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On being a University Student with Asperger Syndrome

To all new students starting university who are on the autism spectrum and Asperger Syndrome – YOU CAN DO IT! YOU WILL THRIVE!

As a child I was different. 

I preferred spending time on my own, did not care much about what others were doing, and kept myself to myself. In primary school I was a daydreamer, and always lived in a world of my own. I was always very happy and had a smile on my face. The early years of my life were cheerful and full of happiness. I loved painting and drawing and being outdoors. When I started secondary school, I faced a variety of challenges.  

I struggled socially, especially as I went to a mainstream school, and generally disliked being around other people. I loved studying and learning, and was always very ambitious when I was in my teenage years. I dreamed of being an author and a lawyer among many things, and always aimed high. Due to being different I was left out, but didn’t care much.  I struggled with my senses at times, and became overwhelmed when there was lots of loud noises.  My memory was unusual – I could remember silly little details, facts and useless information. I loved learning new things, reading and filling my head with knowledge. In my family, I was the oddball – I had specific interests, displayed intense focus, and displayed signs of phalilalia (repeating myself). [1]

My mum suspected that I was ‘different’, and she wanted me to be properly seen by a medical doctor. One morning, after a number of referrals, it happened; Friday 2nd February, 2010, 9:35am 42 seconds within the minute, I received my diagnosis: High Functioning Autism/Asperger Syndrome. This diagnosis explained so much about me.

Fast forward 3 years, on Saturday 15th September 2012, after an hour long drive away from home, I was settled into my new flat at the University of Northampton. My family left and I was with my new flatmates. The start of a new chapter in my life. My time at university enabled me to flourish and blossom in ways I never knew I could! At this point, I knew that I could not stay in my shell and isolate myself, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, tried new things, and challenged myself. I wanted to be able to integrate and enjoy myself as much as I possibly could.

Aware of how my Aspergers affected me; from sensory difficulties, challenges in reading people (which I’m much better at now), to social awareness (knowing how to behave in different social situations), but I was determined to learn and grow. I overcame them all by going out, meeting and learning from new people, and enjoying myself!  First year at university was one of the happiest years of my adult life! I remember smiling so much that my cheeks hurt. I fully immersed myself into university life, and loved every single minute of it! I got myself a job, did some volunteering, and loved studying. Being away from home helped me to really grow, and was the best decision I ever made!

I’m somewhat of a chameleon; meaning that I have learned to blend in and ‘mask’ my Aspergic traits. My social skills were very good already, so, to the majority of people I met, no-one could pick up on my Aspergers. I have an unusual memory for detail, am very focused, driven and energetic. There were times where I would interpret things differently, or misunderstand. That’s ok. I just asked more questions and for clarification, so that I could understand.  

After getting my DSA (Disabled Students Allowance) approved, I was given specialist equipment and software’s to help meet my academic needs. These were so useful and handy! I had never recieved so much support for studying before! I was given all the training and guidance I needed to help get to grips with everything.

On my assignments, I had an extra front sheet, informing my lecturers of my Aspergers, so that they were aware and could take it into consideration when reviewing my work.

Students with disabilities can also get a mentor, note-taking support, and other support in accordance with their needs.

When I was in my first year, I founded the Auto-Circle Spectrum Society; the first society of its kind in the country, supporting students with autism, Asperger Syndrome and other learning disabilities. Upon seeing that there was no group in the Student’s Union to represent this demographic of students, I wanted to help others.

The second and third year flew by very quickly; I found myself starting each year with excitement and enthusiasm. I loved studying too. I remember collecting several books, finding my corner in the library and reading for hours, noting each reference as I went, putting together bodies of information for my assignments.

Auto-Circle Spectrum also grew over the 3 years, and I met so many incredible individuals who brought their own sense of uniqueness, fabulouslness and eccentricity to the group! I became increasingly aware of the challenges other students with autism face, particularly, transitions and dealing with change. After a parent got in touch with me, concerned for her son who was to start university. Wanting to further my help for students on the spectrum, I undertook the Change Maker Certificate, guided by the incredible Tim Curtis; which, after numerous meetings, resulted in a, Autism Spectrum Condition Taster Day, which was a huge success!

Today, I am the first person from both sides of my family to go to university, and the only one to have a masters degree. Do NOT let others tell you what you can and can’t do. You can overcome all odds if you put your mind to it and let yourself grow. The more you put into university life, the more you get out, and the more memorable it will be. YOU CAN DO IT!

