Student - July 7, 2011

Studying with autism

There are two student houses in Wageningen specifically for students with autism. The students receive professional supervision to help them organize their lives. 'I feel calmer now and have more of an overview.'

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There is a cleaning roster and a cooking roster hanging up in the kitchen. There is still some washing-up left over from breakfast by the sink. A room belonging to one of the residents looks pretty untidy. In other words, an 'average' student house. Or so it appears. But the Stumass house is different as all five residents have been diagnosed as autistic. People with autism are often intelligent but have difficulty with social contacts, changes and organizing their daily lives.
In this student house in the centre of Wageningen, they receive professional supervision.
The student house is the second in the town to be set up by Stumass (an organization for students with a disorder in the autism spectrum). In addition to Wageningen, the organization also has houses in other university towns. The initiator Johan Veenman and his colleagues have been helping autistic students since 2009, in the hope that they will eventually be able to look after themselves as much as possible.
On weekdays, there is somebody in the house eleven hours a day to assist the students in managing their lives. At other times, there is always a supervisor on call who can be reached by phone. Students can only get a place in one of these houses if they have a referral from the Care Assessment Centre.

No longer an overview
Renske, who is 24, has been living in the Stumass house since April. The Animal Sciences student was diagnosed as autistic when she was thirteen. 'I am in my sixth year at university but I am still doing my Bachelor's degree. If I have a lot of lectures or more than one subject in a particular period, I no longer have an overview of things. I have missed a lot of lectures, and when I did go I never got round to doing the reading afterwards.'
Prior to this, Renske was living on her own and receiving outpatient care twice a week from Stumass. 'I am perfectly capable of living on my own but I have difficulty planning things. I know that if I have a deadline for a report, I should not wait until the evening before to start on it, but I never managed to start earlier because I got too many external stimuli.' The two days of supervision were not enough to get her life back on track. 'I had a schedule then too, but it did not give me as much structure, so I started to postpone things again. Something had to be done if I was not to get even more behind.'
She notices that things have been going a lot better since she moved to the Stumass student house. She draws up a schedule together with supervisor Paul Stoffer or one of his four colleagues. They discuss it a couple of times a day to see how things are going and whether she is keeping to her agreements. 'Even being able to discuss things with someone helps enormously', says Renske. 'Otherwise I start having doubts and then I put things off again. I feel calmer now and have more of an overview. As a result I feel more at ease.'

Explosive
There has been an explosive increase over the past few years in the number of children with an autistic disorder. A report by the Health Council in 2009 says autistic disorders are perhaps to be found among one hundred in every ten thousand people in the Netherlands. Rather different figures were being reported thirty years ago: two to five per ten thousand. The Council says that the increase can be explained partly by the fact that psychiatric diagnoses have improved and are made more quickly than in the past.
Over the past few years, increasing numbers of children with an autistic disorder are managing to obtain their pre-university school certificate (HAVO or VWO). Stumass says this is due to the introduction of the personal budget for children with special educational needs in 2001. But if these children want to go on to study at university, there is no safety net for them to fall back on, says supervisor Paul Stoffer. 'Stumass saw an opportunity and took it. Most institutions only offer sheltered housing with very intensive supervision for the residents. But this is an intelligent group and most students don't need that. They want an understanding of their personality, an overview, predictability and a feeling of security.'

Overwhelmed by their studies
The supervision provided in the Stumass houses depends on the residents' needs, says Paul. That can be pretty extensive. 'Once, I cycled with a student to a sports society when they went there for the first time to play sport. Others become overwhelmed by their studies, especially during exams, and benefit from a schedule planning their work from hour to hour. But there are also students who just get up and go to lectures without any help.'
The students can stay in the house for up to six months after they have graduated or stopped studying. Then they look jointly at other options. 'The idea is that the students should be able to look after themselves as much as possible afterwards. All the supervision focuses on helping them develop. That is why students are only allowed to live in one of these Stumass houses if they are prepared to work on their personal development.'
If everything goes according to plan, Renske will get her Bachelor's degree this academic year. 'I am confident about one of my exams but the other one will be tough. Then I still have my Bachelor's dissertation, so I will have to work throughout the summer.' It is difficult to foresee what she will do when she has got her degree. 'It is generally quite difficult for people with autism to find work at their own level. I will still need predictability and a clear overview in my work, so I think I am more likely to do a small piece of research, for example, rather than manage an entire research project.'

Structured living
Stumass foundation was set up in March 2009 by Johan Veenman, when he noticed that the logical follow-up in care after secondary education was not being provided by the healthcare system. Veenman had spent many years in Wageningen working as a team leader at a centre of expertise for people with a disorder in the autism spectrum. He is convinced that living in a small group with people your own age who are also studying can give a structured home base for students with autism. Stumass now has 45 employees and 82 clients, spread over seventeen houses in eleven towns, including Nijmegen, Groningen, Leiden, Maastricht and Utrecht.
In Wageningen, Stumass has rented one building from Idealis since January 2010. The second house was opened in July of that year.  Currently, 31 people have applied for supervision by Stumass, sixteen of them for supervision in a student house. The eleven places the foundation has at present in Wageningen have all been taken.

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