Question of space
As World Autism Awareness Week is coming, I thought I would celebrate with a few extra blog posts during this time. For me, the point of a designated week can feel quite cheesy and odd and the word 'awareness' just alludes to knowing of presence, rather than learning and growing. However given the high profile of the week it is worth being a part of the growing movement, education and events that are going on.
This post will concern something that has been of hot debate currently in my university among students on the spectrum: quiet residences. This alludes to a small number of corridors or houses set aside for students who wish to live in a quiet residence; that includes lower sensory input like loud noises, music, bright or flashing lights coming from outside reflecting in to the room and complete quiet after a certain time. However it is not only behaviour that needs to be considered, the location of such halls or rooms needs to be such that those who wish quiet are not disturbed by others not in a quiet area and structural things like insulation also need to be looked at. Rather than me talking about the legal ins and outs, it is of much higher worth understanding why such provision may be required or is in demand. Some universities do have provision and others do not currently, and the provision of this kind of support and escape can be vital and can make or break a decision of choosing which university to attend. This is not the way it should be; all universities should provide equally high standard care, support and options to allow those who would register with disability services and other students who would benefit from such accommodation or support to choose the course rather than the institution.
I personally choose the institution closest to my home, as when I was applying for university I did not know if I would live in halls during the first year. There was a severe lack of information diluted to schools about student support in universities 7-8 years ago and I highly doubt this has changed due to the differing nature of support in universities and schools. I got no assistance in school at all, yet benefit from fantastic support groups/meet ups, a mentor to help me break down and plan assignments and targets and keep the lines of communication open to avoid breakdowns and a separate room to sit exams in due to high anxiety. This allows for me to really focus on learning and studying the way that is best for me.
Yet the one thing that is missing is somewhere quiet to escape outside of the academic buildings and student support areas. I think it is forgotten that disability or difference does not just disappear when you go back to your residence. A provision of one size fits all is unfortunate as it only provides for certain types of student: the sociable student, the student with more reserves to tolerate noise. For students who are hypersensitive to certain stimuli, like noise, and/or suffer with anxiety, having a place to recharge away from these stimuli is of paramount importance. One group of students this does include is students on the autism spectrum, including many who have sensory sensitivities and/or need to 'socially recharge' away from other stimuli; almost a means of escape to recharge. Some may be very anxious telling others to 'please be quiet as I am in pain/stressed' or 'I have an exam tomorrow and I need to be up early'. Some may be very anxious using shared kitchen facilities as they may bump into someone and feel really awkward about small talk, so not eat properly. Some may not be able to shut out sensory stimuli at night, so end up sleep deprived. Spending lots of time in a communal kitchen being very sociable when you need to recharge may be very draining. Communicating these needs is really important, however when you have no idea how to do it and you feel like an outsider, it can be very challenging. The phrase too much information really comes into its own here.
Obviously this are only case by case scenarios, and some on the spectrum are very lucky with who they are housed with or like me, live at home and commute. I consider myself very lucky to have the chance to live at home and drive in, especially as there is no where else really in the area in driving distance that does my course. But we must consider the effect on quality of life of those who are really struggling in their residence and want to do well on their course. Is this fair, when undergraduate students pay more than £9.000 a year for the privilege? As the awareness and global understanding of autism spectrum conditions and mental ill health increases, should we be seeking to be more inclusive and understanding of individual needs? The short answer is obviously yes. Especially as the advertised student lifestyle is that of noise, alcohol and being busy. We need to adjust our expectations of students and not just lump people together, obviously much easier said than done, but understand as the more people that speak up, the more urgent it becomes that we understand not one size fits all as a mentality as well as in practice.
Furthermore this can be taken further than residences - the building materials used can be problematic or the arrangement of of the space used. I have found newer building materials, with their open, hallow spaces, to be very echoey and painful. One example is going to Nando's, in a new unit built recently at the local outlet centre. When the restaurant is very busy, all I hear is white noise, meaning I cannot follow conversations. I find it very frustrating as going out for a meal is such a social occasion. Not only, if I go with a large group, do I not know where to follow or how to join in, but can't hear anything. I'd be intrigued to know if cost implications had anything to do with new building materials or just looking modern with no thought as to the practical usage. This is also the case with the new library extension at my university - all built with glass and metal, it echoes and light reflects everywhere on computer screens, causing no end of headaches. Are architects working with the building users for their needs, or only designing for the building users?