Jenny Loughman is an autistic blogger studying social care in Limerick Institute of Technology. She hopes to work in services related to autism but her experience with college, like so many others, has been drastically effected by COVID-19.
Beginning of COVID-19
When I began my academic path in the field of Social Care, I could not have predicted where things would have gone. I don’t think anyone could have. No one in the world could have barring the occasional psychic or person who is scarily good at guessing.
I had begun an Applied Social Studies QQI Level 5 in Limerick College of Further Education in the 2019/2020 academic year. As a very mature student of 26 years old I was resolute that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people. One day I wanted to work with others and help improve their quality of life. I wanted to specialise in autistic services, since I am an autistic person myself and who is better qualified than someone that is living it?
Despite colleges not always being the most autism-friendly space I was actually flourishing in college before the first COVID cases hit Europe, and then Ireland. I had something like a social life, I had classmates that I genuinely liked, and having a set schedule really helped lessen some of the stress I had. I was getting regular exercise, I was eating fairly healthy, and I even had a skincare regime. I was being a Functional Adult.
And then, the dread First Lockdown happened.
Autism and College under COVID-19
My course went from being in person to distance learning. In lieu of the exams I had crammed for, I had alternative assignments. All contact with my classmates proceeded via Snapchat. We swore that when lockdown was over, we would get together and get a few drinks to celebrate graduating from the course. That was about May 2020 and as you can guess, those drinks have not happened yet. Still, I finished that course with good grades and managed to get into Limerick Institute of Technology for the 2020/2021 academic year.
My interview process happened online through Microsoft Teams. This was a nightmare because as you can imagine, the communication differences in autism don’t always gel with the online learning environment of college during COVID. Since I could not physically see my interviewers barring a small rectangle on my screen, I could not read their body language. I could not see what hand gestures they were making. I could not see what micro-expressions they were making, and I could not pick up the inflections in their voices properly. All I could really do was soldier on and try and pretend to be a person who is good at interviews. That alone can be a major task even for people who are not autistic. All these issues also were carried forth into the lectures that I attended and even the ones I currently attend. Body language is a lingo I’ve had to relearn for online interactions.
Since beginning this academic year in September, I have yet to actually step foot on campus. All interaction I have had with my professors and teachers have been entirely online. I only live a stone’s throw from the college, yet I have yet to actually be there in person.
I’ve found it hard. I’m sure everyone has. I miss the regimented schedule that in-person learning once offered me. Since I live at home, my classroom is basically my bedroom. This is not conductive to good education because my brain gets confused.
“Why do I have to do work where I usually shut off?” my brain must say. Probably, I do not get that much of an input.
But associations can impact our productiveness. I know this part because in class last week we learned about conditioning and Pavlov’s dogs. And like Pavlov’s dogs, instead of salivating when I hear a bell, I hear the Microsoft Teams ringtone and immediately feel exhausted. I hear a Zoom notification and I feel only dread. I actively dislike my phone’s notification chirps.
In the Beforetimes™ I would spend my lunch breaks socialising with my classmates, getting something to eat from the canteen, or doing some work in the computer lab. I obviously can’t do anything like that now.
My only companions are my equally harried siblings and parents as well as an uncaring cat. My kitchen is my canteen and often I’ll straight up forget to get something to eat because I’m like that. And since I am already in bed often wearing pyjamas, I find myself often napping during lunch breaks because bed warm and the gears in my brain are missing a cog. As one can imagine, my sleep cycle is a complete nightmare, which, ergo, means I sleep more during the day.
Kind of like a vampire. But Dracula doesn’t have to attend webinars.
Boredom can also creep in quite a bit. Usually in a class setting, I can write down notes. The teacher can see me actively listening and participating. I don’t have to faff around with a mute button. I don’t have to put a digital hand up to say something.
Online, however, I have the lure of the internet to distract me. I’m a person who has a terrible attention span so this can be problematic to say the least. Sometimes I’ll get bored of the class on my computer screen, so I’ll do something else on my computer. I will then get bored of that and go my phone to do something else because the internet on my phone is obviously different than the internet on my computer.
My assignments are all delivered via Moodle, which does give me a chance to check my calendar and set a schedule for when things are due, and what I need to do. But sometimes the assignment briefs get all tangled in my head, and I just cannot process it properly. Or I get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work I have to do.
Due to everything that is going on, I have either figure my problems out myself, consult the class WhatsApp group for sage advice, or wait until the relevant class to bring up my issues, since I do not want to bother my lecturers with my problems via email.
My lecturers are wonderful, by the way. But since they cannot see us in person, I cannot actually tell them one-to-one and face-to face that
“Hi, I am autistic. My brain works weirdly, and I just need you to be aware of that.”
My classmates are aware of me being autistic since I try to bring it up whenever it is appropriate for me to do so. This could be if we are covering ableism or autism in particular. So far, my classmates are incredibly supportive and kind to each other. I participate in a module called Personal Development once a week that gives me the opportunity to vent my frustrations to a small group of other learners. Even though we have yet to meet, they have only been wonderful to me.
Weathering the storm
Now that I am in my second semester of my first year, all I have really are uncertainties. Autism, college and COVID-19 continue to clash. Due to increased work, some of my lecturers have to use pre-recorded lectures. I find this very difficult to pay attention to, but I imagine it would be even harder for others. Some lectures may be cancelled or rescheduled to be online due to unforeseen circumstances, and that can throw me off guard.
And, of course, I do not know when I’ll get on campus for real. It might be this semester, it might not be until Year 2. I do not know, and a lot of people do not know either. As we have all done for the past year, all we can do is wait it out.
Until then, all I can do is try to be a Functional Adult. I’ll try and have a proper sleep schedule. I’ll try to go for walks (that are within my county borders), and I will try to remember to eat healthy, as well as drinking the recommended amount of water every day. Keyword being TRY. I’m only human, I’m fallible. But fingers crossed, you know?
Ultimately, I will work hard. Probably far harder than I could have ever imagined. I’ll have to navigate the choppy waves of online learning like everyone else and do my assignments to the best of my abilities. Because I want to do this course more than anything in the world. Because I want to help others. Because I can’t help others if I can’t help myself.
And because this too shall pass and college students can survive anything.