I was diagnosed with autism at age 37, a year and a half after beginning my fourth attempt at a college education. It took me a while to unpack where autism fit into my education background. Like a lot of newly diagnosed autistic people, I not only had occasional doubts about the accuracy of the diagnosis, I had trouble admitting that I did, in fact, have a disability.
“Some autistic people need accomodations, but if I used them I’d just be taking advantage of the system.”
After two years of having unused accommodations in place “just in case,” reality hit. I was struggling through fluid dynamics and in total denial of my situation. We had passed the time of virtual and recorded lectures, and I would sit in a packed classroom feeling the physical presence of 100 other people, hearing the shuffle of papers, the squeaking of chairs, every small cough, every clicking of a pen or tap on a keyboard. The clack of a door opening unexpectedly scratched the inside of my skull. The murmur of a hushed conversation had the texture of radio static and felt like rough carpet scraping up against my skin. Even the lights were loud. My professor’s lectures would float around me in strings of words and tones that refused to shape themselves into cohesive ideas.
The moment of clarity finally came during the first exam, when I stubbornly insisted that I could take it with the rest of the class instead of a dedicated quiet space. I was sitting in the back as far away from everyone as I could, but still close enough to hear the shuffling of papers of the young man sitting near me. It felt like sitting next to a squirrel trapped in a cardboard box.
If you know any neurodivergents, you’re probably familiar with the concept of sensory overload. Human brains are designed to continuously and automatically sort information based on its utility, urgency, and novelty. You didn’t notice the color of the shoes of the woman that just walked past you. You don’t remember the name of the person you met 5 minutes ago. You might have looked at the painting in the hallway you just walked by in the doctor’s office, but can you recall the subject? This selective filtering of nonessential information is important to our daily existence. The yellow umbrella on your container of salt should not be taking up as much of your mental bandwidth as the fact that your sink is running and nearly full.
Neurodivergent brains do not often filter this information well. Everything is given equal attention. Everything makes it through. Your brain isn’t quite sure if the clacking of a pair of heels in the hallway is more or less important than the conversation you’re currently having with someone you desperately need to speak to, so it’s just going to focus on both.
For someone experiencing sensory overload, the world is everything all at once.
We deal with this issue in different ways. Some of us wear headphones, some of us are comforted by pulling a hoodie over our heads. An entire mini-industry has popped up around offering us sound dampening ear plugs. Some of us remain centered with stimming, which can mean bouncing a leg, rocking back and forth, flapping or shaking hands, or what sounds like a verbal tic.
The experience of school can be overwhelming, and before we even set foot in the classroom we’re already at a disadvantage. But, it’s 2022 and I’m hoping we’re past the time of needing to list off a cast of diagnosed and suspected neurodivergents to support the claim that we are no less able to learn and do the work as our neurotypical counterparts.
A lot of neurotypicals bristle at the idea of these special treatments for disabled students. After all, you’ve had times when you couldn’t focus or couldn’t make it to class. Maybe you have trouble taking traditional tests even though you know the material. Or maybe you just have trouble understanding lectures. Why don’t you get these special accommodations? Well… You should.
Medical diagnoses for learning disabilities in the United States is tricky. The accommodations offered by most institutions and programs exist only for diagnosed medical conditions. And as long as we don’t all have equal access to medical care, those accommodations will be for the privileged. Even with medical insurance, the medical community has been slow to catch up to the research and many autistic people, particularly women, are being shut out of the diagnostic process. (Various reasons I’ve heard for discounting a woman’s suspicion that she may be autistic: She’s making eye contact, she’s living independently, she drove herself to the appointment, she’s an adult and only kids have it, or my favorite, she’s an adult and it only matters when you’re a child.)
The process of accommodations has by necessity created a system of disability gatekeeping, with universities having to rely on medical evaluations and then making judgment calls on what accommodations are appropriate for those who are able to get them.
Accommodations have been invaluable to improving access to education, but the future of accessibility will be in not needing to request it at all.
In the past, strict adherence to schedule and in person attendance was a necessity of educating thousands of students at once in an efficient manner. The strict adherence to the schedules required by educational institutions became a measure of moral character and a socioeconomic litmus test. The limitations of 20th century education favored the young, unmarried, childless, able bodied and, obviously, the well-off. Today we’re no longer bound to in-person classrooms and the technology to record, caption, and broadcast lectures is so widely available that most of us carry the necessary hardware in our pockets.
Most neurodivergents are largely in agreement in what could improve our educational experience. Flexible attendance policies. In person lecture options with captioned recordings. Clear and concise instructions. Quiet, private study spaces on campus. Professors that are familiar with the challenges of neurodivergent students.
You may notice that these aren’t things that are unique to the needs of autistic students. And that’s kind of the point.