Studying with Autism

Thursday 01 April 2021


Students Gerbrich Kaastra and Jorin Onclin tell their stories

A new environment, deadlines, tests. All stressful enough for the average student but for someone with autism, they can be really tough times. The amazing brain of people with autism processes information differently and this makes things challenging not only for themselves, but also for the people around them. Students Gerbrich Kaastra (22) and Jorin Onclin (25) talk about the problems they face, their needs and the good things about autism


“Don’t look at me as someone with limitations but as someone with a different operating system. Let’s say everyone is using Windows, then I’m on Apple. I might work differently but I’ve got just as many qualities.”


Gerbrich: : “When I was at secondary school, I was just constantly tired. I couldn’t keep up with lessons, and I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Until a year ago, when my sister said, “don’t you just have autism?” I went to a psychologist and got the right diagnosis: autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Things then just finally fell into place.” Jorin: “As a baby, I didn’t make contact with the people around me. After a lot of tests, they found out that it was PDD-NOS.” Jorin doesn’t have so much of a problem with making contact with others anymore; it’s his emotions that more often get in the way. “I go through really high peaks and low dips so life is either brilliant or really hard going. This meant I used to have difficulty expressing myself, and I got bullied at secondary school because I was ‘different’.”

“I like to get a clear framework and know exactly what is expected of me for an assignment or lesson.”


Jorin:“Unfamiliar situations are complicated for me. When I started my studies, I would think about where I was supposed to fit in, how I was supposed to act, and what was expected of me. Those thoughts and stimuli meant I got tired quickly. Planning and organising are a challenge too. And if I feel stressed then it's tenfold, which means I can also suffer from panic attacks. I have been known to smash a course book because I was afraid I wouldn't pass my exam. Gerbrich: “If I don't have an overview of my studies or something's not clear then I can't do anything. At first I thought I was being really lazy, a procrastinator, but it turns out this is a characteristic of autism. Now I know that, I can deal with it much better. Now I know I won't get far without clarity and planning.

“Our brains simply work differently. It would be good if lecturers knew more about students with autism.”

Open communication

Gerbrich: “There are a few students with autism in the chemistry programme and you see that lecturers are able to deal with this well. They're used to it. Open communication with lecturers helps me enormously. For instance, I've fixed up with one lecturer that I'll let them know if I somehow get stuck. It would be good if lecturers knew more about autism. Our brains simply work differently and it helps us hugely if lecturers throw in an extra break in the lessons and are really clear and specific about what is expected. I think that the educational system needs to be understandable for everyone, including neurotypical people. ‘If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’ There are so many students with autism or ADHD that are incredibly smart but don't come into their own because of how the current system is set up. “ Jorin: “I think that I'm lucky I'm studying communication. Being sociable and thinking of others is something that already comes naturally to my fellow students and my lecturers. My own openness helps too. It's one of the reasons I wear a sweater with AUTIST on it. And I’ve done a podcast (in Dutch) about autism and how to deal with it. It's calledPDD-CAST . I think it's particularly difficult when I get an assignment and I have to define the goal and the outcome myself. I like to have a clear framework with, like, this is what we're going to do in the next few weeks and this is what it needs to produce.”

“If I think something is really interesting then I go into hyperfocus. I can recite the whole of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, from start to finish.”

The advantages of autism

Gerbrich: : “Many people with autism can focus really well on a subject. For instance, I can recite the whole of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, from start to finish. If there's a subject at uni that I like or find interesting then I'll get so into it that I want to find out everything about it. Another plus is info dumping. That's when we just keep on talking about a subject because we're so enthusiastic about it.” Jorin: ““I’ll often have an unusual solution to a problem. Like when a lot of students were complaining about how they weren't getting any answers from the organisations they were applying to for internships, I started thinking about how companies found interns. I came up with the idea of setting up LinkedIn in such a way that companies would come to me – and it worked.”

Away with stigmas

Gerbrich:“People often think about autism as that dopey boy with glasses who is really smart, but actually anyone can have autism. It was long thought, for instance, that it didn't occur in women because it wasn't so visible. Some people say things like ‘well, everyone has a bit of autism in them’ because they think that will help me feel better, but it doesn't. What happens in my head really is different to how things work for people without autism. Jorin: “Don’t look at me as someone with limitations but as someone with a different operating system. Let’s say everyone is using Windows, then I’m on Apple. I might work differently but I’ve got just as many qualities.”


Gerbrich: “I'm in touch a lot with student counsellors Inge Karg and Tine de Jong. They really do all they can for students with autism or other disabilities. Studying will never be the same for me as it is for someone that doesn't have autism, but thanks to Inge and Tine it's a lot more bearable. If something is troubling me, I can always turn to them. Like how I now get extra time for tests and how I was able to draw on a fund specially for when you run up a delay in your studies. And I'm in an autism group. We meet up once a week to share experiences. If you're open and honest about what you need, then there are a lot of possibilities.”

Gerbrich is studying Chemistry in a collaboration between NHL Stenden and Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences. Inge Karg is student counsellor at NHL Stenden and Tine de Jong at Van Hall Larenstein. Along with other student counsellors, they help and support students that are challenged. More information on studying with a disability is available on the webpage studying with a disability.