Positive attitude adjustments

August 30, 2002

From September, universities must comply with the Disability Discrimination Act. Helen Hague looks at how two students with Asperger's syndrome are coping on campus and, below, discovers what institutions are offering those with mental-health problems.

James Gordon, a bright, computer-literate 21-year-old, has recently completed a three-month work placement helping Bournemouth Borough Council reorganise its website. He found the work easy.

David Harrison, aged 20, a genial, wise-cracking student with a passion for naval history, spent five weeks helping chronicle naval wrecks off the coastline around Southampton.

James and David both have Asperger's syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. Both are also studying for degrees at Bournemouth University, where tailored packages of individual, non-medical support are in place to meet their needs.

From September, when the Disability Discrimination Act extends to education, universities will be legally required to make provision for students with a wide range of disabilities and, crucially, to anticipate the needs of those yet to apply.

The needs of students with visual, hearing or mobility difficulties are immediately apparent, but those with comparatively hidden disabilities such as Asperger's risk slipping through the net if their condition is not picked up.

Many people with Asperger's enter higher education without a diagnosis, and they can find the lack of structure in student life difficult. James, who was reading before he went to school, was diagnosed just before his work placement, after a year out prompted by depression. He had been having counselling at the university and was referred for an assessment of possible Asperger's. His experience is far from unique. Though academically able, he had found the first year of university life tough, and, like many people with AS, he found it hard to speak about his difficulties or approach people for help.

His mother, Yvonne, recalls that at school, where lessons were tightly structured, he was regarded as an ideal pupil - bright and focused. His experience of feeling a little adrift at college, and the depression that ensued, are common to AS students whose needs are not recognised. Many drop out. But James's diagnosis - and the Disabled Student Allowance that flows from it - has opened the way for one-to-one specialist learning support and mentoring when he resumes his studies in computer science next term.

He will receive a computer from his local education authority, plus extra time in exams and extra library borrowing rights. He felt he didn't need extra support on his work placement, an assessment that proved correct, and is preparing to focus on his final-year project.

His successful work placement seems to have boosted his self-esteem. "I felt I wouldn't have wanted to ask for help at work. But I didn't need to. I put a lot of pressure on myself to get down to work. The support I'll be getting next year will help me keep on top of things." James is keeping his options open, but he may consider research.

David, who is studying archaeology, is also considering research after graduating. His main passion is for the "18th-century fighting sail" and he plans a dissertation on archaeological evidence of 18th and 19th-century frigates, following his successful work placement.

David had friends at primary and secondary school, but felt he didn't really get to know anyone when he moved to Brighton and Hove Sixth Form College. "There were two people I knew by their internet names only, so we communicated across the room by email," he says.

While at college, he was diagnosed as having Asperger's, and, according to his mother Nicky, spiralled into depression. When it came to taking A levels, he had to take beta blockers and aspirins to stop himself from panicking. He got double time - but in retrospect, it didn't really help that much because it was completely unstructured. "I defy anyone to just sit there for six hours," David says. "I'd go to the drinks machine and hide for ten minutes."

In contrast, the extra time he had in recent exams at Bournemouth was put to good use. "I was only allowed to take breaks when scheduled. It was really structured: planning, then writing, then having a break. It helped me a great deal."

Breaking down time into structured packages is one of the strategies David uses to achieve his academic potential. He is helped by a team of staffcoordinated by additional learning needs adviser James Palfreman-Kay.

It is clear that David is a man who bustles with ideas and who is benefiting from help in finding ways to express them more succinctly on paper. He has a high IQ, but lacks organisational skills - a classic Asperger's combination - so he is telephoned or sent text messages to make sure he gets up in time to attend lectures. He also has a robust and ready wit: he acknowledges that while he might feel he "needs a Jeeves" it is perhaps not the best way of referring to support staff. "Text messages are so incredibly irritating. A cattle prod would be better or one of those cranium video implants that the US military uses," he jokes.

He has struck up good relations with those at Bournemouth who assist him with his coursework. They include Patricia Ware and Julie Ovett, who help him with essay planning, encouraging him to develop a structured approach to his work. It appears to be paying off. Iain Hewitt, the disability contact in the school of conservation science and David's personal tutor, stresses how the help David is receiving underscores the Bournemouth approach to helping students with disabilities. "We are trying to level the playing field, not tilt it in his favour."

These students illustrate the point that every Asperger's student is different - and that to yield results, support packages must start with the student's needs. Palfreman-Kay, a strong advocate of the social model of disability, says there is nothing to stop Asperger's students from thriving in higher education if those needs are identified and met.

At Bournemouth, where 7 per cent of students have additional learning needs, the aim is to make disability a mainstream element of teaching and learning strategies rather than hive it off to student services - a view that chimes with best practice in the sector. Palfreman-Kay is almost evangelical in his zeal to ensure that students who have hidden disabilities - from Asperger's and epilepsy to mental-health problems - should feel that the university provides a safe environment to disclose their condition so their needs can be met. Last week, a student disclosed a mental-health problem at a summer school after Palfreman-Kay had urged people to come forward in confidence.

Hans Asperger, who first identified the syndrome in 1944, suggested that academia might be the natural environment for bright people with Asperger's, and other researchers have even suspected that the stereotype of the "absent-minded" professor might have been based on people with the syndrome. Bright students with Asperger's may have poor organisational skills, low self-esteem and difficulties with social interaction, but they can also have great strengths - such as diligent application to potentially groundbreaking research.

Palfreman-Kay is quick to acknowledge that he has been on a steep Asperger's learning curve since helping to provide support for David and James. Support from disability coordinators at other institutions made it easier to get to grips with the condition.

There may be only two known Asperger's students at the university, but awareness of the condition is spreading among academic and support staff. If more students come forward for diagnosis, the university will be primed to offer appropriate support. Asperger's can be a very subtle disability, says Justin Penney, from Prospects, part of the employment placement arm of the National Autistic Society. And, as James and David have taught staff involved in their support, Asperger's students, like others, are uniquely themselves.

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