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Inspirational Fiona overcomes the odds to graduate with her Master’s from Queen’s

Fiona Monahan will today (Friday 18 December) celebrate graduating with a Master’s in Educational Studies (MEd) with distinction from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast.

Fiona, a specialist teacher and assessor from Newry, completed her Master’s degree part-time over four years whilst working as a freelance Disability Needs Assessor and Autism/Dyslexia Tutor based at Queen’s and Ulster University.

Fiona received a late diagnosis of Asperger’s in 2012 at the age of 38. She said: “Growing up without understanding that I was autistic made life very difficult and confusing which could have been avoided had I been diagnosed and received support earlier but Asperger’s as a subtype of autism wasn’t recognised until 1991.

She decided to write a book for teenagers to help share her experience and understanding. She explained: “My experiences inspired me to write a book for autistic teenagers to help them understand their spectrum of autism. ‘Know Your Spectrum!: An Autism Creative Writing Programme for Teenagers’ took four years to write and it was published during my studies in 2019 by Jessica Kingsley Publishers under her author name ‘Finn Monahan’. The book forms a seven week educational programme that is suitable for use in schools or within the home and it was chosen as one of the National Autistic Society’s top 6 favourite books about autism for teenagers.

“My aim is to allow teenagers to develop a strong sense of identity based on their strengths and challenges and hopefully avoid negative self-perceptions from becoming their identity. The book uses creative writing to further explore and express emotions and life experiences to ensure they are processed and dealt with rather than building up inside and becoming a problem later on. Hopefully it will help teenagers understand autism and who they are as an autistic individual.”

In April 2020, whilst in the final year of her degree, Fiona was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. She said: “The operation removed all of the cancer and then I had the Oncotype test which is a relatively new gene test used in breast cancer to identify those patients who would benefit from chemotherapy. The result showed that I was at high risk of the cancer returning and chemotherapy would be necessary. I then had four cycles of chemo over the summer which was tough going and I lost my hair. I am now waiting on a hysterectomy in the next few months as there is a growth there which is either precancerous or cancerous. I will also be on hormone therapy for the next five years.”

Speaking about the support she received from Queen’s, Fiona said: “My dissertation tutor, Dr Aideen Gildea, was very supportive. Due to the pandemic I had to change my dissertation topic and restart it in June after my operation. Her support and encouragement enabled me to continue and complete my dissertation despite the difficulties I faced and I passed with distinction. Aideen gave me many hours of her time during this process to fit around my treatments and her support and guidance on writing my dissertation was invaluable for which I am very grateful.

“During my time as a student the Queen’s Film Theatre provided many hours of entertainment from foreign language art house movies to classics from the silver screen that it’s not possible to see anywhere else. I also made use of the student discount to take part in the University’s Open Learning courses, such as creative writing, which were really enjoyable and beneficial in further developing my writing skills.

Looking ahead to her graduation day and to the future, Fiona added: “I am delighted to be finished my studies and graduating. It has been nearly four years of working towards this point and the last year has been particularly difficult, so I am very glad to reach the end of this journey. I couldn’t have done it without the endless support of my husband, Darren, throughout the course.

“I am currently applying for and hoping to go on to do a PhD next year, focussing my research on autism.”


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