ARCHIVED Schooling for Autism Part II – The College Years

ARCHIVED: Please note, whilst every effort has been made to update blog posts, this blog post has been archived and may present outdated and incorrect information and terminology.

It soon became apparent that for every year of study I’d inevitably have a breakdown and require eight months off. A bit like a Tesco Value battery, I’d have one big burst of energy, and then suddenly crash just when the energy was needed most. My problem has always been that I am a perfectionist; it takes me a while to complete things in my methodical manner. This was OK in year seven, when I had multiple projects on the go but my mum could take half the load, producing some wonderful pieces for textiles and some fantastic essays on the Church of England and Pompeii. Through this method I also became adept at lying and acting under pressure, often because I hadn’t bothered going over my mother’s attempts, so when I was quizzed by my teachers on how I’d managed to produce such a high standard of work, I quickly learnt how to act insulted at the accusation being implied. Now don’t take the moral high ground, every parent has done it and I bet there isn’t one single child who hasn’t welcomed it, my mother was just slightly more competitive than yours and much better at getting Warden’s Commendations. Unfortunately for me my mum decided she’d rather live in the pub and hang out with her friends after completing her O Levels than continuing with her education, so when it came to college and university, her once greatly advantageous knowledge became obsolete; I had to go it alone.

Like most things in my life, I entered college in a state of delusion, more excited about the brand new stationary and bags I could buy, and the fewer more interesting topics I could study, than the reality of the situation. At college I was looking forward to finally being able to officially study Psychology and Photography, and indulge myself in reading and writing in English. My brain had not contemplated the hundreds of scary sixth formers that would also be in attendance, and who would ruin my special interests with their distraction and social competence. Having said that I was well liked at college and had several close friends alongside me already and made several new friends in my classes, when I actually turned up. However, the canteen there remains a source of my nightmares, with groups of people packed into it; I always felt so out of place when I walked in there, mainly because I wasn’t a knife yielding gangster rapping on my phone. I found my solace in the toilets during lessons when I became overwhelmed and breaks when I couldn’t find anyone, I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome so it wasn’t quite as strange as it sounds.

It is fair to say in classes I probably liked the company of my teachers more than the students. Especially in English I was seen as the class swot, well the only one to actually do the homework set. In Photography I switched to digital, and became a master of Photoshop. In Psychology I found my all time favourite special interest and would study above and beyond the syllabus. In Biology I memorised the course text front to back and could recite it on demand without actually having to understand what any of it meant; when it comes to A Levels that is pretty much the only skill you need to acquire. I found A Levels easier than GCSEs because my time wasn’t stretched between too many subjects, and the course objectives were so much clearer. You learnt how to pass the exams, and answer the questions exactly right, nothing more was required. It may seem surprising then that my attendance was well below 40% by the end of the two years.

I loved doing the homework and teaching myself but hated being in the classes. It was whilst at college that I first experienced mental health problems, a common by-product of autism. It seemed strange to me that whilst I was at home being home schooled away from my friends that I wasn’t suffering from any significant depression, yet whilst I was mixing with other people and living the life I’d prayed for over the previous two years, that I felt so low. In hindsight I realise that because of the Asperger’s and because I was transitioning and having to change my routine, this was inevitable. Being at college was draining and I could only manage a couple of days a week, if that. I couldn’t do a whole day of several classes, or participate in any classes which involved a lot of discussion and interaction. I remember during our first Psychology classes we had to do an experiment where half of us had to stand in the middle of the class and interact, whilst the other half had to watch one person and count the number of nervous movements we made, such as hair fiddling. This was absolutely my worst nightmare, I knew no one in the class and was being forced to interact with lots of people at once, not only this but I was being watched whilst doing it. At the end they added up all the behaviours and read them all out. The person watching me hadn’t counted many social movements, but had observed over 30 nose rubbings, a behaviour we weren’t even meant to be counting for! After that I became slightly fearful of the classes, in one our teacher started to put people into groups and the fear was just too much for me, so I ended up running out and having a panic attack in the toilet. My favourite was in my second year, when I was chosen to go up to the front of class and do an experiment to see how close I could comfortably stand in front of the teacher. We had a new teacher, who I didn’t particularly like; needless to say I had actually moved backwards and was almost hanging out of the window whilst she was on the other side of the room. However, thanks to a fantastically positive and encouraging teacher throughout my two years I was not put off Psychology by these bad experiences, I figured I would just have to develop better skills of dodging them!

By the beginning of my second year I was exhausted and suffered from similar problems to that I experienced at school when I had dropped out before my GCSEs. Physically I was too ill to go in most days or leave the house at all, let alone getting the two busses into town needed to reach college and back. Fortunately, my college were pretty oblivious to my absences as long as my grades continued to be A’s, as this was somewhat of a rarity at my particular college. The lesson to be taken away from my college years was not to try and hide my impairments and difficulties. I didn’t ever tell my teachers what I was struggling with, I hid behind my physical symptoms a lot and wouldn’t ask for the extra help I needed. I managed to get extra time in my exams and a separate room, without this small adjustment I don’t think I would have made it at all. My next stop was University, and I was determined to get it right this time, just think of all the new stationary and equipment I could buy for that!

Read Part 1:  “Schooling for Autism – how to survive it

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