I’ve got autism and I feel abandoned by my university during this crisis

Without the structure of campus routine, a student with autism says it’s impossible to complete assignments and he’s worried about finishing his degree

四月 1, 2020
Alone

The Covid-19 crisis has put immense pressure on all citizens of the world to carry on with business as usual despite the severe disruption to everyday life, and students are not exempt from these difficulties. However, in my experience as a student with a disability, since the coronavirus pandemic unfolded my university has shown complete disregard for my wellbeing. This is a pattern that I fear is being repeated throughout the UK.

I am a third-year student studying a BA in education studies at a university in England. I have been diagnosed with autism, something my university has been aware of since my enrolment.

Although my autism rarely plays a negative role in my studying, since the coronavirus crisis I have found myself virtually incapable of maintaining normality.

Autistic people rely on pattern making and routine as a coping mechanism to help with oversensitivity to stimuli, anxiety, and other issues. Life in the UK has become so unsettling that this coping mechanism has become virtually non-existent for me and many other sufferers. I find communication through emails, virtual tutorials and phone calls extremely difficult because of my disability. When I informed the university that I am struggling, it provided me no alternatives.  

Since the university closed, I have received very little communication from them, no mental health support, zero welfare checks or offers of additional support for my disability. The communication we have received from our lecturers has highlighted our requirements to continue with our assignments, but they show an utter lack of empathy to the complex situations that students now find themselves in. Instead of enquiring if we need additional mental health support or assistance, they ask us “have you settled into a good study habit?” or have instructed us on how to connect computers to our mobile phones using a hotspot.

We have all been granted mandatory two-week extensions on all pending assignments, but this is not enough. My lecturers appear unable to grasp the difficulties students may have in completing assignments. Many students find themselves unable to access resources, are key workers or have moved back to homes with younger siblings also home from school and families in financial difficulties stressed to breaking point.

Many of the core readings for my modules are unavailable online, which adds even more worry to this particularly difficult time. I fear that the university will fail to understand why the quality of my assignments will not be equal to that of my previous work. Circumstances have changed drastically, however the university does not seem to have grasped this.

Unfortunately, disabled people often feel neglected, forgotten or, at times, like second-class citizens, with many of us unable to speak up when we need additional aid for fear of ridicule or refusal. The university’s neglect in regard to one of its most vulnerable students is unacceptable.

I have raised these concerns with the university and after two days of begging for help, they finally gave me a point of contact, but their advice has consistently been to “be patient and wait”. I suffer from acute anxiety as a result of my disability, so being patient and waiting is not an option for someone with my condition and speaks to the general lack of empathy the university has for its most vulnerable students.

As a third-year BA student, I have done 75 per cent of my degree, with two assignments and a dissertation still to be completed before graduating.

The university could alleviate additional stress for all of its students by acknowledging that our grades from the assignments still to be completed will not be given comparable weighting to previously submitted work, if we can indeed submit any work at all.

Therefore, similarly to GCSE and A-level pupils, our lecturers should look at our previous body of work and award us an average grade based on our previously submitted assignments, so that we may tackle this crisis with stability and no additional stress.

I find myself gripped with anxiety, suffering panic attacks induced by my disability, and am unable to complete my remaining assignments. If I cannot complete my assignments, £60,000 and three years of hard work and dedication will be for nothing. My future prospects will be ruined by a crisis I have no control over and an education system that has failed one of its most vulnerable students.

I know I am not alone in this and speak for many disabled or vulnerable students who cannot speak out. I can only hope things will change for us before it is too late and our futures forfeited.

The author is a third-year undergraduate student in England.

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Reader's comments (6)

I am also autistic and also an education studies student (hello..!). I am a PhD so there are no assignments or pressing deadlines but... I can understand your frustration. My little on campus routine is one thing that grounds me. I don't mind speaking with my disability mentor by email, but I prefer speaking with my supervisor face to face - much gets lost in text only communication. Luckily he hates video calling as much as I do so that's a no. The disability service exists as an online only affair - not so good for a lot of people. But this is not unique to universities. Many public services - like my GP - have locked out those of us who can't telephone or, worse, those of who feel like we are somehow not deserving of help and support when other people are dying. Hands are tied, though, and I suspect universities are trying their best to support students and follow guidelines.
Hi, I've got a learning disability, also a 3rd year student that's been effected by the closures. All of my work is practical based, a lot of it was actually in the university building on the day it shut. I was told I wouldn't be able to go back in to get me stuff. There's a while modules worth of work that I'm going to have to re do now at home. The tutors say they'll take it into account when they mark my work. But it just doesn't seem like we where given enough warning or enough time to prepare. They literally closed the building as usual, then the next day we got an email to say it won't be opening again. It really sucks.
It is great to read this student perspective. Just to note that when we say 'University' we are actually talking about people. Humans who are having to adapt to all the changes described in the article. Humans who have also been experiencing the swift change alongside all other humans in the world. My experience is that these people are doing everything they possibly can in extremely hard circumstances to ensure that learning continues. And I mean learning rather than assessments and the provision of certificates. I would ask the writer and all other students frustrated by the change to practice patience, adapting to change takes time for everyone. Education across the entire world has been disrupted because it is dependant on humans and human interaction. Together we will do everything we can to adapt.
Ten years ago, 15 at most, Universities would have had to close down in the face of the current situation and governments would have had to decide whether to support them through it financially. We are seeing at the moment the erroneous assumptions that, because some (far from all) students have fast internet and reasonably comfortable and spacious home environments in which to work, an unplanned rush online is somehow acceptable. It isn't. It seems that modern University management is so detached from the realities of higher 'education' that they assume that recorded lectures, video chat and email = education. It isn't, unless carefully planned over an appropriate timeframe to create a distance learning course to which students have then freely signed up, aware of the nature and requirements of this form of education. That some VCs have so little understanding of the conditions in which some students and some staff are currently locked-down in is shameful. That they have so little understanding of the needs of some students with disabilities is also shameful.
I’m in exactly the same position! Literally as I was reading this I felt as though I could have written it. I’m at Teesside University, though study a full time course on part time hours in Hartlepool. Since the uni closed my only contact with my tutors and supervisor has been through Teams, and when I email about concerns or asking for help I am ignored. It might sound silly to them, but how do they expect me to write a dissertation when I’ve never written one before and don’t know where to start?! All I keep getting is ‘you’ll be okay’...guess what, no I won’t! I dont know what you want me to write! I don’t know how to even structure the dissertation. I’ve been sending emails to people at the main uni campus and our smaller one and I’m yet to receive a response. I should mention that I also normally work full time as an inclusion assistant in a mainstream secondary school with a SEN provision and am expected to work my normal hours at home, which is also having big effects on mental health and anxiety, though I feel as though I’m coping with that much better than the looming deadline of dissertation of which I so far have 150 words written. They should just give us our grades! We have three years worth of work they could average us out from but are choosing to continue to put us through this.
I feel this way too, although I don’t have autism but have some significant traits, and I also have previous trauma. All my peers are now finishing and because I had to take time off due to my mental health, I missed the boat to finish university in time with the others. Things got really bad and only one person from the university has checked up on me in months and it is someone who I never had contact with previously for support around my personal issues. I’m devastated that this is the outcome and feel completely forgotten about and worthless.

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