In the world of autism, the pathway from school to college can seem very daunting. Kate Rowan is an autistic writer and dramatist, having recently completed a masters in Drama and Performance in UCD. Like many autistic young people, she struggled through much of secondary school without an appropriate diagnosis. Below she outlines her struggles and successes with autism acceptance and her journey from school to college. If you’re interested in blogging for us, email us at [email protected]
Struggles at School
Secondary school was far from the best years of my life. I struggled terribly with anxiety and depression and went through a series of diagnoses. Classes were exhausting and the uniform to me was unbearable to wear. The material of the jumper itched my neck and felt tight, even though my mother cut a piece out of it in desperation to help me feel more comfortable. I sat out of Physical Education almost every week as I felt uncomfortable and I often tripped over myself. When I ran I bore a striking resemblance to Big Bird out of Sesame Street! I often felt like I was on the outside looking in at what was happening, despite making friends and having no issues with teachers. I found myself attempting to mimic what my classmates did and how they acted in order to fit in, but in my mind I assumed everybody felt this way.
The hardest time for me in secondary school was the year before my Leaving Certificate. My anxiety had gotten to the stage where there were days when I physically could not get out of the car. I would sit in the car full of panic and my mother or grandmother would have to turn the car around and bring me home. I was no longer able to travel to school by bus. On the days I could make myself go into school, I often called home before lunch for my mother to collect me early. I missed the equivalent of at least 7 weeks in 5th year, not counting the many half days I had to take. There were times during this period when staying in school seemed impossible and completing the Leaving Certificate felt like an overwhelming challenge. These challenges I faced in secondary school and the anxiety I struggled with led me to my diagnosis.
Autism Diagnosis in Leaving Certificate: School to College
After my first year of secondary school I began experiencing what I described as “moments”, which later transpired to be seizures. I was diagnosed with epilepsy and spent the next seven or so years trying different medications at various doses to control my seizures. I am now thankfully seizure free for over two years. As a result of this I started seeing a counsellor as I was struggling with anxiety and keeping up with my schoolwork, a problem I never experienced before with school. I worked with her on and off and it was she who suggested to my mother that I get an autism assessment. At the age of 17, I was diagnosed with autism and dyspraxia (which explained my big bird tendencies!). I received my autism diagnosis just months before the Leaving Certificate, the pathway from school to college. I can only describe it as a positive moment in my life. Suddenly things made sense to me that never had before. I could now understand why I found everyday scenarios and situations difficult that other people took in their stride. For me, it felt good to have a label on why I was the way I was.
I remember very little of physically sitting my Leaving Certificate exams, mainly because my memory is affected by the medication I am on for my epilepsy. Strangely I felt under very little pressure. I had always been hard on myself throughout school and often in everyday life. When it came to the exams my attitude was to do my best and if things did not work out then that was fine, I could always do the Leaving Certificate again (even though I couldn’t wait to be finished school, no offence to my lovely teachers!). Luckily I passed all subjects and succeeded in securing a place in University College Dublin to do a degree in English with Drama, despite not getting the points required for the course.
I got in on reduced points as a result of applying to HEAR and DARE. Both of which are alternative access routes for third level education for students who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and students whose disabilities have had a negative impact on their second level education. Autism is covered under dare and can be a helpful pathway from school to college. For anybody who has not explored either of these avenues I would recommend them to do so. Both HEAR and DARE students can avail of supports within college from exam accommodations to orientation programmes, both of which I availed of during my time in University. It is also worth checking out AHEAD who help people with disabilities gain employment after graduating through a program called WAM.
I began University with my HEAR and DARE orientation and I was honestly petrified and did not want my mother to leave. I felt like a child on my first day of school. Once I moved past this anxiety and pushed myself to stay I really enjoyed it and found it very helpful. The University was much quieter during this time period as classes had not started and neither had orientation for all students. It allowed me to become familiar with my new surroundings and plan my routes to and from classes before the campus became busier.
Settling in to College
Planning and preparation have become my best friends throughout my university experiences. Being prepared and knowing where I am going to have class or who my lecturers are going to be helps alleviate many of the anxieties I have had around the unknown and University can often be the unknown. Don’t be afraid to visit the third level institution you will be attending even before the HEAR and DARE orientation week. The more you are familiar with the campus (including the best places to get snacks), the more enjoyable the experience will be. For me, my mother has always been my biggest support and I visited UCD on their open day with her. Having someone encouraging by your side is always a bonus!
In primary and secondary schools we get to know the teachers and staff over many years. In some courses in University you might have more than one lecturer for the same module or class. This can be confusing at first as different lecturers have different ways of teaching. My advice is to always get their email addresses (they normally give these out anyway at beginning of classes) and do not be afraid to email them if you have any worries or if you feel you have missed something important. From my experience I have found all my lecturers, professors and tutors to always be helpful and offer their words of wisdom when needed!
If you have a disability you should contact the disability services within your University or other third level institution. Here you will find supports such as assistive technology and have the chance to register for exam accommodations which include extra time and smaller examination classrooms on campus. In UCD for example, exams are held in the RDS. As I was eligible for exam supports I was able to take my exams in UCD in a smaller and less intimidating setting. I was also allocated extra time helping with my anxieties around not being able to write fast enough to finish on time. I also had access to a recorder for my classes which helps people if they miss something or find writing notes difficult. These supports as with HEAR and DARE really helped me transition from secondary school to a University setting. Supports like the ones I have mentioned are in place to help each student reach their full potential whatever their situation might be and should be availed of where possible.
Wellbeing in College
From the moment you start University you are encouraged to join societies and socialize which is often easier said than done, at least it was for me. During Freshers Week I joined many societies and clubs (not fully intending to partake in them all but the free goodie bags were tempting). I did however try to attend some of the society meetings and events. Often in University I found I liked to stay in my apartment on campus between classes and in the evening. It felt within my comfort zone and pushing myself out of this comfort zone was never easy. I would suggest students sign up for as many societies as possible and then see what events they may like to attend, but do not feel you have to attend every event a society might hold!
Sometimes putting yourself out there for the first time will help and making friends truly can help your university experience. During the final year of my degree I had gained more confidence and took part in societal activities more than the previous years of my degree. I think often students going to University put themselves under pressure to take part in everything and experience everything. People often forget it can be a difficult transition and students should ultimately aim to do their best and have a little bit of fun along the way!
I believe having hobbies and interests outside of University is an important way to help with any anxieties or stress a student may be feeling. If a student had hobbies throughout primary and secondary school, then they should keep them up! When I first headed off to UCD I neglected my main passion asides education, horses and horseback riding. I have always had a strong love of animals from a very young age and first started horse riding when I was in primary school. University is a very new experience and if like me you are also moving away from home you can get caught up in the excitement of it all and forget about the things you loved to do before University.
When I started back riding horses and spending time with them during my first year in UCD my stress levels decreased. Animals have been proven time and time again to be good for people with anxiety, depression, autism or everyday worries. One’s own interests or hobbies can also be useful when signing up for clubs and societies. Choosing a society that centres around an interest you already have, whether that be sport, politics, or film, you are much more likely to attend events, enjoy them and meet like-minded people.
Following on from my 3 year degree I was delighted to graduate from UCD with a BA in English with Drama. I secured a place in the MA Drama and Performance Studies program, again in UCD, but decided to take a year out before I started. For me, this was the best decision. It gave me a chance to have a rest after a hectic Leaving Certificate, followed immediately by starting University. Currently, my goal is to do PhD in the near future, but I am in no rush. That is the most incredible part of education, it can be lifelong! There is no age limit. Take your time, enjoy it and do your best, nobody else’s!