My Higher Education Journey
Jeanette Purkis: I am an overachiever. I have a well-paid job, have written two published books, do a huge amount of work in the Autism world including speaking at all manner of conferences (such as TEDx and the Asia Pacific Autism Conference). I have almost paid off my mortgage and I only bought the property in 2008. I also have a Masters degree. People who meet me for the first time can be a little intimidated. I also have Asperger syndrome and a mental illness. In 1998 I was a homeless prisoner with drug problems and such a negative focus that I deliberately made choices resulting in negative outcomes. So how did I get from one spot to the other? Further education was the catalyst which helped me to move from desperate and destitute Jeanette to my current successful self.
I started university in 1993, doing a Fine Art course. The first day I stood in a crowd of forty or so of my fellow students. I was terrified. I had severe social anxiety and thought that the students all knew one another and would ostracise me before we even started the course. University was a stressful experience as I was intimidated by my colleagues and was obsessed with their success, thinking that I was far inferior to all of them. I was jealous and stressed. I was also very anxious and depressed and was self-medicating with marijuana. Had this happened at high school, I imagine one of the teachers might have noticed and spoken to my parents. But university was a vast sea of students and lecturers rarely performed a pastoral care role. Students were left to their own devices. Of course I failed to complete my degree and went on to live the dark and disturbed life I mentioned previously.
Five years later and I reenrolled in university. I was a different person - driven, motivated, positive, ambitious. University wasn’t quite as hard this time but I still felt alone in a vast world with no limits or assistance. I told the student services people that I had Asperger’s and asked if there was anything they could do to assist and they said all they could provide was a note-taker in lectures. This was apparently the only disability-related service available to students. I was quite happy taking my own notes in lectures and so received no assistance whatsoever.
I was mostly happy at university and enjoyed it but I had a couple of classes which tested my endurance and health. Once of these was a five-hour drawing class which involved intense concentration. Every time I did this class I became highly anxious and overloaded. It finished after dark as well and I hate coming home after dark. I was so overwhelmed by this class that I would hallucinate and become paranoid and have intrusive thoughts about violence. Of course these were more related to my mental illness than my Autism but it was very unpleasant. I didn’t tell the lecturer about this. I was easily the best student in the class so all they saw was my talent and success. I came top of the year but I was happier about the fact that I didn’t have to do the class any more than I was about the recognition and voucher for an art supplies shop that came with being top of the year.
Despite the difficulties, I loved university. I loved the academic rigour, writing essays, meeting interesting people and the fact that people thought I was a genius (I’m pretty sure I’m not). I went right through and got my Masters. A year later I joined the Australian Public Service as a graduate and have not looked back. For me, it was worth dealing with difficulties and challenges associated with study to get my qualifications. University and further study are the sorts of things that it is worth putting up with some difficulties in order to gain an outcome (i.e. a degree). An education is a great and valuable thing. Universities do good work, although there are some things they could do better to assist students on the Autism spectrum.
What worked for me at university?
- Reward for academic achievement
- Some lecturers being approachable and supportive around mental health and Autism-related issues
- Being treated as an independent adult
- Being appreciated by my colleagues for being an academic achiever, unlike in high school where my achievements contributed to bullying
- The variety of subjects available
- Having the opportunity to achieve and succeed.
What didn’t work for me at university?
- Almost no support around my Autism or mental illness
- Nobody being designated as responsible for the mental health and well-being of students
- No introductions at the start of the course - just being thrown in with a large group of other people I didn’t know
- No overt diversity policies or stated respect and support for people with disability
What could universities do differently?
- Provide more targeted disability support services (not just note-taking)
- Have an office responsible for the welfare of students with health conditions, disabilities and mental illness
- More visible diversity policies and activities
- Have a mentoring programme for students (not just students with disability but all students who need or want it)
- Have an orientation programme which isn’t just about beer and bands but which helps students get to know their colleagues prior to starting the course
- Build understanding about Autism with lecturers and administrative staff so they can help address any issues and understand the needs of Autistic students
- Consulting with Autistic people in designing buildings and facilities to ensure they aren’t a sensory nightmare
- Offering social and support groups for students and staff on the Autism spectrum and/or with disability or mental illness.