University is already for everyone

Of the 27,000 enrolled at the Universitat Autònoma (UAB), ten years ago only five students declared that they had an autism spectrum disorder.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
20 April 2024 Saturday 17:15
4 Reads
University is already for everyone

Of the 27,000 enrolled at the Universitat Autònoma (UAB), ten years ago only five students declared that they had an autism spectrum disorder. Today there are 69. In these same ten years, students with learning disorders (attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity, dyslexia, or a combination of both) at this university have gone from 42 to 371. In other centres, the data are similar. At the University of Barcelona (UB), more than 600 students with learning disorders were treated last year, and this includes those who have a certificate of disability and those who do not. None of this data is definitive, because they leave out both students who have not been diagnosed and those who have preferred not to communicate it to the university.

But these figures are indeed eloquent: in the past decade, children who had been diagnosed in previous years began to arrive at university en masse, when the detection of issues related to neurodiversity soared. They are, in the best cases, young people who found schools and institutes conscientious to serve them, with special education teachers and reinforcements outside the classroom, used to having, among other things, the formats adapted to them examination, and that when they have reached higher education, with a self-awareness far removed from the stigma of past decades, they have demanded the same rights.

The university has had no choice but to adapt. "In general, the younger teachers are very open to attending to diversity, the veteran teachers find that before the classes were very homogeneous because these boys and girls did not make it, they were considered school failures. Fortunately, society is diverse and society reflects this diversity", says Anabel Galán, vice-rector of Students and Employability at the UAB and the person in charge of implementing the necessary changes so that careers are not hostile to students with neurodivergence.

For a few years at this university, there has been a figure in each faculty who is responsible for coordinating all students who have special needs, and all new teachers who join are required to take a specific course that prepares them for to make curricular adaptations and to take into account possible situations that may be presented to them in the classroom: from students with ASD who get stuck when making oral presentations or debates to students who may need to wear caps to ears to isolate themselves from the noise or sit away from the door, passing people who, due to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), may not be able to stand the presence of a ticking clock in the classroom.

Attending to neurodiversity means understanding that some students will need a laptop for their exam to avoid writing by hand (the university offers them a special one, without internet connection) or that students with dyslexia, dyscalculia or dysorthography need printed materials at least 12 point, and with letterpress typography. This is in addition to the measures that are already planned also in PAUs and in almost all universities, such as allowing between 25% and a third of the extra exam time for students with this type of diagnosis.

At Autónoma, they found a higher incidence of autistic spectrum cases in the engineering departments and a mutual aid group was established there, made up of students, who meet and discuss the complexities they encounter. At the University of Barcelona, ​​they have not detected this difference in engineering compared to other degrees. But Rosa Albalat, professor in the degrees of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, does believe that "people with ASD who have super-interests, subjects that can interest them with a certain fixation, may indeed feel more attracted to an engineering".

Albalat is one of those veteran teachers who has been working for decades to make the university a more comfortable place for all kinds of people. "We see people in the laboratory who work very well, who ask very interesting questions, but who then did not reflect this in the exams because of their insecurities. They are people who sometimes arrive with heavily loaded backpacks, who have been bullied and who have come this far because they have overcome many difficulties. We have to make their lives easier without giving them anything; they get their degree like the rest of the people".

There are different ways to incorporate these neurodiverse students or those with learning difficulties into inclusion programs: either because they have already presented themselves with their diagnosis (this is increasingly common and is related to the relaxation of 'stigma'), because they talked about it with a specific teacher or because it was the teachers who detected something.

This is what happened when Albalat met María Dolores González, a student already graduated in Chemical Engineering who had arrived at the faculty with a diagnosis of dyslexia. The teacher noticed that there could be something more and recommended a reassessment, which concluded with a diagnosis of Asperger's, an autism spectrum disorder. From then on, they tried to accompany her by looking for extra help at the Asperger Catalunya Foundation, talking to her family and, when the time came for her to do an internship in a company, also with her managers.

"Sometimes we get boys with depression and what they have is ASD", also points out Albalat, who usually teaches his own colleagues so that they understand that sometimes a student with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) can be "exhausting" in a laboratory , that if someone with ASD needs 12 clarifications for the 12 questions of an exam they are not being annoying but really have problems understanding an ambiguous statement, or that the Secretary must allow a student to de-enroll before the deadline if the the fact of having enrolled in too many subjects generates an anxiety that is impossible for him to manage.

In the latter case, moreover, there was no financial prejudice, since he was a student with a recognized disability who did not pay tuition. One aspect that they are now working on at the UB is that of confidentiality: allowing the 25% extra time that students with recognized diagnoses have to be used in a separate classroom without the need for colleagues to see it and be able to question them for this, as sometimes happens.

"If a neurotypical person has had a bad exam and sees that a colleague with neurodiversity has had this advantage, there may be comments, but they are usually specific things, which come from the visceral", confirms Cristòfol Llompart, a child and youth psychologist specializing in disorders of learning In his years of dedication, Llompart has indeed seen how certain stigma or shame associated with these diagnoses has been diluted, due almost to a numerical issue: in primary and secondary schools, there are so many diagnosed students that it is no longer generated as much to feel different

But he continues to have patients who are very reluctant to ask for curricular adaptations. He mentions the case of a boy with dyslexia and high abilities that he is treating now, who resisted asking for adaptations at his school saying: "I'm not the fool".

Like almost everything, making the university more flexible and less hostile requires good will, but also a budget, as demanded by both institutions and teachers, bearing in mind that precariousness among university teachers is a bloody reality.

Núria Gómez Gabriel is one of those mobile teachers, who teaches art subjects in three different schools: Massana School, BAU and Chess. He explains that he has seen everything. "In one of the centers where I teach, I was even accused of doing 'assistance pedagogy', that is, of giving too much assistance to the students", he complains. "I have taken neurodiversity adaptation courses and I found them very interesting, even though they opened up more questions than answers. They mark it as the teacher's ethical competences, when they are legal and labor matters. What must change is the philosophy of the universities".