University on the spectrum: a rewarding challenge
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According to the National Autistic Society, around 700,000 people are on the autistic spectrum in the UK. From a young age, I made it my personal mission to make something of myself. Although teachers and peers always remarked how I was extremely quiet and determined to stay in the background, it seems that, in my own way, I was desperate to stand out and to be noticed. I wanted to have a talent and quality of my own beyond my diagnosis: I needed something else to hinge my identity on. Being ‘the smart one’ seemed like a good option because it led to all the glory without the interaction, and so began my relationship with academia.
Image Credit: nikolayhg on Pixabay.When it comes to Asperger’s, I’ve learnt that people don’t expect much from you. You can tell from the way teachers talk to you slowly like you’re in primary school, and the way you’re always marked as being a ‘bad student’, with your predicted grades being way below what you’re capable of. However, with the right support from academic staff, you can achieve whatever you set your mind to. What universities can do to support you Luckily, my university understood that it can take me a while to get my bearings and that I am completely and utterly useless in new surroundings: I need time, focus and a lot of practice to find my way around somewhere. With all the crowds, music, queues and events at Freshers. They gave me and other students on the spectrum the opportunity to come a few weeks earlier for a ‘transition day’ – allowing us to focus on finding our way around campus and getting our bearings without the potential for sensory overload. They gave us a tour of the campus in advance and made us aware of all the support centres available; even arranging for us to have one-to-one sessions with our assigned ‘mentor’. The tour, which raised awareness of the services available was infinitely helpful, however, I personally found the idea of a ‘buddy’ trying to settle me to university a bit patronising. Of course, it was done with the best of intentions, but too often people with autism find themselves infantilised. I felt as if they doubted my ability to cope with university, and if you spend your whole life being underestimated, it can get quite tiring. Although autism is definitely a spectrum and some will benefit from this level of one-to-one support, don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel smothered and that this type of support is doing more harm than good. Often, this type of baby-ing comes from people who see the word ‘learning disability’ and then focus on what you can’t do rather than what you can. The difficulties of student life The biggest, and most intimidating, barrier for most Asperger’s Syndrome students looking at university is the prospect of moving out. If, like me, you have a protective family as a result of your diagnosis, making that leap into an independent life is all the more intimidating. People don’t necessarily know where to start. For this reason, many of students on the spectrum choose a university close to home to either commute to or live at, knowing that when things get too much, their home isn’t too far away.
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