Disability on Campus: ‘My brain has too many applications running simultaneously’

This week, Times Higher Education is publishing a series of stories about life on campus with a disability. Here, Anna Nibbs writes about her autism

May 16, 2017
Anna Nibbs

Eight years ago, I was a full-time mature master’s student. I sometimes needed to borrow books from libraries at universities other than my own. On one occasion, I forgot to return a book by the due date and incurred a fine. After belatedly realising my error, I visited the service desk and explained that I was used to receiving email reminders from my home institution and had expected them to do the same.

The response was: “Oh no, we can’t be expected to do that. Students need to be able to organise themselves and manage their lives. They need to keep track of what books they’ve borrowed.”

It was only last year, at the age of 36, that I was formally diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, but I have always had problems with executive functioning. I have difficulty planning and organising, and have a poor working memory. At times, being overloaded by sensory input can stop me in my tracks and prevent me from working. (I used to believe, despite plenty of academic evidence to the contrary, that I was simply stupid and lazy.)

Over the years, I have taught myself time management and organisational coping strategies. There are, however, times when I need direct help from colleagues with prioritising and scheduling. My brain has too many tabs open, and too many applications running simultaneously. Sometimes I need backup – and sometimes, yes, I do need email reminders.

But I am not alone in this. Many other people, autistic or not, would have found this particular library employee’s attitude insensitive. And it is only one example of attitudes and behaviours that I have encountered within higher education that I have found deeply alienating and demotivating.

I returned to university not long after the introduction of top-up fees in 2004. Even then, with fees at just £3,000 a year, many students needed to hold down jobs to make ends meet. Add in disabilities or chronic illnesses, parenting or caring responsibilities, unstable home environments or financial and other worries and you have an awful lot of learners with other things on their minds besides studying and returning library books.

Universities need to take account of this. It is not about “dumbing down” or making things “easy”, but about removing barriers that, however trivial, can get in the way of studying.

Similar issues apply in teaching itself. As an undergraduate student, I often encountered taught content delivered almost exclusively orally – a medium I process far less well than written or pictorial information. And I was often distracted by other sensory stimuli – harsh lighting, noise from fellow students, uncomfortable temperatures. It was exhausting. Today’s system of “lecture capture” would have been a great boon, allowing me to digest, review and reflect on the content in easy-to-process chunks.

Being autistic means needing to be in control, to reduce the risks of being overwhelmed by the unpredictable. In my own teaching, systematic planning helps me feel relaxed and confident enough to be responsive and flexible in the classroom. It also allows me to think about my learners, and how I can remove barriers and make my teaching accessible. Finding a solution that works for me often means a better learning experience for everyone.

Autistics can, and do, bring many strengths to the academy, but we often encounter barriers to being completely open about our differences or to reaching our full professional potential. There’s a risk, when our perception of the world is so different, of being wrongly seen as intellectually inferior. Our needs may be ignored or misunderstood. Our built environments, our colleagues’ preferred communication methods and our sector’s standard workload allocation models are not always conducive to our operating at full capacity. But in many other respects, we’re not that unusual.

Inclusive education is not, however, simply about making adjustments or redesigning learning activities. It is also important for students from marginalised groups to see others like them holding positions of influence and demonstrating professional and academic credibility within their fields. I’m far from being the only autistic person working in higher education, but I would like for us to be more visible – for our own sake and for the sake of our students and colleagues.

My autism can cause extreme reactions to too much information. I take in so much at once, and struggle to filter out the unimportant. But nowadays information overload can affect anyone, and often does. Having nothing to worry about other than your studies, your teaching or your research is a luxury – and a privilege – that few are able to enjoy.

Finding ways to ease that load helps all learners to focus on learning – and also helps those of us working in higher education to focus on working. Surely that can’t be a bad thing.

Anna Nibbs is an enterprise education developer at the University of Sheffield. This piece is a reworking of a post that originally appeared on her The Misadventures of Mama Pineapple blog.

Times Higher Education will be publishing more stories of disability on campus throughout the week. Follow #DisabilityOnCampus on Twitter for updates. 

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