Structure Struggles – Autism & University

This is the first of three posts I will be writing about my experiences at university as an autistic undergraduate student. These experiences are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of other autistic students. I study mathematics in Scotland, other courses & countries would vary greatly.

In school I was accustomed to being near the top of almost all of my classes. And once I could choose my own subjects, that ‘almost’ disappeared. I found academic work easy, compared to the social struggles I faced each day and the experiences of my other classmates. I recall spending one night doing homework for four hours straight that wasn’t due for weeks as I found it fun. The academic side of school was a very positive experience for me (as opposed to the rest of it, meaning my experiences were overall negative).

With this background, I figured that attending a top university would be, if not easy, then at a level I could cope with and do well. This was not the case. In my first and second years of university, I went from bad to worse. I was almost denied entry to honours as my second year grades were very poor. I managed to scrape honours entry on the back of resits last August. Now I’m doing somewhat better but still much poorer than I believed I would back when I was in school.

My teachers would undoubtedly blame this on me choosing to leave home against their advice. I would like to state that this is most certainly not the case. Leaving home has improved my life greatly, allowed me to overcome some fears, and actually given me a social life over and above anything I ever dreamed I’d have. Instead I blame my academic troubles on the stark difference in teaching methods between school and university.

My high school had a very supportive and rigid academic structure. There was a lot of assistance given, and there were clear guidelines on what we should be studying and when. We were given set homework assignments with set deadlines and these were compulsory. I knew exactly what was expected of me, and when it was expected. Under this structure I thrived, partially because of the clarity of the instructions, and partially because of my fear of getting in trouble for not completing assignments!

At university this structure wasn’t just different – it was barely existent. Attendance registers were a rarity and in some modules there was little compulsory assignments to hand in. The majority of mathematics modules have the grades weighted very heavily towards the exam with little or no coursework. Class sizes are generally large, especially in sub-honours, and as such lecturers do not have the time to give feedback on written homework to everyone.

The lack of feedback is likely what hurt me the most. The only way for me to learn from my mistakes is if I’m told specifically what mistake I made. Without clear written feedback I kept making the same mistakes over and over again as I didn’t realise exactly where in my work the mistakes were. I stopped doing non-compulsory work as I wouldn’t get feedback and I found struggling with no hope of getting the answer too stressful to try.

Scheduling time is another part of university life I struggle with. In school there was set hours of classes which I had to attend. In university there are far fewer contact hours and less with every passing year. The majority of my time is expected to be independent study. But how to structure that time? Do I do a set module at a set time? What is there’s an assignment for another module due, do I focus solely on that? Do I make a written schedule? What if something changes last minute? If my written schedule is then broken I may have a meltdown.

The learning environment at university lacks a strict structure. For me, this creates no end of problems. There is less support, less opportunity to get help, and far greater expectations. The sheer quantity of information we’re expected to learn in a semester is too large for me.

With regards to my mental health, the worst part was the shock. There is too much difference between school and university and I was completely unprepared. In between primary and secondary, I attended some transition meetings with other autistic & disabled kids to help prepare me for the difference. Though it’s hard to tell if it helped because of my memories of that time being somewhat sketchy and I didn’t start writing a diary until later, it is possible that assistance with the transition did make the shock of the difference easier to cope with. But the differences between primary and secondary school are much less than the differences between secondary school and university.

With no help over the transition, my only knowledge of the extent of the difference came from speculation, fiction and the experiences of family members who graduated in the 1970s. Since my brain often discards information from unconfirmed sources, this was thoroughly inadequate preparation.

The lack of academic support at university has been detrimental to my grades and my learning, though I do often ‘finally’ understand things after the exam has been and gone, much to my annoyance. The speed at which we are expected to learn is faster than I had anticipated and faster than I am capable of going. Perhaps I could learn at this speed with proper support, but that is not something I have been given.

Though I have recently had an assessment for Disabled Students Allowance (DSA), money cannot buy me time or lecturers willing to give me written feedback. Equipment and software will help in some ways but it cannot help me with all my problems. The teaching methods at university (or perhaps just this university, I have no basis for comparison) are fundamentally different to the way I would like to learn.

I’ve been considering doing a postgraduate degree after I graduate in 2018, partly because I fear that employment prospects for my autistic self are likely to be terrible, and I feel I am adapting somewhat to the teaching methods at university. But I know I would struggle, both to receive a good enough undergraduate degree to progress to further study, and to actually complete one. Though I am interested in further study, I am worried I am not capable of following that path.

The world we live in often seems to think throwing money at a problem will solve it eventually. This is fundamentally false. A better welfare system would reduce the need for foodbanks, but it would not fix the fundamental causes of poverty. The faults in our planet are embedded in the structures of our society, and if we want to fix the flaws in the system we must fundamentally change how our society works, not just change some numbers in a budget.

University is the same on a smaller scale. The teaching methods are often fundamentally ableist and if we want to improve the experience of disabled students and allow more to attend university then we need to break down the structures (or lack of) that harms the learning of disabled people. Only then can we begin to solve the problems.

My experiences have shown that a lack of support can be detrimental to the ability of some otherwise very academically capable students to succeed. Everyone learns differently, and allowances need to be made for that or more and more people will fall through cracks.

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