Links to info about Aspergers/Autism

[1] National Autistic Society ‘Obsessions, Repetitive Behavior and Routines’ Available online at: https://www.autism.org.uk/about/behaviour/obsessions-repetitive-routines.aspx   

As a Member Pioneer supporting the Police

Stephanie graduated in 2015 having read BA (Hons) Criminology (with Education Studies

Since January 2018, I have worked part time as a Co-op Member Pioneer, for the area of Yardley Wood in Birmingham. In my role, I do charity work, support the local causes, aid the community and local people, run a litter pickers’ forum,  build and establish local networks, do work with the council and the police. Throughout my time doing this role, I have loved every challenge thrown at me, and have increasingly done more work supporting the police.

When I first met with some of the PCSOs [Police Community Support Officers] last year, I began doing more work supporting them, and helping the community with crime-related issues. I had been informed by one of the PCSOs that the Billseley Police (whom cover Yardley Wood) are the smallest police team in the country, made up of 7 staff (the Sergeant, 4 PCSOs and 2 police officers, soon to become 3 as one of the PCSOs is training to be a full officer). 


In June 2018 and 2019, during the Co-op Fortnight, I hosted a ‘Meet your Member Pioneer’ event in store, where the local community could anonymously write down something to make the local community better. I received a huge number of crime related issues, such as people knowing where drug dealers and addicts were, issues of people speeding and parking dangerously outside schools, issues of knife crime, anti-social behaviour, and people wanting there to be more police on the streets for safety and protection.

On both occasions, after getting all the crime-related notes out, I emailed the police department everything that had been written down, helping the police get more information from the public on different issues that were all dealt with. Being a community pioneer in non-police uniform, it made it easier for the public to privately disclose and offload their crime-related concerns, knowing that it would be taken seriously, and forwarded on. In an effort to further support the police with extending the reach to the local community, I advertise their events on my social media sites, saving them time and resources, and encourage people to attend, or message me any concerns they would like me to take forward.

After being introduced to staff,  from Livingstone House (an organisation that helps recovering addicts), SIFA Fireside (that deals with homelessness and social exclusion),  the Moseley Exchange (a business enterprise group that runs various community projects), I’m helping build community networks that the police can rely on to help people from different demographics, as well as aid them in their understanding of how to help addicts, beggars, the homeless, and many others. This has enabled the police to have access to a range of resources and information and contacts whom they can rely on and get advice from. 

More recently, after getting in touch with David Jamieson, the Police and Crime Commissioner, I am helping the police set up a knife bank near the station. I’ve also gotten in touch with and organisation called Activating Creative Talent that does knife crime awareness training in schools, and am working with one of the PCSOs on delivering knife awareness education in schools and in the community. It’ll be a big, ongoing community project that is soon to take off!


In the role, I love all that I do supporting the police. I never imagined that as a community pioneer, I would aid and support the police in the capacity that I have. 



Thinking “outside the box”

@alisonhodson3

Having recently done a session on criminal records with @paulaabowles to a group of voluntary, 3rd sector and other practitioners I started thinking of the wider implications of taking knowledge out of the traditional classroom and introducing it to an audience, that is not necessarily academic.  When we prepare for class the usual concern is the levelness of the material used and the way we pitch the information.  In anything we do as part of consultancy or outside of the standard educational framework we have a different challenge.  That of presenting information that corresponds to expertise in a language and tone that is neither exclusive nor condescending to the participants. 

In the designing stages we considered the information we had to include, and the session started by introducing criminology.  Audience participation was encouraged, and group discussion became a tool to promote the flow of information.  Once that process started and people became more able to exchange information then we started moving from information to knowledge exchange.  This is a more profound interaction that allows the audience to engage with information that they may not be familiar with and it is designed to achieve one of the prime quests of any social science, to challenge established views. 

The process itself indicates the level of skill involved in academic reasoning and the complexity associated with presenting people with new knowledge in an understandable form.  It is that apparent simplicity that allows participants to scaffold their understanding, taking different elements from the same content.  It is easy to say to any audience for example that “every person has an opinion on crime” however to be able to accept this statement indicates a level of proficiency on receiving views of the other and then accommodating it to your own understanding.  This is the basis of the philosophy of knowledge, and it happens to all engaged in academia whatever level, albeit consciously or unconsciously.

