Friday, June 3, 2011

University Life - Part 1

I was recently asked about how aspergers affected my university experience and I realised that I haven't talked about it at all. This is my attempt at correcting the oversight. It will probably take a couple of posts but hopefully I won't bore you too much with my past.

My University experience falls into two categories; full time and part time.

I started university full time at UTS Sydney doing Civil Engineering but it wasn't exactly "my"career choice. To be honest, a year or two prior I had no idea of what an engineer was - and even while doing the course, the details were pretty sketchy.

There were a couple of reasons for the choice. First of all, I was in a group of six boys at school and five of them were going on to do engineering. My father, a naval architect, was keen on engineering as a career and almost nobody thought it would be a bad idea. I say almost nobody because the school librarian thought it was the wrong choice and she knew me better than anyone.

As it happened, I got the marks I needed to get in, so I chose the path. Along the way I did a bridging course in Physics and Chemistry to pick up some subjects that I had missed - that was the first obvious warning sign.

Motivation and Organisation Issues
I'm always stressing the importance of the special interest to the life and career choices of aspies. My engineering life was a perfect demonstration of this. If an aspie isn't interested in a subject, they'll have trouble understanding it, spending any time on it and retaining information about it. That was the case with me and engineering.

I was able to do the work, aside from the maths which I found pointless and dull but a week or two after studying a particular body of work - it was gone. Totally gone.

Then there were the organisational issues. I had gone to a Catholic school which constantly reminded students about assignments, homework and study. At university, there were no such reminders, no clarifications - nothing. I missed all of my deadlines without knowing that they were there. In fact, I was so disorganized that I missed more than half of my exams. I can remember sitting on a train station and realising that my mathematics exam was half over. It wasn't a great moment.

The only thing I enjoyed about engineering was the computers. I used to visit the lab frequently but not to play games. I just loved playing with the applications - it was my special interest. In fact, I quickly began writing applications to open back doors in their system to give me more access to other programs. I didn't realize that it was a "bad thing" at the time.

I had no friends - I can't remember a single classmate's name or face and in the end I only lasted one semester (half a year).

I got a report card in the mail and it said that I failed everything - everything that is, except computing. For that I got a distinction.

The Aftermath
I had never failed anything in my life before so the failure triggered massive bouts of depression which lasted for months. I sensibly refused to give things another go and my mother, more sensibly refused to let me lay around the house - insisting that I get a job.

My mother arranged interviews for me for various jobs and made me do things with my life. In the meantime, I enrolled in a community typing course (which I've never regretted). The typing course was all on electric typewriters but it got my hands correctly positioned for the keyboard.

More importantly though, the other people doing the course with me were "everyday" people off the streets. They weren't teachers, they weren't students at a Catholic school doing everything according to strict rules and moral codes and most importantly, they weren't all academics or engineers. I learned more about general life and people in a couple of months at the course than I had in years of school and sport.

I never managed to finish the typing course because my mother got me into a temp agency which quickly allocated me a job. In the meantime my mother was constantly searching the newspapers and coercing me to find a permanent job. I remember my mother putting me through the bank tests (a whole day of maths and English testing) and interview process and I would have gotten the job but I suddenly realized that I didn't want it. I literally awoke to the realization that I needed to follow my special interests during the interview process. I "threw" the interview by telling them that I wanted a high-level computing position but that was just so they'd let me out.

Then I started looking for jobs around my interests, of computing and reading and my strengths of sorting, categorizing and searching. When a library assistant position became available, I jumped at the chance.

Things to Take Away
The most important thing to take away from all of this is, once again;
  • Aspies MUST follow their special interests. That is the only path to a successful career.
Other critical things to note:
  • University life is significantly different from school life. Aspies will not automatically adapt to the changes (such as; shifting timetables, lack of teacher interest in students and lack of reminders about assignments). Parental intervention/teaching is required. (You need to go through your grown child's things and teach them how to look for deadlines).

  • Organisational skills are expected by university. Parents, make sure that your aspie has a calendar and is using it. Make sure that they have other organisational tools and know how to use them.

Next time, I'll look at my second attempt at university.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, very interesting post. My girls are still very young, but as a parent Im always thinking of their future, and I assume uni might be part of that. Im curious though about how to pursue a uni course based on a special interest, when that 'special interest' isnt necessarilty academic? My elder girls 'special interest' is food - eating and talking about it, but not preparing or cooking it! Others assume she is going to be a chef, but we know differently. What do you suggest for those with 'special interests' that are a bit 'left of centre' or incredibly 'niche'?

Stacey @ Entropified said...

