Personal Accounts of Being a University Student with HFA/AS

Lawrence, diagnosed with AS

University in the 70's

I first went to University back in 1974 before Asperger's syndrome was ever heard of outside of Austria.

I cannot really be sure whether I actually wanted to go to university or not, or whether it was because of the pressure of my parents' expectations that I should go to Uni so I could end up in one of the professions.

To start with my course was a bad choice. Since I had failed to get the usual University entry grades, I scouted around for a University that would take me without them out of a need to fulfill student quotas.

It was a strategy that got me to Uni but which subsequently pressed upon me with an academic load I could not meet.

I was, at 18, not at all used to socialising or being away from home. For at least a year I was very much a recluse and would spend my evenings in the TV lounge getting up only to the bar for refills. Then I would creep back to my halls through the firedoor to avoid passing the kitchen where other students on my corridor would usually gather. I did not know then that this behaviour had not gone without their notice.

I eventually overcame this social isolation in an unusual way. Being a dogmatic person I was very dissatisfied with the way the student union was run and stood for president issuing a manifesto of what I thought was wrong. Being dyslexic as well as autistic, I had no idea that the mispellings in my manifesto would create such hilarity or that my appearance at the election hustings would create such merriment either.

I could have regarded all this as another social disaster and withdrawn even further into myself but I guess that beyond the fact that people were laughing at my quirks I actually had a talent to make them laugh which I exploited as well. I was offered a column in the students' newspaper because as far as I can make out, that a lot of the students did have a lot of genuine affection for the eccentric. I found myself welcome in drinking coteries where no matter what I did, and how bizarre it would be accepted.

Academically speaking I had a lot of problems with organisation. The University environment was so different from High School that I really felt lost trying to find the rooms for the lectures and being on time for tutorials; however once I had routinised it, it was OK.

Wht was more problematic was organising my own study time, and getting in essays and assignments on time. I quickly fell very far behind.

The same went for exam revision. I could not keep on schedule for this, and inevitably failed exam after exam, just making it on resits, through to the second year. I never passed my finals, which was a big blow to my family and something for years I would not admit to because of the shame of it, when my parents had told everybody locally how proud they were of me getting to Uni. It was one of the reasons I was eventually thrown out from home.

I got no support at all, and was not aware whether any would have been available or not. I certainly knew nothing of autism, though I was to some extent aware of dyslexia. For instance instead of writing assignments, I carried an ancient typewriter about with me to type them.

I was not allowed to use this in exams though because the noise of it would have disturbed other students. It never occured to me that I might be able to request a separate room because I had a "disability" because I did not regard this as a disability at the time.

I guess some general understanding would have helped, if it were known about that I had problems with organisation, reading and writing. I do recall using a tape recorder at lectures which was not commonplace at the time, but this was just something I did, not an official arrangement any more than my typing assignments was.

If I had have had a mentor perhaps, who could have helped me organise my study, or if I had access to typed-up notes from lectures, I think this might have made a difference. Also if I could have had the chance to change my course and drop the second part of the joint honours course that it was, because it was simply not suited to me, the way it was taught at that particular University.

In retrospect, though I enjoyed my years at University, prinicipally because they got me out of an unpleasant home environment and allowed me to experience life away from over protective and restrictive parents, it was a mistake to go so young.

Had there been some alternative, where I could have matured somewhat and then gone back, it would have been better; however the whole system of grants (at that time) exams and everything else pushed me into Uni at 18.

I do not think I would have found it easy finding and fitting in with a job at that time either.

College in the 2000's

I decided to go back to college for no other reason than that I felt I needed the qualifications, in order to verify the skills I wanted to use in employment. It came at a time when an employment assessment had revealed to me that this was something I very much needed to do.

This time I started gradually at a lower level, part time, with the full acknowledgment that I had Asperger's syndrome and specific learning difficulties (which I was still coming to terms with, what it all meant).

I was also still in a major depression at this time, my world having collapsed around me for various reasons, and I needed some kind of routine to get me out of my home and thinking about something else.

I chose a college which specialises in students with a wide range of disabilities hoping that they would be more accomodating to my newly discovered "disability".

Initaially I was shocked that they refused me admission until well into the first term, whilst they evaluated my psychological reports. They were very worried about aggression and the negative effect I could have on "vulnerable students". This was the first time I discovered that AS carried with it so many negative perceptions.

As with Uni I found it very difficult socially, perhaps even more so as a mature student, and were it not for other AS students who seemed to find me out, I would have spent my first year in complete isolation.

Although the college was aware of my AS and dyslexia, I do not think that they always accomodated it sufficiently at this time. However I had chosen my courses more carefully to involve a maximum of practical work and a minimum of reading and writing. My courses were Computer Graphics and Photography, both of which I already had some degree of skill in. At least this way I did not feel the pressure of learning a completely new subject, just a different way of doing things to fit in with course requirements.

I did however "grow" during this year as I had some support outside from the dyslexia institute which was being paid for by the department of employment and was getting regular input from a psychologist who was helping me to define goals for my future life and helping me to understand how AS affected me.

My depression lifted when I found work experience, where my computer skills were truly appreciated for the first time.

I returned to the college for a second year, this time full time, having been able to sort out the social security benefits necessary for me to do this. As well as continuing with photography I entered on an access course which is designed to give mature students the necessary qualifications to enter Uni.

It was my aim at the end of this course to go to a mainstream Uni and I did apply. I think that since I spent more time at the college in the second year they became more accustomed to my AS and essentially left me alone if I had a "meltdown" and I was able to get varios concessions like not being expected to work in groups when I could do better on my own, and being given concessions in exams, like a room on my own with a computer. The other thing was with this being a college with so many students who through one disability or another found it difficult or impossible to take notes, that prepared and photocopied notes were readily available and nothing unusual.

The other advantage of this college was that it is small, and that I soon became known by most of the staff and the students, so that I did not feel the isolate, that I did in my earlier University career. The fact that there were several students with AS also helped in that my AS was nothing special at all. I did not have to feel "different" because of it. In a college where so many students are using wheelchairs, something like AS is hardly going to make a difference.

I also attended a group where I met AS students from the local Uni and was able to compare experiences. In the end I decided that there would not only be insurmountable financial problems going to the local Uni because I had used up my statutory right to fees back in the 1970's but that what I had heard of support for AS was sufficient to put me off, as I do not think it would have been terribly different from what it was like in the 1970's, and the fact that my AS and dyslexia was recognised this time round would not necessarily have led to it being accomodated.

I was lucky in that my present college was intending to pilot higher education courses (University level) in addition to Further education, which was the level I was on. I was lucky that I did not have to go through the difficult process of interview to get onto my present course because my level of abilities was already well known and my abilities to cope in the college already established. It seems to that the college were so glad to have me on this course that they managed to secure funding to cover for my fees, something which I doubt that the local University would have done.

I get on very well with my present course, in fact for the first time in my life I have been able to excel academically. There are the usual academic pressures, but having got through the access course (which was actually taught at a higher level than necessary to merely pass) last year, I have gained enough knowledge of the basics of my "genre" to really grow from there. My work is appreciated and the other students have come to look up to my level of ability too and my help is often sought out.

I do not yet know what the future holds but I am certain that I will not only obtain my qualification but that I will obtain a good one as well. I hope that I will be able to convert this to a full degree with another year on top of this at the same college.

Then perhaps I will be ready again for the world of work, or even further academic study at a post graduate level. Who knows.

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