As per usual the session overran, testament that people do have opinions on crime and how society should respond to them. The intriguing part of this session was the ability of participants to negotiate different roles and identities, whilst offering an explanation or interpretation of a situation.  When this was pointed out they were surprised by the level of knowledge they possessed and its complexity.  The role of the academic is not simply to advance knowledge, which is clearly expected, but also to take subjects and contextualise them.  In recent weeks, colleagues from our University, were able to discuss issues relating to health, psychology, work, human rights and consumer rights to national and local media, informing the public on the issues concerned. 

This is what got me thinking about our role in society more generally.  We are not merely providing education for adults who wish to acquire knowledge and become part of the professional classes, but we are also engaging in a continuous dialogue with our local community, sharing knowledge beyond the classroom and expanding education beyond the campus.  These are reasons which make a University, as an institution, an invaluable link to society that governments need to nurture and support.  The success of the University is not in the students within but also on the reach it has to the people around.

At the end of the session we talked about a number of campaigns to help ex-offenders to get forward with work and education by “banning the box”.  This was a fitting end to a session where we all thought “outside the box”. 

New beginnings

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This time of the year, it always feels a bit, well odd!  I prepare for the new academic year, in terms of the administrative tasks but most importantly for the academic material.  For many years now, I have been returning to the same space, sit on the same chair and talk to the same old people.  I am aware that this may demystify the role of the academic, but this is only the obvious side.  What I left out from this annual ritual is the most important part of the process; the time used to contemplate content, to reflect on the pedagogies used and to explore new ideas; this is a process whose gestation will commence at the end of the last year and will mature just before the new academic year begins.

This year things are going to be slightly different; the last academic year I was on the old campus and now we have moved to a brand-new campus.  Admittedly, this is a very interesting experience so far.  In a way, it feels like I have changed employment although I still see the same recognisable faces around.  Getting used to the new buildings will take a bit of time, so for those reading this blog, and coming to the campus, please bear with me and of course, if you see me going the wrong direction point me to the right one.  This is a year the myself and my colleagues and our students will be discovering the new campus together.  This will be a shared experience to remember.

The move to the new campus is also aligned to the way we have developed our institutional pedagogies, although our subject has long been involved in those, either espousing the changemaker ethos or getting involved with local organisations and engaging with the community.  We have already been thinking of ways of working with our students to become more civic minded which will help in connecting the academic experience, with a different kind of social learning.

This is a year like all other years, in terms of preparation and planning but at the same time this is a year like no other.  It is a year all students and staff will remember beyond their educational experience.  Years ago, I told a group of students that the place of study becomes such an important point of reference because as people we combine experiences together.  The new campus will shelter the dreams and aspirations of many generations of students and transfigure them into the level of academic maturity that lead our graduates to professional success.  The process is so simple and at the same time so incredibly vital.  The students who come will progress through their studies, master the importance of becoming independent learners with confidence, who will return to their communities, to enhance them with their knowledge and ability.  This is an incredibly satisfying academic process that encouraged myself and many other colleagues to join academia in the first instance.

Let’s have a great new academic year.  One of many

The Ever Rolling Stream Rolls On

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Professor Nick Petford is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Northampton.

As we gear up to leave Park Campus for Waterside it is only natural to feel a sense of loss. Park has been a great place to work and play and will hold a special place in many hearts, as summarised nicely by Bethany Davies from the Criminology team in a recent Blog.

When I took up post as VC in September 2010 I inherited a draft master plan for the University Estate. It was clear that the split campus was a concern to the previous management team and that both estates were starting to look tired. There were several options on the table. One was to move Avenue to Park. The other was expansion of Avenue and closer physical integration with Newton. The showcase element was a huge glass dome, bigger than the one at the British Museum, enclosing most of the courtyard space at Avenue under one roof. Both were impractical. Building Avenue on Park would have consumed most of the sports fields and greenery that makes it what it is. And the disruption of turning Park into a building site for 36 months would do little to improve the student or staff experience. But it would have achieved a single university site, unlike the Avenue plan that would have entrenched the status quo (with a big window cleaning bill to boot!). Not long after my arrival, and with a change in the way government wanted to drive the regional growth agenda, the newly established SEMLEP created in Northampton a 16 mile stretch of brownfield land bordering the River Nene as an Enterprise Zone. The rest, as they say, is history.

