Sandra's Story

To celebrate Disability History Month (18 Nov - 18 Dec), we're putting the spotlight on Sandra, a Royal Holloway Masters student. Sandra tells us about her autism diagnosis and how she has found her experience at university.

I'm 44 and am currently finishing a research-based Masters degree in Comparative Literature on genocides and comic books. I was born and raised in Belgium. 

I was officially diagnosed as autistic a couple of weeks after turning 40. I had known for at least seven years that it was definitely an avenue to investigate. I also suffer from fibromyalgia. 

It's very difficult to explain how different I am to neurotypical students or regular students because I've never been one. My experience has always been very different. So when I am asked ‘what would you require as an accommodation?', this is quite a difficult answer to give. 

What I can tell you is what difficulties I went through the first time I went to uni in Belgium to study a BA Hons equivalent in Communication & Anthropology with English. New city, new buildings, surrounded by completely new people, new schedule – very different from what I had known in secondary school. A lack of clarity about almost everything, having to discover everything by myself… I ended up depressed and suicidal. I don’t remember an entire year. And I ended up leaving halfway through the final exam period, without turning in my dissertation and taking the last exam. Only an admin loophole and change of regulations in Belgium got me my degree. 

I ended up moving to the UK to start ‘a new life’.

Second attempt: with the Open University. BSc Hons geosciences. Much better - I was able to pace myself, didn’t have to miss out on lectures, didn’t have to bear having to sit quietly for hours surrounded by people and noise and smell and lights, etc. I managed to study in my own time. It was still stressful, but overall a much better experience.

My third degree was also kind of smooth sailing, as it was much easier to deal with self-directed work.

I then did a PGCE in Geography with the University of East London. Incredibly tough. In-person studying and teaching. That’s when I had the official diagnosis of autism. But was told - isn’t it ironic - to not name it exactly as it might bring in prejudice.

Now I’m doing a research-based Masters at Royal Holloway. I’ll admit I only registered on it as it would allow me to continue studying almost by myself, with only one class perm term in person. I did enjoy that class - small group. But it was also extremely tiring as well - especially the commute. I still have issues with executive dysfunction, burnout due to the impact of my day job, illnesses (I literally will catch anything), and anxiety. I wasn’t even sure about the importance of ‘registering as disabled’. 

But then lockdown was in a way a blessing for me. It allowed me to take part in so many meetings and talks I would not have been able to do in person. Suddenly the world opened up to me. I could have access to everything from my couch, could leave when I wanted without feeling I had to give a reason. Also, as people needed to request to speak, it meant it was much easier for me to ask questions or give opinions - something almost impossible in classes. And everything became easier to follow as well. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t able to take trains etc. as it was all from my couch. I realised what the world could look like for me and registering as disabled could help me get some of the access needs and help I needed.  

For some of us, the lockdown was the first time we felt we were on an even playing field with other students. We need to realise that not everyone has the same issues, and we need to offer multiple opportunities for everyone to take part fully in uni life.