Personal Accounts of Being a University Student with HFA/AS

Jim, diagnosed with HFA:

In typical fashion for me, before beginning this account I examined the other accounts posted on Clare's site, analyzed them for perspective, subject, and content, and did a word count. This all served to let me determine to some extent the community expectations for the task at hand--writing an account of some of my experiences as an HFA university student.

This is much how I approach any task or objective, if I am to have a reasonable chance of an acceptable outcome. And it only took me 30 years to figure that out. . .

My first attempt at college occurred as it does for most, when I was 18 years old. Everyone--family, teachers, counselors, etc--was pushing me into a field where I had no interest, on the basis of test scores and academic performance. At college, I lived in the dorms and couldn't stand the noise and smells and all those people around with no way I could avoid it all. I didn't want to be constantly trying to explain why I did things or the manner in which I chose to do them. And most of all, I didn't want to be there doing things that made no sense and had no relation to how I wanted to spend my life.

Quick example--I had to justify to an instructor and my advisor why I wanted to take a mathematics course that I had tested out of in high school. They didn't want to accept that while I could do the work I didn't understand it, and I felt that until I could understand the operations I was performing I shouldn't advance to higher mathematics.

At the college I attended then, there were a number of people who knew me from my home town. These people had always known me, and accepted that I was a little "odd"; without their help I doubt I could have made it as long as I did. As it was, after slightly less than a semester I dropped out of college, with a grade point average of over 98% and absolutely no idea how or why I was so miserable.

All my life I had been told that college would be "better"; the expectations of academic performance would be higher. I think I had expected people there to make more sense to me as well. In retrospect, I can understand far more of what was going on but still think that attempt was doomed before it even began. I just didn't know enough about how people interact.

Fast forward about fifteen years, skipping about a hundred abominable jobs. . . All the time wanting to return to school, and not being able to do so for one reason or another. I finally managed to get everything set so I could once again try to be a student.

In the three years plus I have been a full-time student, I've developed some strategies for dealing with courses and instructors. I can usually find out in advance who will be teaching a course. As soon as I know, I begin researching them--read their publications, talk to other students to see what they are like in class, etc. I don't hesitate to switch out of a class to avoid a bad professor, or one I feel I will be unable to deal with.

If they are graduate students, I try very hard to find another way to take the class. To date, I have yet to take a course with a grad student as instructor where I felt the instructor was competent to teach. From the perspective of the grad student, she or he isn't there to teach; teaching is a distraction from finishing a dissertation and graduating.

As much as possible, I avoid courses where the answers are a matter of opinion--and the only opinion that counts is the instructor. I know I will do better in courses where the answer can be quantified, where logic leads to a defensible answer. Courses where the instructor can get away with denying a fact and refusing to consider the scientific literature because he has made up his mind are courses in which I will not do well.

If I am willing to deal with the instructor, I then go on to consider the syllabus and textbook. Often I find the course title doesn't reflect the actual subject matter of the course, or the instructor is presenting the material in a manner that makes little sense to me. I am not so much evaluating the syllabus and textbook as I am trying to prepare myself for the course--the fewer surprises I receive the better. In the first week of classes I will read the textbook, or at least the chapter summaries, so I have an idea of any additional work I will have to do to understand the material.

For the most part, I "pass" as NT on campus. I can see nothing to be gained by disclosing my diagnosis, and a great deal to be lost. One professor knows I am autistic, and has a pretty good idea what that means. I know that at any time I can go to him for help understanding things, and that knowledge has gotten me through some pretty bad times.

Another knows I am "different", and I honestly don't think it matters to him--he's a friend, and probably AS himself. He and his wife accept me as I am. I think that's what I want. In about 18 months I should graduate, and with a little luck go straight into grad school.

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