Autism and Aspergers, ASD at The University of New England (UNE)

My name is John McDonald and I'm an aspergers adult, drifting lost in a world I'm just not a part of. For what it's worth, here is my experience at the University of New England. My primary school years were promising, top of the class in 5th grade and 6th grade. But my high school teen years were a disaster and my 20's were simply lost. Life can be harsh and bewildering for a teenager with autism. Then, in 1987 as a mature age student at the age of 30, I settled into an Arts degree with a Psychology major at the University of New England.  A fulfilling and meaningful direction in life.

But everything fell apart in 1991 in my final undergraduate year. The prerequisite to psychology honours was a subject called "advanced topics in psychology", a demanding year long 2 unit course. The last component of this subject was largely unstructured, requiring me to devise a research project and approach a staff member to supervise that project. While this brief might seem matter of fact for normal folk, for me this presented as an overwhelming obstacle. During my time as an undergraduate I had never asked for assistance from a lecturer, nor had I formed any relationship with any staff member. I had absolutely no idea what to do or where to begin with this. Put simply, as a person with aspergers I did not know how to walk into a lecturers office and communicate this to them without feeling that I was just wasting their time. So awkward, I don't know how to have a conversation. It was a confronting prospect that caused me considerable anxiety.

So I read through endless literature at the library until I found a research project I though I could duplicate. As a last resort I approached the course coordinator with a brief outline of the project, explained that it was a duplication of something I had found in the library, and asked if he would act as my supervisor. I didn't hear from him again, so after working alone on this project for some months I found myself becoming more and more confused by my research results, I found them hard to interpret. I had reached a brickwall and could not proceed any further. It became overwhelming. In the end I had to hand in something, so I submitted a project were I plagiarised from the original.

It was then that my supervisor reviewed the original research project and my work. So after neglecting to provide me with any supervision whatsoever, not one single second of assistance, and with no consultation or opportunity to state my case or defend myself, he announced to me that I had failed because of plagiarism and I was excluded from repeating this course, thus preventing me from continuing on to honours. So no career in Psychology for me.

I was grief-stricken. I was 35, with Aspergers, living in student accommodation with no money, no possessions, and no support. Voiceless and completely alone.

Because the only advice I received from the university was that they would not let me repeat the prerequisite to honours course, in good faith I went back and finished my degree thinking that if I satisfied the entry requirements I would be considered for acceptance into another post graduate course without bias. This course was a one year external masters course in psychology.  While this was a lesser course than honours, it was a pathway to a career in psychology and so an opportunity to salvage something from the wreckage. I applied for entry to this course on 2 occasions but despite meeting all the entry criteria I was rejected both times.

On both occasions the letter of rejection from the psychology department was worded identically, just 2 sentences stating that I was unsuccessful because no staff member was available in my chosen area of study.  This is despite the fact that choosing an area of study was not part of the enrolment process, and despite the fact that I had completed the application for enrolment in full, in the office of its course coordinator, under his supervision.  So one way or another, by fair means or foul, the university was determined to get rid of me.

So after 3 more years and 2 unsuccessful applications for enrolment in post graduate study in psychology I gave up.  In all I spent 5 full-time years as an undergraduate and 3 more trying to right the wrong of the plagiarism episode.  So 8 years at the University of New England with nothing to show but a huge HECS debt and a life ruined by being excluded from education.

My case highlights many of the difficulties faced by people with aspergers. I would like people to realise that, not untypical of autism, I am not a verbal thinker. Its about how I organise my thoughts, and unfortunately this does not lend itself well to succeeding in our neuro-typical centric education tradition where assessment of knowledge, ideas and concepts is based on written essays and written reports. I can do it, but I find it challenging and very hard work.  Being a non-verbal thinker, reading and writing do not come easily or naturally to me. Certainly the palgiarism was simply a total capitulation due to aspergers related deficits in communication, in interpersonal skills, in imagination (I find it impossible to paraphrase), in initiative, in reading and essay writing, in everything really. I often liken it to putting a chair in front of a blind person then punishing them for tripping over it. Imagine if things were reversed, where neuro-typical verbal thinkers are required for assessment purposes to express their knowledge of concepts and ideas in a non-verbal based format, that is, in a way that is not consistent with their natural cognitive process. I doubt that any could do it. This neuro-typical or nothing attitude of teachers and academics is simply institutionalised cruelty to the autistic.

I have spent the last 20 years working as a shop assistant and driving Taxis. Despite all my efforts I just can’t seem to get anywhere. I’m currently Taxi driving earning about $12.00 an hour.  What a waste. One thing though, I'm not alone. Because I work in a low paid menial job, I work with a disproportionately high number of people with aspergers, all with their own story of how they were consigned to the autism scrapheap. A common theme amongst us revolves around being marginalized by a hostile education system, by unwelcoming teachers insensitive to the notion of inclusion (ironically in my case a teacher of psychology).

So many aspergers people are at least the intellectual equal of any university academic.  I am certain that many of the really great minds of this world have been aspergers minds. I find it ironic that the very thing that makes aspergers minds remarkable, the difference in cognitive process, is the very thing that leads to their educational demise at the hands of neuro-typical teachers.

The system has failed me, ignorance and prejudice is everywhere.  When I needed help I was instead punished. It is a horrible and unjust state of affairs, delivering a cruel outcome for a person dealing with autism. I had the same hopes and aspirations as everyone else, yet I have ended up in dead-end, low paid jobs, struggling to develop any sense of self-worth and positive self image. I am haunted by my experience at the University of New England. 

Years ago a friend told me that I have a brick wall around me. A psychologist once told me that while that brick wall cannot be dismantled, he could help me to peek over the top of it, that there was some hope that my life could be defined by more than aspergers. I cannot stress enough the despair I felt when the University of New England summarily sentenced me to the educational death penalty, the death of all my hopes. In doing so the University of New England put its own brick wall around me, another barrier preventing me from ever having the opportunity to participate in community and life in the same way that everyone else around me takes for granted.



I'm new to this forum and recently discovered I have Asperger's traits. I completely relate with your story. I had a tough final year at uni also. I did a course that required group work in every subject, every semester for the entire double degree. Thank God I pulled through in the end, I don't know how it happened.

I'm not certain of your situation, but I'm curious about your situation. Why is it that you have been at the same job for 20 years? Do you ever feel the need to change routine?