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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). 
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
 National Autistic Society ‘Obsessions, Repetitive Behavior and Routines’ Available online at: https://www.autism.org.uk/about/behaviour/obsessions-repetitive-routines.aspx
Every student has a different experience in their studies, be it through what they have studied, who they studied with or even where they studied. “Team Cops and Robbers” studied the same degree, the same modules at UON, yet we had different experiences. However what we share (and are all very fond of) is how positive the experience was, tackling the stresses (and joys) of the degree as a trio. We each offer a brief overview of our experience as a member of “Team Cops and Robbers”, who graduated in 2015 and still remain very involved in each other’s lives…
Jes: I was a late comer to Team Cops and Robbers, as Emma and Leona had already bonded without me (rude I know!). We were thrown together in Drew’s 2nd year History module, where there were only a few Crim students – so they didn’t get much of a choice with regards to me joining, the then, duo. And the rest as they say is history! What stemmed from there is quite remarkable; we all had own our strengths when it came to Crim. My recollection is Emma knew everything about everything, Leona kept us all motivated and on top of our seminar preparation and I kept us glued to the library and bossed us around -especially with group work (my car Geoffrey was an unofficial member of the gang taking us to and from Park campus). Although we took the same modules, due to our differing interests, we all did different assignment questions and had very different ways of writing and tackling assessments. In my third year, I distinctly remember Emma and Leona reminding me to take time to myself and to not live 24/7 in the library; and had they not been there to encourage me to breathe, it is likely I would have burned out! They were not afraid to question my views, or understanding, or challenge my bossy attitude when it came to group work, for which I am very grateful! And still today, even though we are no longer studying together, they keep me motivated with the MSc, sending me motivational gifts as a reminder that even though they are not studying with me, I am not alone! My academic journey would have been very different had it not been for our trio, and likely would not have been as successful.
Leona: Sometimes being in class with friends can be detrimental as you end up spending so much time having fun, you end up forgetting the work side of uni. However when you meet friends who are so determined to do well and hard-working, it can really motivate you to push yourself. Myself, Jes and Emma became a power trio; encouraging each other, motivating each other and always making sure we were working together for group projects. We are all completely different when it comes to learning but I think these differences really helped us. Learning from them really helped me to improve my own standard of work, and having the girls’ input and guidance throughout, really encouraged me and helped me gain confidence in my own voice. Plus it made doing all the studying we did much more bearable. I’m sure sometimes it took us longer to get through everything as we would be half working, half chatting, but as a trio it meant we could help each other if we got stuck or go for coffee breaks if we were bored or unmotivated. Having Jes and Emma there with me meant there was always someone there to go through notes with, always someone to explain something in a different way if I didn’t fully understand something, always someone to motivate me when I was exhausted and didn’t feel like working any more. It meant that my viewpoint expanded as I learned from their experiences and that once we had all finished writing our essays we could share them with each other to check, critique and make suggestions for improvement. But more than all that, it meant there was always someone there to help you balance the workload, someone to tell you when to take a break, and to “day drink” in the SU, explore winter wonderland, or have a Disney film day. During my time at uni these girls inspired me to work harder, and to really challenge myself to improve on everything I was doing. Without them there to encourage me and spur me on, I don’t think I would have come out with the grade I did, and I am certain that my uni experience wouldn’t have been half as memorable.
Emma: Meeting Jes and Leona was one of the best things about university. Not just because they are now two very dear friends of mine, but because we were vital to each other’s sanity at uni. I met Leona first in welcome week with a very interesting exchange asking if I was at the right seminar and proceeding to tell her my name, that I was from the south west and that I liked reading about serial killers. Leona reciprocated with the main difference being that she was from the north and from there our friendship blossomed. Jes was some girl who sat with another group of people. It wasn’t until 2nd year that Jes really came into our friendship group and “Cops and Robbers” was formed. We all had strengths and weaknesses that helped us when it came to group work. Jes was always super, super organised, having her essays completed with weeks to go. Leona was always bubbly and would follow Jes with completing her essay with time to spare. Me… I would research and collect quotes and references and then write my essays with 48-24hrs to go, as I liked the time pressure. This changed in my 3rd year though as being around Leona and Jes, they moulded me and proof read my concepts and challenged me back on things. Any time we had group work, I knew we would do well because as a trio we kicked ass! We did not always have the same views in our seminars and would often debate but we would always leave as friends. Best advice for getting through university sane, is to find people who are fun, you get on with and drive you to be the best.
Hopefully what is clear from each of our perspectives is how important we were to keeping each other (relatively) sane! Your friendship groups during your studies are essential to keeping you happy, but also keeping you motivated! Whilst it is independent studies, and at the end of the day is YOUR degree; the input from friends and family will shape your own ability and attitude. If you find the right group, hopefully you will find that they push you, support you and challenge you!
