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Community Voices: Ella Durrigan on Starting College

Autism vs First Year of college

May 2019: I have just finished my summer exams. I had dropped out of college twice before and this was third time lucky. I had finally completed the first year of a degree in Digital Marketing, Communication and Public Relations in Dundalk IT, a course with a mixture of academic, creative and technology skills that I fell in love with.

 

The first semester was the hardest. I was on a mission to hide the fact that I was autistic. I would go to college only to come home and have a meltdown and not go back for another few days. This cycle went on all semester and by the time Christmas holidays came along, the stress of college had physically got to me, leaving me sick for the whole break.

 

I decided I was going to leave college again and honestly, I felt like most people were expecting this. However, my parents pushed me to keep going. I decided to give it another go but before long, I was back into the same cycle and I knew that this wasn’t working. My parents kept telling me to ask for help, but I refused. I couldn’t let my secret out!

 

After falling sick again, I decided to send an email to all my lecturers explaining that I was autistic and had ADD, what it meant and that I needed help with finishing first year. I really believed I’d be treated differently now in college, that I’d just be viewed as someone with a disability, nothing more. However, it was the opposite, with every single lecturer replying with nothing but support and suggestions on how they felt they could help.

Image result for dundalk it disability

And from there, college got better, thanks to just one email where I was open and honest. I wasn’t treated any differently – I still had to do my work – just in different ways. For example, some lecturers allowed me to do solo presentations instead of group presentations and I was able to present just in front of the lecturers and friends. I also didn’t have to come in everyday- I did the coursework at home – but after everyone knew, I started going in more. College suddenly wasn’t as hard as it had been for me in my first semester.

 

I had also made good friends in college and I decided to let them in on my secret.  They made no big deal out of it but just pushed me harder to finish the year. They helped me with notes and group projects, especially when I wasn’t in, reminding me to eat when I was gone into full stress mode, the list goes on.

 

Through accepting my diagnosis and no longer hiding it, I got a lot more confidence in myself. In my second semester we had a writing module where we had to create a blog. And what did I do my blog on?  Living with autism on a day-to-day basis. Not only was the secret out but I had fully accepted it and I wanted to help others on the spectrum.

 

With increasing numbers of students on the spectrum attending college, there are several ways that third-level institutions can be more autism-friendly for us. The first way is by educating staff about the spectrum, what it is about and what day to day life is like for us.

 

Another way to help first years on the spectrum is to have a separate Orientation Day before they start college. This way, they get to see the college in a smaller group setting without the masses of people who attend Orientation Week. Colleges should offer quiet places for students on the spectrum, separate to the library! Some people on the spectrum have sensory issues and the noises in a library e.g. rustling of paper, bright lights, whispering could send us into overload! Also, routine is a huge part of autism so when there are free hours between classes, we sometimes need help filling in the blanks.

 

I also registered in the disability services in Dundalk IT, which helped as I got a lot support there. Students need to be made aware of the disability services in college and the help that is available.

 

My advice for students themselves is: don’t keep it a secret. Be open and honest with yourself and the people around you and half the battle has been won. People on the spectrum can become so hyper focused on college that we work too hard, stressing ourselves to a point of a meltdown.  When it comes to college work, mind yourself – it isn’t the end of the world if you need an extension for an essay or a day or two off. College is achieved in three to four years or more, not in a week!

 

 

 

 

 

 

by - 11 September, 2019

Last updated by - September 24, 2019

in Anxiety and Meltdowns, Autism, Autism and Women, Blog, College, Community Voices, Education, Mental Health, Routine

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