My name is John McDonald and I'm an aspergers/autistic adult, drifting lost in a world I'm just not a part of. For what it's worth, here is my experience at the University of New England. After a difficult autistic adolescence, in 1987 as a mature age student at the age of 30, I settled into an Arts degree with a Psychology major at the University of New England. A purpose in life.
But everything fell apart in 1991 in my final undergraduate year. The prerequisite to psychology honours was a largely unstructured subject called "advanced topics in psychology". One component required me to devise a research project and approach a staff member to supervise that project. Up until then I had never asked for assistance from a lecturer, nor had I formed any relationship with any staff member. As an autistic person who does not know how to have a normal conversation I did not know how to walk into a lecturers office and communicate this to them without feeling intensely awkward. I was sure that they would have far more important things to do and I would be just wasting their time. It was a confronting prospect that became an overwhelming obstacle.
So I read through endless literature at the library until I found a research project I though I could duplicate. I bit the bullet and approached the course coordinator with a brief outline of the project, explained that it was a duplication of something I had found in the library, and asked if he would act as my supervisor. I didn't hear from him again, so after working alone on this project for some months I found myself becoming more and more confused by my research results, impossible to interpret. Overwhelmed, In the end I had to hand in something, so I submitted a project were I plagiarised from the original.
It was then that my supervisor reviewed the original research project. So after neglecting to provide me with any supervision whatsoever, not one single second of assistance, and with no consultation or opportunity to state my case or defend myself, he announced to me that I had failed because of plagiarism and I was excluded from repeating this course, thus preventing me from continuing on to honours. I was grief stricken.
A year later I went back and finished my degree thinking that if I satisfied the entry requirements I would be considered for acceptance into another post graduate course without bias. This course was a one year external masters course in psychology. While this was a lesser course than honours, it was a pathway to a career in psychology and so an opportunity to salvage something from the wreckage. I applied for entry to this course twice. I was rejected both times with a simple 2 sentence letter stating that I was unsuccessful because no staff member was available in my chosen area of study. This is despite the fact that choosing an area of study was not part of the enrollment process, and despite the fact that I had completed the application for enrollment in full, in the office of its course coordinator to his satisfaction. So it became obvious, the university was determined to get rid of me. I gave up.
In all I spent 5 full-time years as an undergraduate and 3 more trying to right the wrong of the plagiarism episode.
My case highlights the fundamental difficulty faced by people with autism/aspergers. Autism is poison when it comes to succeeding in the neuro-typical centric education tradition where assessment of knowledge, ideas and concepts is based on written essays and written reports. I can do it, but its hard work. I have plenty of ideas but my thought process is very scattered. The plagiarism was simply a total capitulation due to autism/aspergers related deficits in communication, in interpersonal skills, in imagination (I find it impossible to paraphrase), in initiative, in reading and essay writing, in confidence...in everything really. I often liken it to putting a chair in front of a blind person then punishing them for tripping over it. Imagine if things were reversed, where neuro-typical thinkers were required for assessment purposes to express their knowledge of concepts and ideas in a way that is not consistent with their natural cognitive process. I doubt that any could do it. This neuro-typical or nothing attitude of teachers and academics is simply cruel.
I have spent the last 30 years working as a shop assistant and driving Taxis. Despite all my efforts I just can’t seem to get anywhere. I’m currently Taxi driving earning about $12.00 an hour. What a waste. One thing though, I'm not alone. Because I work in a low paid menial job, I work with a disproportionately high number of people with autism/aspergers, all with a common story of how they were consigned to the autism scrapheap, marginalized by a hostile education system, by unwelcoming teachers insensitive to the notion of inclusion (ironically in my case a teacher of psychology).
So many autistic people are at least the intellectual equal of any university academic. I am certain that many of the really great minds of this world have been autistic/aspergers minds. I find it ironic that the very thing that makes autistic minds remarkable, the difference in cognitive process, is the very thing that leads to their educational demise at the hands of neuro-typical teachers.
The system has failed me, ignorance is everywhere. When I needed help I was instead punished, education has delivered me a cruel outcome. I had the same hopes and aspirations as everyone else, yet I have ended up in dead-end, low paid jobs, struggling to develop any sense of self-worth and positive self image. Needless to say, I am haunted by my experience at the University of New England.
Years ago a friend told me that I have a brick wall around me. A psychologist once told me that while that brick wall cannot be dismantled, he could help me to peek over the top of it, that there was some hope that my life could be defined by more than autism. I cannot stress enough the despair I felt when the University of New England summarily sentenced me to the educational death penalty, the death of all my hopes. In doing so the University of New England put its own brick wall around me, another barrier preventing me from ever having the opportunity to participate in community and life in the same way that everyone else around me takes for granted.