The time of your life - the ERASMUS experience

I feel like I need to write a huge disclaimer before I get started. I am a huge supporter of the ERASMUS scheme; it allows for many great opportunities and personal development, you can travel, study and try things you have never tried before. You get to see education in a different culture and live a different lifestyle. However some people do not have the time of their lives, sometimes out of their control and others are glad they did it but would never repeat the experience. I also feel it is important to say that all parties involved with my exchange, including myself, were new to sending a student with a hidden disability which impacts on all areas of life, namely autism. I was I believe one of the first students that had ever taken part at my university on the ERASMUS programme (the first actually), mainly because it was mandatory on my programme. Because no one had done this before, no one had any inkling of the potential issues that could occur or that would occur. I have to be honest, if I knew I would be eating 2 cold meals a day and living out of a suitcase in a hotel I wouldn’t have agreed but I’m am so glad I had this experience, mainly because it was one of the driving forces of why I want to work in student support. I have been there, I have seen the differences in provision and I want to support young people through their university career, whether in the UK or abroad and I want to help. I do not wish to moan or berate where I went, so I will not be mentioning where I went or to what country. This is merely a educational reflection on ERASMUS as an autistic person  and cross-cultural views of autism.

My ERASMUS story starts about four years ago while I was studying for my first degree. I was nowhere near as self aware and aware of what my needs were. I never considered myself, like now to an extent, to have a disability: I was bright, in university, enjoying studying for a degree in two languages. I always knew I was nervous and introverted but never knew what I needed - I’d let stress boil over, bottle up how I felt and stick my head in the sand at problems (this is where I only went to one university open day because there was too much information and choice). I guess the first warning signs were when I needed to talk to the team who handled the exchange process because I had a disability, The lady I spoke to, her face dropped when I told her I had a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. I had never considered there may be a problem with me doing ERASMUS - I had done everything else that everyone else did before, why should this be a problem? I had never thought of myself in terms of limits as an individual and holistically considered what may be a challenge and how I should tackle this.

Getting used to a different organisation system where things aren’t online and people may not respond as quickly to emails as you may like is a steep learning curve. The first warning signs that things were not so under control was accommodation dealings with the delightful accommodation people. I emailed to confirm a few questions after having been told I had applied for the wrong type of room (easily done to be honest when everything’s in a foreign language!) and wanted to check some details. I received an email shouting at me. In capital letters. Telling me not to email twice in one day (even though the team at my university had advised me to get answers to my questions). This posed as a brilliant first impression! Needless to say I then was shell shocked and a nervous wreck - I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t focus, I tried to block Although I have a lifelong experience of anxiety, this is the most intense and most debilitating it had ever been and I could not manage this situation. I wasn’t perceiving the world as I should have been.

Then after I left I felt as if everything was going wrong (although being a keen traveller now I know late transport is normal): delayed trains, missed connections, arriving somewhere never been before.. Accommodation with brown walls from filth and a hole in the floor. Trying to find somewhere new to live, orientation week, lots of new information, different style of teaching (much more like school, urgh), new people, new transport to get the hang of. Not one single thing I could focus on but rather multiple things I had to juggle with. Completely normal when you move country but when you only have so much energy, especially ‘social energy’ and attention and anxiety all over the shop, even more of a challenge.

I think the most difficult thing, or most challenging thing I had to deal with, was the understanding of autism in my target country. They had been informed by my home university that I ‘came with extras’ and it had been agreed that I would continue mentoring over there face to face like I had at my home institution (see Transitions re support at university). I was told: we can help you with your coursework, we can give you easier tests, we can help you understand things… for someone who is a university student with an IQ of 140, I was quite taken aback by this. I said I didn’t need this help, thanks. But when I said I do need help finding somewhere to live (the sort of emotional support my mentor in the UK would have at least sat and listened to me about)... oh no we can’t do that. I feel this in a way shows the differences in understanding of autism and hidden disabilities. It’s almost as if I was just a bit dense so had been lumped with a label to compensate and that autism was understood to be like a ‘learning disability’... which it isn’t, if you look at the definition, although learning/intellectual disabilities may run alongside it.

I still remember going to register in the equivilant of our student support services in the UK. I was the only short term ERASMUS student registering in this small office just off the tramline B and C. The person who ran it got confused why I was there. I felt like I was wasting my time there, I had only gone to register after all! From this lady, I remember getting the vibe very much that your disability had to be seen to be recognised, that I was making fuss so I could get special treatment. I also had to be registered with a GP too… again the face I got when I turned up with all 20 pages of my DSA assessment in English regarding something that she was not specialised in and that she wasn’t quite sure why she was seeing me (it was a GP surgery when I already had a diagnosis, but I needed this letter to give to them team in the host institution regarding the exchange). I can really empathise with people in the UK who get sent from pillar to post between varying clinicians with no end to appointments and waiting lists after this experience.

I eventually got this letter, can’t even remember what it was called now to be honest other than the fact I needed to hand it to the exchange team. I also eventually found a place to live too with another student. But by the time I had found somewhere to live I felt numb, I did not feel joy. I felt empty, drained and broken. By that time the damage had been done. It’s a real shame because I always wanted to live abroad even if for a short time. But what I did bring back is how much needs to be done, how unfair the playing field is, how vulnerable ‘vulnerable adults’ actually are and how important knowledge and preparation are, and most importantly a willingness to openly communicate across borders regarding hidden disabilities, notably autism. I guess in a way this was the first step to me wanting to speak out, encourage, educate and change as I saw a glaring need right in front of me. I had never considered this path before, and I almost see it now as the first door opening to my current career path and the first door closing with a career in languages. It was also when my faith became so much more important.

And the advice I'd give? Don't not do it. But do ask lots and lots of questions. There is only one of you and you need to look after yourself. Summer schools etc exist too if you do not think you will cope on a long term exchange but wish to give it a go. The best thing I can advise is ask questions, be upfront and honest and insist on clear communication and most importantly to look after yourself.

Take care


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