Everyone can learn from people with autism, says Audrey with autism

“Why do we learn to work hard, but not mentally recover from hard work?” Audrey Ng-a-Tham (23) wonders aloud. Meanwhile, she fiddles with a green bean hanging from her bunch of keys. Not a ‘real’ piece of vegetable, but a kind of toy. She pushes the peas out one by one and they then pop back into the bean. This movement helps her to focus. If someone with autism spectrum disorder she has worked hard to deal with stimuli and stress. Yet the study stress is a new challenge.

‘Breathing space’ is Audrey’s answer to the question of how the university can become a better place for students with a disability. Students need breathing room. “For example, a week of collapse after your exams. Now I have lectures the week before the exams and the new block starts the week after.” Of course university has to be challenging, Audrey believes, but now students are learning their limits because they go beyond them. “You have to take care of yourself first, only then will you perform optimally. We should learn that too, maybe in high school.”

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Audrey is doing well. She beams when she says it, because she didn’t expect this when she was 16. Then she believed she couldn’t handle the stress of college. “My fellow students keep me going. It could take me longer to complete my studies, but this year is so much fun that I want to stay with them. I feel that I am accepted as I am.” In addition to her studies Arts and Culture is she going to have a drink, eat or go to a concert. “I used to hope for this. That it’s real now, wow.”

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Now Audrey is doing an internship at the Bach Festival Dordrecht. “During a LinkedIn course, I was advised not to mention that I am autistic when applying for a job, because it would increase the risk of discrimination. Later I did tell, on the advice of the internship coordinator.” The response from the organization was “super positive,” she says. Little has changed in practice, but if there is something she feels safe enough to report it. Work is easier for her than studying. “Because it is more output than input. I have a lot to do, but I don’t have to pick up dust all day.” During the festival, Audrey plays the harp with the amateur orchestra. A dream come true.

Lava lamp and clarity

Audrey finds it a revelation that students without autism also need more breathing space. “At the moment they experience the stress just as much as I do. Welcome to my world, I thought when I heard fellow students talking about it.” It does make her think, because apparently everyone has to learn to deal with stress. “Up to a certain level you can learn to regulate stimuli. We autistic people know that like no other.”

What could also help students with autism is greater clarity. “I don’t just walk into the University Library to study there. That threshold is too high for me. The uncertainty about how it works brings a lot of stress. Other students step in and figure it out. I would like to read somewhere beforehand what to expect.”

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