Studying with Autism/ADHD: What helped me pre-diagnosis

Student and Vice President Engagement Lou shares what supported her throughout her OU studies pre-Autism diagnosis.


After two years and eight months on an NHS waiting list, last month I was finally diagnosed with Autism (and additonally referred on for ADHD).

Autism is a life-long developmental disorder and thus, I have completed two years and four modules at The Open University as a self-diagnosed Autistic student but only this year have I been ‘official’ and able to apply for Disability Support.

I know that many students like me face long waits to be diagnosed and that living with undiagnosed Autism/ADHD can present challenges in life and study. I wanted to share what has really helped me and what it is about OU study that finally made finishing my BSc (after four attempts and three universities) achievable.

Please understand that this is my personal reflection about what resources and support have been helpful for me and this is simply to share ideas rather than to give individual advice. 

If you would like to seek more personalised study support advice, I highly recommend contact with your Student Support Team whose contact details can be found on your StudentHome.

Flexibility

I am in a constant battle with my energy levels and motivation. Living like this, it’s so easy to feel like you’re just not trying hard enough and to blame yourself for falling behind.

The truth of the matter is, our energy depletes much faster than those around us. Small tasks become mammoth; small distractions in our environment can feel unbearable, and social interactions can zap our energy completely.

The beauty of OU study is its flexibility, we can afford to rest, we can afford to save the forums for another day – without the timetabling of a brick uni we can choose what times/days we work best and additionally have ample opportunity to catch up on what we miss. OU study has allowed me to better balance my life and my energy reserves! Give yourself permission to listen to your brain/body and rest!

Forest app

Screenshot of the August Forest App with 26 virtual Oak trees. Image Credit: Forest App.

For those who follow me, it likely seems not a day goes by without me banging on about my virtual forest, but it really has been a game changer for me. Forest uses the Pomodoro technique, growing a virtual tree of your choosing (which can be labelled by activity) for every 25 minutes of uninterrupted study. It keeps me off my phone, it keeps me motivated and its built-in analytics allow me to see the days/times that I work best. It’s a convenient way to tick off your recommended hours of study too!

Wall chart/daily planner

The inner undiagnosed ADHD is definitely accountable for the stacks of unfinished projects, notebooks and planners that surround me in my office space. 

I have tried every sort of planner going, I have at least five times attempted to become a Bullet Journaler, only for my ever-growing box of washi tape to return itself to its rightful home of gathering dust on the shelf.

So what finally worked? An undated planner! Each page has a space for a goal, a to-do list and an hour-by-hour breakdown. I don’t have to fill out every day – I don’t have to plan out more than about a week in advance and it’s about as gloriously un-Instagrammable as you get with items stuck in, post-its haphazardly flung in and doodles all over.

The big change for me though was having a wall planner. I can see every upcoming TMA and even add a sticker for every one I submit. I can tick off the days I’ve survived and slowly watch my academic year drift away from existence. I can highlight the things I’m really looking forward to. I couldn’t live without my wall planner!

(Top tip: seek out a wall planner that is printed on non-laminated paper)

Peer Support

As many fellow autistics can probably relate, I have few friends and I am not very good at making friends but the online OU community has been a place of real support for me throughout my studies. Indeed, the kind words and encouragement of many were the very reason I stood for election in April and I now find myself the Vice President Engagement at the OU Students Association.

Spaces that I’ve found to be welcoming/supportive:

(Top tip: try searching #OUStudents or # your module code e.g. #MST124 to find other students)

Tutor support

I have had four of the most fabulous OU tutors I think The Open University has to offer. They have all been incredible. I have suffered with various health issues and personal difficulties along the way and keeping my tutor in the loop throughout has been essential to my continuation. 

There is no shame in requiring extensions or reaching out and asking for further support/signposting to further support. 

I genuinely could not have navigated this journey without them and I am so grateful.

Community spirit

Attending Association activities – everything from Conference to Bingo to Regional Meet Ups has made me feel a part of something bigger. 

(Top tip: See ‘Whats On’ on the OU Students Association website)

In a world where so often I feel isolated and like I don’t belong, the #OUFamily has created a space where I feel welcome and most importantly, welcome to be my authentic dinosaur and Lego-loving self.


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Lou Robinson

BSc (Hons) Open Degree 2020 PGCE Primary (School Direct) Student 2020/21 Aspiring Primary School Teacher with a keen interest in STEAM and Outdoor Learning.

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