An enduring aspect of higher educational institutions is change. Depending on timing, from a personal viewpoint it can be a slow, almost glacial process. For others, caught up in periods of rapid transition, as we are now, the hurly burley can feel almost overwhelming. But change is always there. And Northampton is no exception. For those suspicious this is more spin than substance I can recommend The Ever Rolling Stream, a book compiled and printed in 1989 by the 567th Mayor of Northampton, David Walmsley, that charts the history of Higher Education in Northampton. In short, the key events culminating in the present University are:

 

1260:               Ancient University

1867:               Mechanics Institute

1932:               Northampton Technical College (St George’s Avenue)

1967:               University of Leicester University Centre, Northampton

1972:               Northampton College of Education (Park Campus)

1975:               Nene College of Higher Education

1978:               The National Leathersellers Centre

1982:               Sunley Management Centre

1989:               Release from local authority control

1999:               University College Northampton

2005:               The University of Northampton

2018:               Waterside.

The picture is one of periods of relative stability (including a c. 700 year sabbatical!), punctuated by mergers and consolidation. Our most rapid phase of change took place in the six years between 1972 and 1978 and involved the relocation, merger and subsequent closure of four separate educational establishments that ultimately comprise Park Campus as we know it today. Each of these phases would have been a unique cause of excitement, stress, resignations, hope and probable despair! But together they have two things in common – they happened mostly outside our working experience, and (ancient university excepted), ended in success. In our history of relocations and mergers, the inevitable conversations between doubters and advocates are lost in time, one exception being the amalgamation in 1937 of the School of Art in Abington Street, with the Technical College, which seems particularly vexed. Against this backdrop we see Waterside simply as the next stage in our evolution.

The title for Ever Rolling Stream comes from the hymn ‘O God our Help in Ages Past’. It sums up brilliantly the feeling of loss and the inevitability of change:

 

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Bears all its sons away;

They fly forgotten as a dream

Dies at the opening day.

 

Yes, think kindly of Park, and Avenue, mourn even as others will have done over those antecedents that culminated in our present estate. But don’t think you are the first to do so. Who knows, at some time in the future, staff and students not yet born will be contemplating a move from Waterside to a new horizon, as the ever rolling stream rolls on.

 

Out early on good behaviour

prison wing

Dr Stephen O’Brien is the Dean for the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton

The other week I had the opportunity to visit one of our local prisons with academic colleagues from our Criminology team within the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton. The prison in question is a category C closed facility and it was my very first visit to such an institution. The context for my visit was to follow up and review the work completed by students, prisoners and staff in the joint delivery of an academic module which forms part of our undergraduate Criminology course. The module entitled “Beyond Justice” explores key philosophical, social and political issues associated with the concept of justice and the journeys that individuals travel within the criminal justice system in the UK. This innovative approach to collaborative education involving the delivery of the module to students of the university and prisoners was long in its gestation. The module itself had been delivered over several weeks in the Autumn term of 2017. What was very apparent from the start of this planned visit was how successful the venture had been; ground-breaking in many respects with clear impact for all involved. Indeed, it has been way more successful than anyone could have imagined when the staff embarked on the planning process. The project is an excellent example of the University’s Changemaker agenda with its emphasis upon mobilising University assets to address real life social challenges.

 

My particular visit was more than a simple review and celebration of good Changemaker work well done. It was to advance the working relationship with the Prison in the signing of a memorandum of understanding which outlined further work that would be developed on the back of this successful project. This will include; future classes for university/prison students, academic advancement of prison staff, the use of prison staff expertise in the university, research and consultancy. My visit was therefore a fruitful one. In the run up to the visit I had to endure all the usual jokes one would expect. Would they let me in? More importantly would they let me out? Clearly there was an absolute need to be on my best behaviour, keep my nose clean and certainly mind my Ps and Qs especially if I was to be “released”. Despite this ribbing I approached the visit with anticipation and an open mind. To be honest I was unsure what to expect. My only previous conceptual experience of this aspect of the criminal justice system was many years ago when I was working as a mental health nurse in a traditional NHS psychiatric hospital. This was in the early 1980s with its throwback to a period of mental health care based on primarily protecting the public from the mad in society. Whilst there had been some shifts in thinking there was still a strong element of the “custodial” in the treatment and care regimen adopted. Public safety was paramount and many patients had been in the hospital for tens of years with an ensuing sense of incarceration and institutionalisation. These concepts are well described in the seminal work of Barton (1976) who described the consequences of long term incarceration as a form of neurosis; a psychiatric disorder in which a person confined for a long period in a hospital, mental hospital, or prison assumes a dependent role, passively accepts the paternalist approach of those in charge, and develops symptoms and signs associated with restricted horizons, such as increasing passivity and lack of motivation. To be fair mental health services had been transitioning slowly since the 1960s with a move from the custodial to the therapeutic. The associated strategy of rehabilitation and the decant of patients from what was an old asylum to a more community based services were well underway. In many respects the speed of this change was proving problematic with community support struggling to catch up and cope with the numbers moving out of the institutions.

