“Why do we learn to work hard, but not how to mentally recover after all that hard work?” Audrey Ng-a-Tham (23) wonders aloud. Meanwhile, she fiddles with a green bean hanging on her key fob. Not a ‘real’ vegetable, but a kind of toy. She pushes out the peas one by one, after which they pop back into the bean. This movement helps her concentrate. As someone with autism, she works hard to manage stimuli and stress. However, study stress is a new challenge.

‘Breathing space’ is Audrey’s answer when asked how the university could become a better place for students with an impairment. Students need breathing space. “For example, a recovery week after your exams. I now have lectures the week before the exams, but the new module starts the week after.” Obviously, the university must be challenging, says Audrey, but now students discover their boundaries because they go far beyond them. “You need to look after yourself first, and then you can perform at your best. That’s something we need to learn, perhaps even back in secondary school.”

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On the ice rink, Audrey is completely herself, without anyone finding it odd

What is it like studying with an impairment? Often there are additional challenges and…

Doing well

Audrey is doing well. She beams when she says this because she hadn’t expected this when she was 16. “My fellow students keep me going. I could take longer for my studies, but this year is so much fun that I want to keep up. I feel that I’m accepted as I am.” Besides her Arts and Culture studies, she sometimes goes out for drinks, a meal, or to see a concert. “I’d always hoped for this. And now it’s happening, which is amazing.”

Now Audrey is an intern at the Bachfestival Dordrecht. “During a LinkedIn course I was advised not to mention that I am autistic when applying for a job, because it would increase the risk of discrimination. Later I did tell them, on the advice of the intern coordinator.” The response of the organisation was ‘super positive’, she says. Very little changed in practice, but if she has a problem, she feels safe enough to mention that. She finds work easier than studying. “Because there’s more output than input. There’s a lot to do, but I don’t need to learn all day.” During the festival, Audrey plays harp with the amateur orchestra. A dream come true.

Lava lamp and clarity

The fact that even students without autism need more breathing space is an eye-opener to Audrey. “They are currently experiencing the stress just as badly as I do. Welcome to my world, I thought when I heard fellow students discussing it.” It gets her thinking, because everyone apparently needs to learn how to manage stress. “Up to a certain level, you can learn to regulate stimuli. We autistic people know that better than anyone.”

Another thing that could help students with autism is more clarity. “I don’t just walk into the UL to study. The threshold is too high. The uncertainty about how it works is stressful. Other students just go in and work it out. I would like to read about what I can expect beforehand.”

The five students that EM is following this year have all sorts of ideas for improving education for students with disabilities and are discussing these ideas this month. Mid-July, rector magnificus Annelien Bredenoord will also be responding to their experiences and suggestions that they shared last year.