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Going to university with Asperger's syndrome

A supportive environment makes all the difference for new students with an autism spectrum disorder, says a recent graduate

Forrest Dunbar's avatar

Forrest Dunbar

September 2 2016


I meet with Susan, my mentor, once a week, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for two. We sit and chat about uni and life; it’s a chance to speak to somebody about any concerns I have or any anxieties I may be feeling. I have Asperger’s syndrome and I have just finished a degree in English Literature at the University of Bedfordshire.

Before I applied to university, I wanted to find somewhere that had particular support for a student with a condition like mine. My sense was that as a student with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) I might struggle to find a university that was particularly accommodating or welcoming towards students with a diagnosis such as mine. So I set out to research around the support that universities provided and was pleasantly surprised.

I chose the University of Bedfordshire simply because when I arrived on an open day, I recognised a supportive and friendly atmosphere. I turned to my mum and said, 'I have a great feeling about this place. I want to come here'. I wasn't disappointed.

Many people with an ASD feel like university won't be for them because they have a condition, but for me the experience was hugely enjoyable, thanks to the excellent support available. When I arrived for my first term, Student Support paired me with an academic and general mentor and introduced me to them at a welcome event specially designed for students with ASDs. This gave me the opportunity to explore the campus in more detail, to visit student accommodation and to meet other students with ASDs. It was interesting to see how the other students were feeling. Being asked personal questions about my Asperger’s is rare, but it was nice to talk things through with such a supportive group.

As I settled into university, I found making a study timetable helpful when coping with the growing workload. I decided to go to university to gain more experience in English Literature, the course looked fantastic and I thought if I turned down the opportunity of the course because of my Asperger’s it would have been a waste.

Studying English means a lot of reading, particularly when it comes to exam preparation. The University provided specialist equipment for my laptop from Sight and Sound, a technology company supporting people with sensory disabilities or visual impairments. This really helped me to keep up with the course.

Sometimes, the pressure of essay deadlines would get too much. But I knew that if I just dropped Susan, my mentor, a text she would be there to help me. Because university staff are very accommodating and understanding of students with particular needs, extensions can quickly be put in place, as well as extra time in exams.

Being a student with Asperger’s or any other condition might be a difficult challenge without a supportive team around you. My experience was extremely positive, and I was very grateful to all those who supported me. I now work for the university, helping to set up a programme of activities for new students with ASDs, to help them familiarise themselves with what university is like. As somebody who has been through university with an ASD condition, I’d like to think that my first-hand understanding would encourage other students to apply, because with the right support it can be a truly valuable experience.

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Forrest Dunbar recently graduated from the University of Bedfordshire with a degree in English Literature. As a student he appeared on ITV2’s Freshers programme and he is currently working at the University of Bedfordshire supporting young people with autism into higher education.

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