I recently read Melanie Reynolds’s article in The Guardian ‘Working-class lecturers should come out of the closet,’ and it resonated with me. I was the first generation in my family to go to university and it was difficult. I grew up in a poor socio-economic position, received government allowances, there was a stigma to this, and unspoken expectation that you kept this hidden. When I turned 18 I moved out of home and went to university, from the start I was supporting myself. I worked in a pizza shop, a convenience store, a sandwich shop, and a call centre. I lived pay day to pay day. Starting university felt like learning a new language to me, it was a shock.
I remember one of my first assignments I handed in. I had to print it on lined foolscap paper because I didn’t have any printer paper and I couldn’t afford to buy any. It is all well and good to tell a student to be prepared – trust me I would’ve been if I had the money. This meant I couldn’t afford to print at university either (before the days of online submission!). But I also didn’t know how to print at the university at that stage and I didn’t want to let on to anyone that I didn’t know how, I already felt like I stood out. It seemed that everyone around me had this innate understanding of how everything worked. It seemed like a simple thing, but it was hard to ask for help.
Another time I lost my student card on the train and when I got on the bus to go to university the bus driver asked for it. He stayed at the stop while I literally went through every compartment in my bag looking for it, with everyone watching it just brought feelings of shame. I had to pay an adult fare in addition to the three-zone student fare I had already paid, and those couple of dollars extra made a big difference to me, considering I knew I would also need to replace my student card.
I didn’t feel like I belonged, I didn’t know anyone at university, I didn’t know what services were available, even if I did I would have felt like I was wasting their time – taking away time for ‘real’ students. It was difficult to watch other students be involved in activities and wonder how they found the time and the money. Being in law school made me feel like I didn’t dress right, didn’t talk properly, that I was not connected to the legal profession because no one in my family was a lawyer or judge, I was an impostor. It was very isolating.
What can I say to help – it will get better? That you’ll get over the feelings of impostor syndrome? It does get a little better, for me it took time, realising that I was not alone in these feelings, that many students had the same questions, and to build the confidence to speak up. There was a lot of pressure to succeed and this is something you need to manage.
I try to be open about my experiences with my students so that they may feel more comfortable approaching me with their issues. To me there are no stupid questions. One of my most disliked words is ‘just’ – ‘well you just do this’ the expectation that you’ll ‘just’ know. I don’t expect my students to ‘just’ know. When I ask students to tell me when they are having difficulties I truly mean it. This is my job and it is the university’s job to support you. Starting university can be overwhelming. So, remember students ALWAYS ask me for help, email, phone or in-person.
What can we do as educators? Universities and their staff need to be pro-active in connecting with students and providing assistance – not ‘do you need help?’ but ‘what can I do to help?’ We need to seek to bridge the gap and bring equity to our students, not just equality.
For all students there are support services available to you at the University of Northampton, please take advantage of them.
(Very soon to be) Lecturer in Criminology
This isn’t going to be the intellectual blog post I had expected myself to write. I am writing this as I am undertaking my post-grad dissertation and in all honesty, I can’t be bothered anymore. And I feel secure in the fact that I am not the only person who feels this and I most certainly will not be the last. Heck, I’ve been close to giving up altogether a handful of times throughout both my under and post-grad. I will be the first to admit that I don’t know how to leave work mode alone when I have deadlines due. And it is only through friends and family that I have to be reminded that all work and no play, doth not make for a mentally healthy Bronagh. I have always struggled separating the two and have been known to cancel or decline plans so I can do work; low and behold, I don’t write a word.
Be mindful of your mental health. You can’t work at it constantly. Between work and uni, you need to allow yourself those stress-free days off so you can produce the best work that you are capable of. I hate to harp on about the most obvious scenario. But as someone who felt bad for taking time off to have fun and as someone who is currently struggling for the motivation to complete this dissertation, just know that you are not alone. It is not uncommon to feel burnt out towards the end of your degree, be it 1 year, 3 years, or more. Just know that you have not come this far to fall at the final hurdle.
My biggest motivation was having friends going through the same situation. Meeting up to go the library so none of us bailed. Telling one another to “shut up, we need some quiet time”, putting headphones in so as not to get dragged into another one-hour chat about that dire television show we all watched the other night. As with everything, it’s all about moderation. You are your own worst enemy, but it is you who will pull yourself out of your slump and show your self-doubt that you are both capable and worthy. This isn’t forever and you will relish those days where you have no deadlines to worry about, but trust me, you will also miss them. Do not let these tough times get the better of you and certainly do not let them put you off any possibilities of further education. The motivation will come and you will get there in the end. Carry on doing the things you enjoy and take everything in your stride.
Just keep swimming, you’ve got this.