Lia is a post-secondary student in Ontario living with Autism. Learn about her experiences navigating the post-secondary sector.
I’m currently in my first year at university, working towards a Bachelor of Music. I play saxophone and piano, and am hoping to have a career in the field of music therapy. I’m funny and quirky, and I love watching movies with my best friend. I like school, but sometimes navigating an institution built for neurotypicals can be difficult. I’m hoping that my writing can help others in my position. Because we aren’t autistic… we’re autastic!
3 tips from Lia about how post-secondary institutions can support a student with ASD
Being a university student is difficult for anybody. Between the classes and homework, the clubs and the social events, it can be difficult to keep your head above water. Add in the challenges of autism, and it seems near impossible. But with the help and support of the institution, individuals on the spectrum can be just as successful as their neurotypical, or non-autistic, counterparts. Some of these supports are already in place at some schools. Some are there, but need some fine-tuning. Others just don’t exist yet. Today, I’m going to focus on what I view as three of the top supports, and why/how they are needed.
1) Transitions from High School to post-secondary can be rough! Supports help!
When I started applying to schools, one of the first things we would do was to look into the disability services. Moving from high school to university is challenging for most, but for people on the spectrum, the switch of learning and instruction styles essentially requires a full reprogramming of everything we had been taught up until then, rather than the next step in the building blocks of neurotypical education. One of the things that stood out about my school was the transition programs they had available to students with disabilities. They had two programs available: one for learning disabilities, and another for mental health disorders. Both covered topics such as coping with stress, disclosing disability to professors, and managing course loads. On top of this, the learning disability program also covered many learning strategies, such as how to take notes in the university lecture setting. While their classification of autism was off, both of these programs prove to be invaluable resources.
2) Physical learning environments matter!
Once I got to school and started classes, I faced two major challenges in the actual school building. The first one is one most people probably don’t even think about: the classrooms all featured fluorescent lighting. Due to the sensory processing issues associated with autism, this not only distracted me from my work, but was also physically painful to me, due not only to the brightness, but to the buzzing these lights produce, despite being nearly inaudible to the untrained ear. In fact, not only was this a problem in the classrooms, but there were no sensory-safe places at all. This is one of the easiest fixes, as even replacing some of the most problematic light bulbs could make a world of difference on an autistic individual’s ability to focus.
3) Create supportive environments and educate staff!
Another challenge I faced was in disclosing my disability to my professors. I found that while most of them were more than willing to make “reasonable accommodations,” a vast majority did not understand what constitutes a reasonable accommodation. I truly believe that this is because many of them have never known or worked with an individual on the spectrum, and they simply could not understand the challenges I was facing. As autism is a communication disability, I frequently found that I could not accurately explain either. Thus, I believe professors need to be better educated on the realities of life for students on the spectrum.
And to everyone see our abilities not disabilities!
My final piece of advice applies not only to autism, but to all disabilities in general. One of my favourite things about the services for students with disabilities at my school is the way they are offered . They know they are there because we need help, but they also see us for the brilliant individuals we are. In fact, their sign says “Services for Students with disABILITIES”. Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder. There are some things I need help doing. But with the help provided to me, I, as well as anyone else, on the spectrum or not, can do anything I set my mind to.