The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Gareth D Morewood

University beckons: continuing the journey to independence

Ellen shares lessons learned around applying for university as an autistic adult, including the importance of deadlines and DSAs.

In Ellen’s last post on becoming an autistic adult she shared her aspirations to attend university and how she was preparing for that on a personal level.

Now Ellen returns and shares her experience of tackling the application process and ensuring she has the best support in place.

Ellen’s story: starting to look ahead

Last year, on the first lesson back after the Christmas holiday, my class had the standard ‘this time will pass much faster than you expect, so it’s time to start thinking about where you’re going next’ speech. I’d only been at college for a term, it was 9am, three classes had been merged into one and it seemed a bit boring, so I didn’t pay much attention. That was probably a mistake but at least it worked out ok in the end.

After the speech we started researching our different options, things like apprenticeships, gap years, getting a job and university. This was the start of what has led to now being scheduled to start university at the end of September (pandemic permitting).

University options

I was certain that I wanted to go into forensic science, which made one decision easy, but other than that I wasn’t really sure. It seemed pretty likely that I would have to go to university, but I did look into other options like internships, which are quite rare in that field (unsurprisingly). Therefore, I had to start looking at universities.

We had quite a lot of ‘fairs’ and things, where a representative from different universities would come and talk to students, hand out prospectuses and so on. This gave you some ideas of some of the universities that are around instead of just typing random towns and cities followed by the word university into a search engine.

To be blunt – some places are much better than others

Another way to identify some potential places would be to search for a course you might like to do and university; it will hopefully come up with a top 10 type list that will show you some good universities for that subject.

Something I noticed is that the websites tell you a lot about the nightclubs and awards they’ve won up front, but if you want to find out about the support available then you will probably have to use the search option and do more research. While researching I found that information for autistic students was rare, and you had to go through about 1000 websites and pages to find anything useful. They are required to have some kind of assistance for students with additional needs, but to be blunt – some places are much better than others.

Visiting in person

Over the summer I was able to visit some potential universities and took pictures of each one while I was there. By visiting the universities I got a feel for what it would be like to live there, and if I liked the surrounding area.

For example, one was in Liverpool; I liked the course and the facilities of the university, however you had to walk through the city centre to get to them. I found this quite overwhelming as it was busy and loud and I have trouble navigating (not that we were expected to find our own way around on the trip, but I would if I attended that university). I visited another university and decided I definitely did not want to go there, which is good because it meant I didn’t waste time doing any more research into that place.

The UCAS process and personal statement

In September when I went back to college we started doing applications and filling in UCAS. It’s really important to keep a note of the details it gives you because you can’t log in with a username, you have to use the personal ID which is just a series of numbers. Although we were doing this in form time I did a lot of it at home to make sure I filled it in with the correct details and so my parents could check it over and make sure I hadn’t made any obvious mistakes.

Writing the personal statement was the hardest part of this for me; everything we wrote sounded arrogant and a little pretentious, which is kind of what they want, but without it actually being arrogant or pretentious!

The best thing to do is to try and write it around traits that are related to the course you’re applying for. I searched a list of personality traits for a forensic scientist, then went through that list and found the ones I knew I had (precise nature) and then I backed it up with evidence (because I am autistic).

You don’t have to mention your additional needs, but if a trait or characteristic from it is beneficial to your course then it might be something to consider putting in. You should also use evidence from things you’ve done, for example I backed up the fact that I can work in a team by saying that I do so at Guides.

Deadlines and details

When you are doing this make sure to pay attention to when your college’s (or wherever you’re studying) internal deadline is. This will be before the UCAS deadline because they have to ‘referee’ it, meaning they have to write a short piece about why you would be a good student for them to take on. My college weren’t very clear about this so I only found out about it the day before the deadline.

Also be aware that they ask for some things I didn’t even know existed, like a BTEC registration number. After this there’s not a lot for you to do for a while; you will get notified if you get any offers but some take longer to come in than others.

Although it may seem a little excessive, it is around this time that we started buying things I needed. Not only does this avoid big, stressful shopping trips later on, but it means that I can picture at least some of how it’s going to look when I get there.

We bought some stuff that is pretty much a replica of what I have at home, for example we found bedsheets that are the same as what I have now only bigger to fit on the bed. This gives a little familiarity so it doesn’t all seem completely new when I get there. I also started making meals for my family, building up to doing it on my own as I will have to do it everyday soon enough.

Student finance and the disabled student allowance

Around April is a good time to start doing your student finance, and when you do you should check if you qualify for Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs). Most ‘long term’ conditions quality and it means that if there’s something you would need so you have an equal chance to everyone else then they will cover the cost of it.

Despite what we expected the application was suspiciously easy: we ticked a box saying we wanted to apply for it, then they put the forms onto my student finance account to fill out. We filled them out, attached the evidence (I used my ADOS report, but you can get letters from doctors or other forms) and then they organised the needs assessment.

They came up with some things we hadn’t thought of, like having an extra budget for printing and photocopying

When I first heard that I thought that meant they were going to test me and make sure I really do struggle with things before they offer to help, but actually what happened was a video call (post pandemic it would potentially be face to face) in which the assessor went down his list of questions about how my diagnosis may impact my university course, and I told him about what would happen.

They have a standard list of questions they have to ask, which means some really didn’t apply to me (like questions relating to mobility) but some were likely to be big problems (like my lack of legible handwriting) so he went into more detail on this. Then he went through his list of suggestions, sent some demos for software he thought might help and wrote his report.

They came up with some things we hadn’t thought of, like having an extra budget for printing and photocopying so I can get information and take it back to my room to work, rather than having to stay in the library. They also allocated mentors, made suggestions for exam arrangements, paid subscriptions to an app that will help me and even made suggestions about what room I should be in, and where it should be to make sure it’s quiet. I would suggest looking into DSAs to make sure you get the support you need.

What next?

Now I am ready to start at university and will be writing an update when I have the chance after a term or so…. but hopefully what can be a very daunting process of applying in the first place can be eased a little from my experience. 

Catch up on Ellen's previous blogs

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