AsIAm Community Seminar: Transitioning to College- 07/08/2019
On Wednesday we had the latest of our community support seminars in Galway.
Michael opened the evening and then gave the floor to the capable hands of Billy Redmond. Billy began by explaining his past experience as a Home Economics teacher, gradually specialising in more counselling-based work. He revealed that he is currently on career hiatus from his role as principal in order to consult with schools to make them more autism accessible.
Billy proceeded to speak about the challenges of transitioning to college. He began by stressing the diversity of options available for third level, such as PLCs. Billy dismissed reluctance to engage with alternative routes as ‘nonsense and academic snobbery,’ reminding the audience that there’s more than one pathway to education. He argued the best way to encourage better choices later in life is to instil ‘vocational literacy’ early in life. Children should be thinking about what they want from an early age. He cited a girl with a special interest in languages who was at a loss on what to do as an adult. She was surprised to learn that this made her ideal for work as a translator, and could even have her masters paid for by the government due to her proficiency in Gaelige.
Billy argued that there’s a far greater range of career options available now and educational choices should be taken with this in mind. He also encouraged students familiarise themselves with environmental and sensory triggers. After all, he reasoned, a child who isn’t comfortable can’t be expected to learn for seven hours a day! For older children he encouraged visiting third level campuses before enrolling to get a feel for their environment. He remarked on the need for parents to loosen their grip at third level and allow for independence and growth through mistakes. As he eloquently put it
“you don’t get to take away their right to be stupid”
Former Youth Leadership team member Kevin McLoughlin took over by talking about his experience in NUIG. He began by talking about expectations both negative and positive for college. He assumed that accommodation would be no problem, that he would love every single part of his course. In contrast, he worried about failure and losing all his friends from home. He went on to outline his initial challenges. He neglected to go to the Disability Service in the college. His accommodation was far from ideal and one module in particular was challenging and unstimulating. He outlined how his obsession with not failing led to a neglect of his social relationships. He warned against ‘falling into a funk’ and being unwilling to break out of damaging routines.
Kevin then outlined how he resolved this by being proactive. He explained that in third level no one will intervene to fix your problems; you need to take initiative. By going to an Occupational Therapist and working out a schedule with them, he was able to finish the troublesome module with a decent grade. He also found the confidence to approach individual lecturers and disclose his diagnosis to them. By being open to help he was able to vastly improve his college experience.
He went on to argue for the benefits on college societies. Kevin joined the Harry Potter Society, which was on the verge on collapse, and turned it around. He not only made numerous friends out of this, becoming part of the committee in the process, he took active efforts to make it an autism-friendly space. Kevin argued that his work with societies wasn’t a distraction. On the contrary, he felt the routine of society work gave him something to split up his time in between college work. Kevin rounded off by encouraging prospective students to avoid stagnating and be proactive with problems. He also encouraged being smart about self-advocacy. He noted that he needed support in maths during his Leaving Cert but instead received support for French, which he didn’t require.
Occupational Therapist Ageeth Hup rounded off the night. She drew on her studies of self-regulation in first year neurodiverse students. Hup demonstrated that meeting new people, time management, motivation, confidence and independence were the greatest challenges for neurodiverse students. She then compared these challenges to neurotypical students which turned out to be very similar. While neurodiverse students need extra supports, Hup argued, their concerns were not too different to their peers. These concerns were related to executive functioning, which is a challenge common to both autistic people and young people more generally.
To counter this, she encouraged developing skills in self-awareness (i.e. strengths and weaknesses), self-advocacy (asking for help) and practising self-care. She warned about the challenges of breaking routine that third level presents. She also stressed the strengths of autistic students relative to their peers, such as stronger motivation, creativity, perseverance and memory.
During a Q&A session all three speakers stressed the need for a careful way to frame supports. The need for help isn’t deficit-based, but a universal experience. As Billy eloquently said it, services must ‘get in front of the need,’ or make sure supports are there before the student even realises they are needed.
We encourage members of the community to attend our next seminar in September. We’ll soon upload a video of Billy’s presentation. We once again thank SuperValu for making these seminars possible through their sponsorship.