 

My only other personal experience was when I spent a night in the cells of my local police station following an “incident” in the town centre. This was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (I know everyone says that, but in this case it is a genuine explanation). However, this did give me a sense of what being locked up felt like albeit for a few hours one night. When being shown one of the single occupancy cells at the prison those feelings came flooding back. However, the thought of being there for several months or years would have considerably more impact. The accommodation was in fact worse than I had imagined. I reflected on this afterwards in light of what can sometimes be the prevailing narrative that prison is in some way a cushy number. The roof over your head, access to a TV and a warm bed along with three square meals a day is often dressed up as a comfortable daily life. The reality of incarceration is far from this view. A few days later I watched Trevor MacDonald report from Indiana State Prison in the USA as part of ITV’s crime and punishment season. In comparison to that you could argue the UK version is comfortable but I have no doubt either experience would be, for me, an extreme challenge.

 

There were further echoes of my mental health experiences as I was shown the rehabilitation facilities with opportunities for prisoners to experience real world work as part of their transition back into society. I was impressed with the community engagement and the foresight of some big high street companies to get involved in retraining and education. This aspect of the visit was much better than I imagined and there is evidence that this is working. It is a strict rehabilitation regime where any poor behaviour or departure from the planned activity results in failure and loss of the opportunity. This did make me reflect on our own project and its contribution to prisoner rehabilitation. In education, success and failure are norms and the process engenders much more tolerance of what we see as mistakes along the way. The great thing about this project is the achievement of all in terms of both the learning process and outcome. Those outcomes will be celebrated later this month when we return to the prison for a special celebration event. That will be the moment not only to celebrate success but to look to the future and the further work the University and the Prison can do together. On that occasion as on this I do expect to be released early for good behaviour.

 

Reference

Barton, R., (1976) Institutional Neurosis: 3rd edition, Butterworth-Heinemann, London.

Modern University or New University?

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As I am outside the prison walls on another visit I look at the high walls that keep people inside incarcerated.  This is an institution designed to keep people in and it is obvious from the outside.  This made me wonder what is a University designed for?  Are we equally obvious to the communities in which we live as to what we are there for?  These questions have been posed before but as we embark in a new educational environment I begin to wonder.     

There are city universities, campuses in towns and the countryside, new universities and of course old, even, medieval universities.  All these institutions have an educational purpose in common at a high level but that is more or less it.  Traditionally, academia had a specific mandate of what they were meant to be doing but this original focus was coming from a era when computers, the electronic revolution and the knowledge explosion were unheard of.  I still amuse my students by my recollections of going through an old library, looking at their card catalogue in order to find the books I wanted for my essay.

Since then, email has become the main tool for communication and blackboard or other virtual learning environments are growing into becoming an alternative learning tool in the arsenal of each academic.  In this technologically advanced, modern world it is pertinent to ask if the University is the environment that it once was.  The introduction of fees, and the subsequent political debates on whether to raise the fees or get rid of them altogether.  This debate has also introduced an consumerist dimension to higher education that previous learners did not encounter.  For some colleagues this was a watershed moment in the mandate of higher education and the relationship between tutor and tutee.  Recently, a well respected colleague told me how inspired she was to pursue a career in academia when she watched Willy Russell’s theatrical masterpiece Educating Rita.  It seems likely that this cultural reference will be lost to current students and academics. A clear sign of things moving on.

So what is a University for in the 21st century?  In my mind, the university is an institution of education that is open to its community and accessible to all people, even those who never thought that Higher Education is for them.  Physically, there may not be walls around but for many people who never had the opportunity to enjoy a higher education, there may be barriers.  It is perhaps the purpose of the new university to engage with the community and invite the people to embrace it as their community space.  Our University’s relocation to the heart of the town will make our presence more visible in town and it is a great opportunity for the University to be reintroduced to the local community.  As one of the few Changemaker universities in the country, a title that focuses on social change and entrepreneurship, connecting with the community is definitely a fundamental objective. In this way it will offer its space up for meaningful discussions on a variety of issues, academic or not, to the community saying we are a public institution for all.  After all, this is part of how we understand  criminology’s role.  In a recent discussion we have been talking about criminology in the community; a public criminology.  One of the many reasons why we work so hard to teach criminology in prisons.   

     

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