No feeling for non-verbal communication, difficulty keeping your eye on the 'big picture'... It's not easy studying for a degree if you have an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). But a group of VHL students in Leeuwarden are soldiering on with the support of the deans and fellow sufferers. 'I sometimes feel insecure and misunderstood.'
For the past year at Van Hall Larenstein in Leeuwarden, students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have been meeting weekly with student dean Tine de Jong. The student group was set up last year and is usually attended by six students. They get advice and support from the dean's office, which also looks into any obstacles they encounter and checks whether they require specific facilities or adjustments to the teaching programme. If an ASD student asks them, deans will also give information about autism to fellow students and lecturers.
People with ASD have difficulty interpreting non-verbal signs and social codes. Empathizing with others can also be a problem. ASD comes in various degrees and forms, including PDD-NOS and Asperger's syndrome.
Mark Dees (26), Animal Management second year
'I know everything about felines'
'I sometimes say: autism can be a handicap but you don't have to see it as a handicap. I set up the ASD student group last year with Tine. The aim is to give each other support. I didn't know whether there were any other students here with ASD in my year, so I sometimes felt lonely. Then I met others at a college autism theme day. I now know I am not the only one.
Autistic people are honest and don't beat about the bush. But sometimes I feel misunderstood and insecure because you can't communicate so smoothly with other people. I sometimes say, even though we both speak Dutch, I still don't understand you. I don't pick up on non-verbal behaviour. Here at college there was a group of girls I kept trying to communicate with. Every time I saw them, I said hello! I didn't realize they weren't interested. That is typical of autism - you don't get the hints. Another characteristic is that autistic people often focus on one subject and know everything there is to know about it. My speciality is felines. I sometimes understand animals better than people. Fortunately I find learning easy - I am quick to pick things up. I do need a clear structure, though. I sometimes find it difficult to see the system in lesson materials or timetables but then I keep looking until I understand it.'
Marianne van Zanen (26), Environmental Sciences fifth year, member of the student council for the past four years
'Avoid metaphors and sarcasm'
'I have difficulty with non-verbal communication. As a result I can seem quite blunt when I don't mean to be. It can be quite chaotic in an autistic person's head. Too many new impressions and stimuli can cause stress, as can having to organize a lot of things. I am not always good at distinguishing between key issues and secondary matters, and often don't have an overview. A pitfall among autistic people is immediately going into details in a conversation. I have written a brochure about ASD, which I handed to Aalt Dijkhuizen last year. I included tips for lecturers such as avoiding figurative speech, idioms, metaphors and sarcastic remarks. Many autistic people don't understand them because they take things literally. Use unambiguous language, introduce structure in lectures, make clear agreements and document them. These are all essential for autistic people and useful for other students. I advise students with autism to tell their mentor and student counsellor. You will be doing yourself a huge favour. You get an extra half hour for exams. Another tip is to find a study mate, someone in your class who can help you plan your studies.'
Giel van Ommen (20), Environmental Sciences first year
'I prefer to stay in my own world'
'I'm quite selective about who I tell that I've got Asperger's. It depends on the situation and the individual. I don't like telling people because it gives you a label. A classmate I asked to pipe down said: ‘Oh yeah, you've got problems concentrating, right?' I prefer people to think: that's just the way he is. I am me. I am different but that doesn't make me worth less. For the past two years I have been living in a student house in Leeuwarden with supervision for me and the seven other students, who are also autistic. We share cooking and cleaning duties and we eat together. I have a chat with my supervisor there once a week. It is a step towards living completely independently. My degree is not going so well. I find it difficult to get started on my studies. I have trouble planning and organizing things. I have missed quite a few classes through not checking for timetable changes on the Internet. I find them incomprehensible. I don't have much contact with other students on my course. I sometimes take the initiative to start a conversation but I find it difficult to judge other people's mood. I prefer to stay in my own world.'
Babette van Berkel (20), Animal Management second year
'I do have self-confidence'
'I don't process information as quickly as other people. The problems started during my final exams at school. To my surprise I was diagnosed as autistic. I am quite a down-to-earth person. For example, if somebody is unhappy I would like to cheer them up but I don't know how. I find it difficult to start a conversation at parties. As soon as I try to say something in a group, someone else has got in there before me. But I do have self-confidence. The group of ASD students is very friendly. Meeting up is nice. You understand each other better and think similarly. We swap experiences and tips. My degree is going well. The disadvantage of ASD is that you don't easily make contacts in a larger group. I usually tell people I've got ASD. It is useful for an autistic person to have someone else repeat things. I ask fellow students sometimes whether they'll check I have understood something properly. They don't mind that. An advantage of being autistic is that you spend longer thinking in depth about things. On the other hand, an autistic person tends to focus on the details and lose sight of the big picture. My tip for other autistic people is: be yourself, don't pretend to be someone else.'