The Weekly Read: How autism affected my education
Amy Tracey, who has autism, shares her experience of education
I’d thought for years that I’d never go to college.
When I was completing my Junior Cert in school, I worked really hard and gave everything I had into my exams, but for some reason those stellar grades for which I pushed myself alluded me.
I was placed into the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme, which was designed for students who either weren’t quite ready for the traditional academic route or who didn’t plan on going into higher education after school. I did though, and was deeply disappointed and frustrated that, throughout my years of education, I was always pushing myself to do the best I could, only to end up at the bottom.
I envied people in my year, watching them fill out their CAOs. Because the LCA programme was my last chance to do as well as I could academically, I decided to really work hard but not to my surprise I ended up with only a very low merit (B–). But little did I know that I had autism – a neurodevelopmental condition which affects many aspects of your life with trying to function in the world, especially education.
From that point on, I had a decision to make: either go straight into work, or attend a community college. I ultimately opted to apply for a year-long sports coaching course at my local college in 2012. It was something to show possible employers on a CV. and I’d a special interest in dance back then. The interview itself was very tough and the questions challenging to answer. Unless it was about dance or my own interests, I found them especially hard, but I knew it was better to be myself and answer them as honestly as it was possible for me.
I ended up getting the last place and I began college without them knowing I had autism. I didn’t receive all the necessary supports so it was therefore a much harder start. I found assignments confusing, would only just about pass them and the amount of different sports that we’d to do was fairly overwhelming for me to process.
During exams, I had to sit in hall with a hundred other students which was very different for me, since before then I’d usually sat them with only a few people in the room. I had to keep raising my hand and ask for help; the teachers were polite enough to help me but it was distracting for everyone else. At the end of my exams, I realised two things: college and sports are not for me.
At that point, I was sure that academia wasn’t where my strengths lay. I took up doing various jobs in different sectors for the next three years, but even then, part of me was still set on doing and finishing a degree. When I worked in customer service I became interested in HR and employee relations / job coaching. My own experiences in holding down work inspired me to look how I could help other people in similar positions; it was during those three years that I discovered how much autism was affecting my performance at college and at work.
I then was left with no other choice but to return to community college but I was aware of the supports that I could avail of in that college and that made it a lot less scary for me.
I applied for the business studies course, the interview process this time going much smoother than the last. The teachers interviewing me knew that I had social difficulties and so it was much easier for everyone involved. I had a reader in my exams and a lot of other supports with my assignments throughout that year. When I finished, I gained 7 distinctions and 4 merits. It was the grades and the supports and the belief that I had in myself from there on that made me believe I might be able to not just attend a third level college, but do well.
I applied to do business studies at a level six and was offered places at the Dublin Institute of Technology and the National College of Ireland. I went for the NCI in the end. It has amazing supports in place for its students. The Business Certificate is great as you can do a range of subjects at level 8 but then do your last two years in human resources or accounting. They run free maths support classes which I’ll be needing this year and much smaller classes to enable their lecturers to focus on helping students as much as they can. The disability supports staff were also great; they helped me in obtaining a reader for all my exams, an occupational therapist, and how to structure my assignments.
One of the most difficult subjects I had was financial accounting, the college had fee accounting support classes set up but this was not enough as I was no accountant so I had to get more grinds and study long hours because the truth is I am not gifted academically, I had to graft to get good marks or pass as well.
When it came to making friends in school, my younger sister was a huge support for me. She was the year below me and when I was diagnosed as being on the spectrum, I became a lot more socially aware. Both of these things were great preparation for enabling me to socialise at college. I get asked by classmates on nights out, have people to sit with between classes, but I still like to have my own space and be as independent as I can when going around campus, instead of trying so hard to fit in perfectly with everyone. I was lucky enough to even find people for group work but I didn’t put myself under pressure by being their best friend I just simply asked. It all worked out in the end in first year when I received an overall average of 60 (B) and it was all down to hard work and receiving the correct supports.
With thanks to Campus.ie