I really appreciate this post. My Aspie son just graduated from high school (valedictorian too) and was going to go away to school until we realized it was just going to be too overwhelming for his first year. I like that you spoke of continued parental involvement. He's 19, and a part of me wants to let him "grow up" and figure stuff out, but I have to accept that it would actually be cruel to throw him, so to speak, into the deep end. He's come a long way and I see the road before him as a a continual process. Thank you for the encouragement.

Gavin Bollard said...

@Anonymous, that sounds like a potential career in Nutrition to me.

You don't have to follow the special special interest exactly. In fact, whenever you can widen it, you should take the opportunity. Consider fitness/health teaching, naturapathy and related subjects.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this story.
Your sounds very similar to what happened to my father. He started Engineering only to last a semester. He went on to become a programmer back in the days when IBM used to train regular folks to operate their main frames. That became his special interest, and to this day at almost 70, his line of work.

Anonymous said...

@anonymous---what about some sort of job where she eats food and reviews/talks about it?

Danette said...

Gavin, this is timely for me. As my daughter is approaching 14, I am thinking more and more of the future and what would be a good fit. Your insight is invaluable. Thank you!

Laura Efinger said...

Hi, this is such an informative blog and I am happy to share it on my website: Child Development Club at

I am an OT and always enjoy finding these blogs to pass along to parents!


The Rambling Taoist said...

I see some similarities with my college experience, though there also are dissimilarities.

I was good at organizing each course, but had a terrible time organizing -- multi-tasking -- amongst the courses.

I initially declared a major of wildlife biology; I wanted to be a Forest Ranger. However, I soon discovered that biology and chemistry made about as much sense to me as Martian. So, I switched to a double major of Sociology and Journalism.

Throughout my college career, I've earned 3 degrees: 2 Bachelors and 1 Masters. In all that time, I never lived on campus in a dorm. I always commuted from home. The idea of living in an unfamiliar and unstructured environment didn't appeal to me, though this meant that I missed out on many aspects of the college experience.

To earn my first degree, I lived 45 miles from campus with my mom. I enjoyed the drive home each night because it allowed me solitude -- a way to decompress from having to be around too many people all day!

Anonymous said...

I'm really glad you shared this. I could relate to this A LOT you have no idea. 4 months before enrolling for College, I was all set on taking up Engineering because my father studied architecture and both my older siblings were taking up Civil Engineering courses so I felt it was the right thing to do.

But then I rediscovered photography at a science fair and things took a different turn from there. College was brutal. You already know that. I've missed exams as well and when I started to drop a class, everything went downhill from there.

I didn't attend classes because I was lazy, very contrary to popular belief. I didn't wanna go because I couldn't understand a thing! It was dreadful for me. I got depressed I didn't want to get up nor sleep because if I slept it meant I had to get up.

When I went back home to live with my parents after some time during college, things went better because my mother was so supportive. I've only excelled in two major fields, photography and film, everything else was a blur. And so far, those are the only things I am capable of doing. I can't stand the thought of even working in a cubicle the whole day.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, I lived this.

I didn't know Asperger's existed at the time. At the time, no 4-year degrees were offered in what is, I suppose, my "special interest" - at least, not at any University I could get into.

Motivational and organizational issues from hell.

I've since earned a 2-year degree through a community college and found a career in IT that suits my interests and doesn't force me to continue University learning. Luckily, I get to focus all the 'self-improvement expectations' the managers insist we have on -practical- stuff that I actually have need for in my job.

Miguel Palacio said...

I can also relate to this and would also extend it to include the job one does afterwards. I did well in my field of Electronics Engineering, which was my special interest, especially as it pertained to electronics communications. ...until things went into abstract theory with no sense of real-life applications. At that point I became very frustrated and began repeating subjects as I felt I was learning pure math for the sense of pure math. I did much better with applied math as I found it was math with a purpose. So, to make a short story long I joined the air force one a job was guaranteed to me in the area of Space Communucatiins. This is not usually the way the story goes. One does not usually get to pick, except I did exceptionally well in my tests. Then, when I was sent to technical school I could practically teach all the subjects, except for one type of subject for which I absoluteky had a phobia: Digital Communucations and Circuit Logic. I swear to you I had such an aversion it was as tho a cat to water. Almost like wearing a scratchy sweater!

But, I was so so so lucky to have had thus gentleman, Guy Cassidy, as my awesome instructor. He appealed to my sense of logic in special sessions after class and showed me how digital circuits were like logic and he introduced me to Boolean Logic. He led me to overcome my phobia and today I am doing very well in the area of Space Communucations Technology! I owe it to him for having recognized that I excelled at everything else but that I irrationally was phobic of a particular subject matter. It wasn't that I didn't have interest in that subject. It was more like a fellow autie I know who is deathly afraid of buttons. My instructor eased me through the transition and now it is no longer a challenge. And that's good because everything nowadays is digital!!