The Leaving Cert Results are in, the offers have been made and the summer is drawing rapidly to a close. That means starting college for the first time for many students with Autism. Dr Alison Doyle shares some top tips below for making your first year a success.
You are about to embark on one of the most exciting and challenging times in your life. Moving from a familiar and highly structured environment, to one that requires you to make many choices and decisions, can be tricky. This is difficult for most young people, especially during the first weeks of college. You will be expected to:
- navigate a large campus (sometimes not very well sign-posted);
- work with and around large numbers of people whom you do not know;
- organise your time and study independently;
- use the college library and a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) to locate all of your course content;
- work within a timetable that might change at the last minute;
- belong to different groups simultaneously (Faculty, School, Department, course);
- learn with a group of students which may change each term.
Be aware of your strengths and challenges. You need to be confident about your strengths but also aware of your challenges, and how these relate to managing your course. Talk about these at home. Have a clear idea of what kind of help you might need in college, before you attend any meetings with college staff. Think about how you are going to manage independent study, and the changes that you might need to make, for example, moving from support provided by other people, to using technology. Be open to new ways of organising your time and your tasks.
Acknowledge the benefits of disclosure. The first and very important task that you will have to undertake, is to register with the Disability Service in college, before classes begin. You may already have received an invitation to an orientation meeting or event. Nobody likes to be assigned to a group with the label ‘disability’, but this is how supports are organised in college, so accept it. When you register with the Disability Service you will have a Needs Assessment, and this is an opportunity for you to ‘disclose’ the challenges that you may have in college. Students who disclose a disability early on in their college career are more likely to succeed than those who choose to ‘go it alone.’
Speak up for yourself. Be clear about the assistance that you need, and any difficulties that you are having. Make sure that you communicate this in a way that is friendly but firm. It’s a good idea to practice this type of conversation, because you may need to advocate for yourself when talking to lecturers, for example, asking for additional time to complete an assignment. Think about potential scenarios such as locating buildings, finding out where to go for assistance, or asking someone to repeat or clarify instructions. Discuss any concerns or worries with people at home, including problems that need to be solved, and what you need to do next. You need to take action, and your parents can support you in this.
Get organised. There will be a lot going on over the next few weeks, even before lectures begin. Look through the information that has been sent to you, and identify the important orientation events that you really need to attend. Visit the college, get to know the campus, locate the meeting venues. Explore the college website now that you are a ‘current student.’ For example, investigate clubs and societies on offer, and make a note of those you want to join. Make a ‘To Do’ list and include things that you need to check, or questions that you still have.
Participate in orientation programmes and other events. This is the first opportunity to meet other students, make some connections, and to ask questions about the way in which college works. If you know someone who is also going to the same college, arrange to meet up with them. Make sure to follow your Freshers Week timetable and attend all of your course meetings, library tours etc. If you get lost, then ask a student ambassador or guide. You will probably find this period overwhelming and exhausting, but take the time to reflect on things and don’t forget to talk about your day when you get home.
Understand your student responsibilities. Your new independence will bring with it an increase in responsibility. Nobody will be checking to see if you are attending class, going to the library, or doing the homework (assignments). Nobody will check to see if you are responding to emails or turning up for your exams. That’s up to you. However, Disability Service staff, academic advisers, tutors and student mentors are there to help you manage all of the changes. Find out the name and location of ‘go to’ people who can help with any difficulties you might be having. Seek out their help and support if you are unsure about what you should be doing, or are a bit confused. Talk to people at home and ask for advice if you feel things are becoming difficult to manage.
Identify and use supports. You have a legal right to be ‘reasonably accommodated’ in college (and in the workplace by the way). This means that the college must do all that is ‘reasonable’ to remove any disadvantage, and to reduce any barriers to accessing your course. This might involve providing you with access to technology, special arrangements for sitting examinations, or specialised support from an Occupational Therapist, Psychologist or academic tutor. Don’t immediately reject the help that is offered to you. Give it a try. If after a few weeks you identify a reasonable accommodation that could be helpful, make an appointment with the Disability Office to discuss this.
Be brave, be honest, and take action. Each year, a high percentage of students withdraw from their course, either within the first term or before the end of the first year. It might be that you decide your course is just not for you, it hasn’t really lived up to your expectations, or the content is just too difficult to get to grips with. Don’t make any hasty decisions – talk about these issues at home and agree on a review period e.g. “let’s see how things go for the next two weeks and then have another chat.” Most importantly, don’t ignore the situation and above all don’t ‘pretend’ to go to college. Solutions include transferring to another course or college, or re-applying to the CAO.
Stand your ground. The first few weeks of college involve a considerable amount of social activities. If you are living away from home in a student residence there can be additional pressure to join in with evening activities, many of which involve alcohol. Sometimes social events can be tricky as you try to juggle making new friends, with staying within your comfort zone. The fundamental rule is not to give in to peer pressure: be firm, be polite, be friendly, but say no if you don’t want to participate. Maybe next time.
Enjoy yourself. College is a journey of self-discovery, so seize the moment.