwealth medal to her collection of accolades, winning silver in the Women’s S14 200m Freestyle at Birmingham 2022 – has also used her own social media to educate others about her intellectual impairment classification.
“There’s been many instances where people don’t understand, because it’s one of those things you can’t see and you can’t always describe exactly how it affects you as it affects everyone in a completely different way," she adds.
“I have had comments from people that think at the Paralympics and World Championships we all [physical, visual and intellectual classifications] race each other and not just people in our own classification. I’ve used my TikTok [as a platform] to try to explain to other users how learning difficulties are included in some Paralympic sports, that it is an invisible disability and we compete in our own classification and it’s fair.”
Looking forwards, the City of Norwich swimmer has been selected to compete on a fifth World Championships team of her career to date this summer. Manchester provides a familiar setting, and Applegate feels confident the home-soil setting provides her with plenty of positives.
“There is an attraction to competing away in all these fancy places, but I actually really enjoy competing at home - I can pack as much luggage as I want, I can bring everything with me and occasionally when it’s at home my family can come watch me so that’s always really nice because everything is familiar," says Jessica-Jane.
“I’ve been to Manchester thousands of times so it’ll just be like home. I’ll know my way about which makes me feel comfortable so I’m really looking forward to it.”
A trip across the channel to Paris in 2024 remains in the longer-term view, and as Applegate builds towards that potential fourth Paralympic Games, she and her support team are just taking it one step at a time.
“I set small goals, small, achievable, reachable goals to keep my head down to keep me focussing on the bigger picture.”
General sale tickets for the Manchester 2023 Para Swimming World Championships go on sale soon. For more information about the event visit www.britishswimming.org/mcr2023