Finding an inclusive community at RGU – my journey with Asperger Syndrome and dyslexia

Communication Design student Hannah was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome and dyslexia as a child, but that never stopped her from dreaming of graduating university. She shares how RGU accepted her and offered support to help her succeed.

When did you get diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome and dyslexia?

I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome when I was nine years old. A year later, when I was 10, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. Ever since I was three or four years old, my mum always thought there was something different about me. I wouldn’t socialise well with other kids and I was a bit isolated. She thought about having me tested before I started primary school, but that just never happened.

Then, once I began primary school, my parents and teachers noticed something else. They saw that I struggled with reading and spelling. Before getting officially diagnosed, there was a bit of a dispute going on. My mum had actually just split up with my dad, which meant that the psychologists, doctors and teachers believed that I was just affected by my parents going through a divorce. But my mum explained that this had been going on for years and years, way before the divorce.

I think I’ve just always known that I had these difficulties, and that I was different from other children.

How did your conditions affect you at school?

I felt really isolated for many years, particularly with my Asperger Syndrome. But not as much with dyslexia. They had a group at my primary school with other dyslexic kids where we would get extra help with reading and spelling. There were a few of us there so I realised I wasn’t alone in this. But in terms of Asperger Syndrome, it was just myself and one other person and it wasn’t really understood back then unfortunately. People just saw me as this weird, quiet, awkward girl that had trouble spelling and reading.

As I went into secondary school, I did get the help that I needed. They had departments for children with additional needs. Some suffered from ADHD, others had learning difficulties or behavioural issues. I got help with my studies and also support on how to integrate in society.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve improved a lot and it feels like my Asperger Syndrome is very minor now. And I am also a lot better with reading and spelling. The difficulties are still there and can still be a problem at times, particularly when I’m trying to read a large paragraph and try to make sense of it. But as I’ve entered early adulthood, it’s become a lot easier to manage and cope with.

Why did you decide to come study at RGU?

I’ve just always been quite ambitious, and knew that I wanted to do big things. I’ve always had a passion and a talent for art. As I got older I saw, and all those around me saw, that I had potential. Many of my teachers were recommending, particularly the art staff, that I should try to enrol at the Gray’s School of Art at RGU. They believed in me and thought I was good enough to be accepted. So I applied in my final year of secondary school.

I was actually worried that I wouldn’t be accepted because of my difficulties. I thought that they would see me as a nuisance, because that’s really how I felt people saw me, particularly in primary school. Teachers would get frustrated with me because I would always be sticking my hand up saying “What is this?”, “What does this mean?” “How do you spell this?”.

That’s why I also applied for college as a backup, just in case. But, in the end, I got a conditional offer from RGU. And by the time I sat my exams and got the grades I needed, I was in. That meant a lot to me because it showed that they thought I was capable of studying at university despite my learning difficulties.

How do you feel now that you are studying at RGU and what kind of support are you receiving?

I realise now that having dyslexia and Asperger Syndrome doesn’t make me a nuisance, it just makes me different. People here see me as a regular student!

When I arrived at the university, I just wanted to see if I could cope by myself without support. What I found during my last few years of secondary school was that I didn’t need as much help as I did when I was younger. I did end up reaching out to the Inclusion Centre at some point when I was struggling with deadlines coming up. I like to talk through my work with someone else if I’m feeling a bit under pressure or if I have to go through lengthy texts. They just look like a jumble of words to me and I have a hard time making sense of it without some help.

The team at the Inclusion Centre was really easy to talk to. Because I already had support put in place for me at school, it was easy for them to know what I needed. I don’t really sit exams in my course, so I don’t need to have extra time like I did at school. But I do receive support if I don’t understand what’s being asked of me. There is someone there that can word it in a way that makes sense. I also could have had software installed if I wanted to, but I never really needed that kind of support.

So far, I have passed all my modules and managed to keep up with everyone on the course!

What message do you have for other RGU students with learning difficulties?

Your diagnosis doesn’t have to define you. There are ways to work around it and use it to your advantage. RGU is a very inclusive place for people with learning difficulties. It just feels so accepting. Nobody is going around pointing out who is different. And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to study at RGU in the first place, because I could tell it is a very accepting community. That the staff and students wouldn’t look down their noses at me.

I think the Umbrella Project initiative will help students even more. For many years I felt alone and ashamed of who I was. Ashamed that I was different. But this initiative will show that there is nothing to be afraid of and that we should celebrate our differences. Because at the end of the day, even if I didn’t catch on as well as the other kids, I am still going to graduate next year!

Hannah Buchan

RGU installed 25 multi-coloured umbrellas on campus as part of a project ran by Aberdeen Inspired in partnership with the ADHD Foundation to raise awareness of the “umbrella” term of neurodiversity. They are located near the Inclusion Centre in the Ishbel Gordon Building. The centre provides support for students with dyslexia, sensory and mobility impairments, mental health difficulties, medical conditions, autism spectrum disorders and temporary impairments. They can provide dyslexia screening and evaluation, in-house assessment of needs, guidance to apply for the Disabled Students’ Allowance, exam arrangements and more. Visit the RGU website for more information.

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