01 Jan 2014

BY: Louise Hilliar

In this post, I will be outlining some of the challenges facing students who begin their university careers with undiagnosed neurodiverse conditions. I hope that this will help students to recognise whether they may have such a condition, and encourage them to seek appropriate support. 

As this year’s freshers contemplate their return to university following the Christmas break, most will have settled into university life well. They will be coping with the demands of living independently, making friends, and keeping up with their work. A particular group of students will be struggling, however, and the reason for this is that they have undiagnosed neurodiverse conditions.

Students with dyslexic-type specific learning difficulties are likely to be unable to keep up with note-taking during lectures. They are probably behind with their reading and need to reread material in order to understand it fully. Tackling their first assignments has probably high-lighted their weaknesses in structuring written work, expressing their ideas clearly, and proof-reading. On top of this, these students may be unable to remember verbal instructions, and may find it difficult to express themselves orally.

Students with dyspraxia often experience similar difficulties to those with dyslexia but may also have weaknesses in fine motor skills. This can lead to problems with handwriting, producing diagrams, drawing graphs, and using laboratory equipment. These students also often have weak organisational skills. They may have some deficits in their social skills such as difficulties with interpreting nonverbal communication and with modulating voice volume. Problems with finding their way around can mean that dyspraxic students struggle with getting used to new buildings and living in a new town.

Students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are also likely to encounter problems adjusting to a new environment. They may find it difficult to follow their time-table and to arrive to places on time, and may rely on another student to compensate for their weaknesses in this area. These students may arrive to lectures without basic equipment and may find it difficult to keep track of their possessions, losing keys, wallets and travel passes, for example. Students with ADHD are likely to lose concentration during lectures, find note-taking challenging, and have disorganised files. They tend to procrastinate when it comes to beginning their work, can’t always ‘see the wood for the trees’ when carrying out research, are easily distracted, and find it difficult to organise their written work. Such students frequently experience difficulties with adding the finishing touches to a piece of work and tend to miss deadlines. An inability to sleep often adds to their problems, and further reduces their ability to concentrate.

Students with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) such as Asperger Syndrome also often struggle to adjust to living in a new environment. They may experience difficulties with independent living skills such as money-management, shopping, cooking and travel from an organisational point of view, but also due to social difficulties. These students often find it difficult to integrate with other students and establish friendships. They may become overwhelmed in social situations and their social skills may be under-developed. In common with other students with neurodiverse conditions, students with ASD often find note-taking challenging. They often find it difficult to focus on topics which do not interest them and become side-tracked when carrying out research. In addition to this, these students frequently have a tendency to misinterpret essay questions and struggle to produce well-balanced essays. Students with ASD are often reluctant to ask for help and they may not recognise the signs if their health is deteriorating which means that problems can go unnoticed.

Some students with undiagnosed neurodiverse conditions will have managed well at school but run into problems when there is an increase in the demands placed upon them.  Others will have experienced difficulties throughout their education which may become even more apparent when placed in a new and demanding situation. If you are a student who feels that you may have an undiagnosed neurodiverse condition, then it would be advisable for you to contact the department at your university which is dedicated to the support of students with disabilities. The staff there will be able to provide advice about whether an assessment would be useful and how to arrange it. In the case of dyslexic-type difficulties and dyspraxia, the university may well be able to arrange screening tests and diagnostic assessments on your behalf. In the case of ADHD and ASD, assessments may be sought through the NHS. Waiting lists can be lengthy, however, and for this reason, assessments are sometimes funded privately.

There are two final issues to consider. The first is that it can be difficult to distinguish between different neurodiverse conditions due to the overlap between them. The second is that it is not uncommon for an individual to have more than one of these conditions and it is therefore important that this possibility is considered.