A friend and I were talking recently, about test taking accommodations and other things one can get at university when one has a disability. I know many people who benefited greatly from accommodations – a friend of mine is dyslexic, and having time and a half on exams gave her time to actually process the words on the paper and write out her answers. She was a political science major, and their exams involve tons of writing. When you’re dyslexic, writing requires a lot more motor and brain planning than it does for other people. The extra time helped to let her brain get on a level playing field with everyone else’s.
I love the idea of accommodations. Simple things that can help to allow very intelligent people to actually succeed in an environment which is designed to make success nearly impossible for them. Not everyone’s brain works exactly the same way, and shouldn’t be expected to. Despite the fact that I didn’t use any official Student with Disabilities accommodations during my formal education, I still managed to create my own that helped me to function, focus, and succeed with my academic work. You see, I never felt the desire for accommodations – I’m an incredibly fast test-taker. The only exam I didn’t finish on time was one in which I was the only student to finish more than 60% of the exam. (I finished about 90% of it). My brain, in exam mode, goes into hyperdrive, and I hyperfocus and think very quickly. Extra time wouldn’t have helped me. Being in a separate room, away from the insanity of people, with a real sized desk instead of the little lecture hall “desks” that barely hold a piece of paper would have, but since I was doing extremely well academically, I didn’t see any reason to pursue it. (and besides, the disabilities office was so incredibly awful and full of red tape, that the mere idea of going to request any sort of accommodations was more stressful than just dealing with the issues as they came. Talk about inaccessibility! But that’s a different story.) That was MY decision, and it worked for ME.
I hold absolutely nothing against those students who use the accommodations they’re entitled to. When I was a TA and a grader, I would nearly always volunteer to proctor the extra time exams. As a grader, this had the added benefit of more hours, but the TA job was stipend-based. I did it for a number of reasons. One, because my friends who have used accommodations including extra time, have told me that often their exam proctors are really nasty and impatient, and make a more hostile environment where they feel rushed and it isn’t actually helpful. I didn’t want to create that kind of an exam environment. Plus, the extra time rooms are always smaller than the big lecture halls. There’s only a few students. When we’re lucky, there’s no fluorescent lights hissing. And I have an awesome basically uninterrupted extra-long quiet work period. Yes, I keep an eye on the 2-4 students in the room, to make sure they’re not cheating, as is required by the university, but really, most students don’t cheat. And while I’ve been trained to look for it by the paranoid university, I am always happy to just sit and have us all work together. I’ve had students come up to me after exams and thank me for being such a great proctor, because I treated them with respect and didn’t grumble about needing the extra time or space. And in truth, it never bothered me. I think every student deserves the respect and dignity to work through their coursework, exams, and everything else, at the pace they need to do a good job. So I try to be the person proctoring the extra time exams.
So despite not ever using more official accommodations, I’m will say that discovering my autism diagnosis and the self-awareness that came with it, really helped me in other ways. It helped me to figure out exactly what I could do in various situations, in order to help myself relax and survive, if not succeed. And after that long ramble above, I wanted to share a few of the things I did for myself in order to succeed in classroom settings.
I always sit in the same place in the classroom. In big lecture halls, it’s usually center section, left hand side, 3rd seat up from the front, in the aisle. This does a number of things. First, it lets me get used to the sounds of the lecture hall. I echo-orient – my body figures out what direction things are by sound, not by sight. Block off my ears, and I get vertigo and can’t figure out which way is up. If I sit in the same place every time, I don’t have to re-orient myself at the beginning of each lecture, and I can pay attention to the lecture, not be distracted by my surroundings.
Being on an aisle means that I only have one person invading my personal space, which is supremely helpful in terms of concentration and functionality. It also means I can get up and run to the bathroom or out of the classroom if I get overwhelmed and need to leave for some reason, without disturbing other students. While I rarely used the leave technique, having the option (and using it on occasion) was invaluable.
Although I’m not left-handed all the time, I do often write left-handed and prefer left-handed desks. I know that there is a dearth of them in lecture halls, and that actual left-handed people need them, but please understand that my need is similar, even if I’m writing right-handed that day. I have wrist problems stemming from years of gymnastics, and often need to switch which hand I’m writing with. While I can write right-handed on a lefty desk, the same can’t be said for writing left-handed on a righty desk. (I’m lefty dominant, but was trained to write righty, and didn’t learn lefty until late middle school. So while I am able to write lefty, and it’s neater than righty, it’s a little more awkward)
I color-coordinated my notebooks and folders, and had a separate one for each subject. Yes, it meant my backpack was huge. But it also meant I didn’t lose things and didn’t run out of things and always knew where my notes were. Peace of mind, folks!
As I mentioned above, I really don’t need extra time on exams. I take tests very quickly, and my brain turns on HIGH for exams. Usually I do pretty darn well too. Yes, I might make one or two mistakes on an exam where I could have gotten a 100%, but at the same time, a 97% is pretty awesome, too. But that doesn’t mean exams weren’t something I worried about. I have a number of little things I did to help me function.
-Always got to an exam early if possible. This meant that I could go into the room and secure my spot from lecture.
-I used the same mechanical pencil. Not due to superstitions, but because I could stim with it and since I was already comfortable with the pencil, I didn’t have to get used to it, too. (I had several replacements in various locations if there was a major problem)
-I would always bring a stim toy in my pocket. I have a couple little stuffed animals that fit nicely in my fleece pockets – they made my life much happier, and kept me calm during exams.
-I would always wear the same variety of clothes on exam day. My usual jeans, t-shirt, fleece jacket. And I would bring a water bottle.
And for me, the big one:
-My university had a lot of worries about cheating, and so many professors adopted a “you must write in pen” policy, if you wanted the opportunity for a re-grade. There were even professors who required pens only, no exceptions. I can’t write in pen. I need to be able to erase, as often my brain out-thinks my hand, and what I wrote only makes sense if you have the other 8 words in my brain, and most of the letters in the words that are down on the paper. I can’t tell you how many times I combined 4 words into one 6 letter mess when writing. I need to be able to erase that and rewrite it. Plus, my atrocious handwriting needs pencil to be remotely legible – pen is a nightmare. So I always composed an email to the professors who announced their pen policies at the beginning of the course, discussing my difficulties with pens and asking if I could use pencil on the exam. Most of them agreed (though some made me give up the re-grade option). The ones who didn’t, I had a special treat for them – a friend of mine worked at an office supply store that sold really nice erasable pens that actually worked, and so he would give me one if I needed it. I suppose that if I had official accommodations, I could’ve gotten the professors who were too rigid to allow me the use of pencil, but at some point, I had to pick my battles. And one of them, after grading my first exam, and seeing how much worse it was than my pencil homework, relented and let me use pencil. I got an A in his class, and he apologized to me after the first exam and agreed that I wasn’t being unreasonable.
And so there you have it, the accommodations I created for myself to succeed in my undergrad education. These are very specific to me, and I’m sure I’m neglecting something at this point, but I just wanted to share the list. Just because I didn’t use “official” accommodations, doesn’t mean that I didn’t benefit from the things I did for myself. I probably would’ve benefited even more if I were able to take exams in a separate room with a real-sized desk and non-buzzing lights and fewer people around. But in the end, it didn’t really matter for me. I still survived, did well, and got into grad school where I wanted to be to do the research I am so excited to be doing.
What are some accommodations that have helped you to achieve success in education? What things haven’t worked? I would love to get a really nice list together on this, that could serve as a resource for those of us who “think differently”. Also, you don’t have to be autistic to participate! Just share some little tips, tricks, and accommodations you use to help manage your brain in a situation that really isn’t meant for it.