What is it really like starting university when you’re a student with ADD (Attention-Deficit Disorder) and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder)? Owen Heafey is a first year History and Sociology undergraduate at Liverpool Hope University who has those conditions - and admits he arrived on campus in October last year with great trepidation. But here the 18-year-old, from Crewe, reveals how he overcame his ‘dread’ to find his home at Hope:
(Owen, above, pictured on his very first day at Hope)
“It’s November 2021, I’m in ‘Our Place’, Liverpool Hope University’s student bar and kitchen, and I’m playing pool with some friends. To anyone looking on, it’s a perfectly run-of-the-mill scenario - something you’ll see in any student bar up and down the country.
But to me, this was a really special moment. I stopped for a moment, looked around, and thought to myself, ‘I’m actually enjoying this’.
At the time, I was still incredibly nervous about the social aspect of university, not knowing if the people I was with actually liked me. It’s slightly silly looking back now, but even while being surrounded by these people I still felt isolated.
But at this precise moment in time in the bar, something clicked. I realised they did like me, they did want to hang out with me - and they liked me for being me. I knew at that moment in time that I was going to enjoy being at university.
And that wasn’t just a relief for me, it was a huge weight lifted for my family and friends back home in Cheshire.
Luckily for me, my ASD was picked up when I was fairly young, in Year 5. But my ADD was spotted much later, when I was in Year 11 and about to sit my GCSEs, because they presumed the symptoms of ADD were just part of my ASD. These things often get bundled-together all too easily in the eyes of specialists, when they’re actually two different problems.
It’s fair to say that I was quite a troubled student at the time. There were absences, I couldn’t pin myself down to do the work, my homework was either never on time or not done at all, and I was really stressed about exams because I simply didn’t understand how to revise. It was tough on my family, too. There’s no real history of ASD with my mum, dad or siblings so they found it hard to understand what I was going through, and my mum also ended up having to take lots of time off work to support me, particularly when I was having behavioural issues at primary school.
And it wasn’t until I had an official diagnosis of ADD, and medication, that I started to get the help I needed. But it still wasn’t easy. As the GCSEs loomed, some teachers told me that I could do much better, that I just wasn’t applying myself - and that’s really difficult to hear when, in my mind, I’m applying myself as much as I possibly can.
In the end, I put my head down for the final few months of school and, thankfully, I did well enough to get to college, where I studied History, Psychology and Sociology at A Level. I was lucky to get that point - but I never, ever considered that I had a chance of going to university. That scenario always felt well out of reach.
In a weird way, the onset of the global pandemic actually helped me. I wasn’t really enjoying being in physical lessons so instead, when Coronavirus hit, I’d spend hours in our garden shed doing the work to catch-up on my A level study. It still sounds funny when I say it out loud, but that cold shed was like a sanctuary! I began to enjoy the work. And when I eventually went back to the classroom, I returned with a new-found appreciation for my education. It’s strange how things work out.
I came out with BCC grades and now that I’m at Hope, I feel like I deserve to be in this position because I’ve worked so damned hard to be here. But I honestly wasn’t hopeful about making it this far. In fact, I’ve always had a fairly negative mindset when it comes to how much I can succeed.
On the day my A Level results were published, I actually slept in. I woke up at 11:30am in the morning as my mum walked in with a note saying, ‘You’re going to university!’ I was so shocked. I never thought I’d get in, and I never thought I’d get to go to my first choice university - Hope. I was happy, but also in complete disbelief.
Why did I want to go to Hope in the first place? When I was talking about university with my tutors, they suggested places that were more intimate, more integrated, within commuting distance, and where you feel like less of a number and more of a person. Hope is still relatively close to my family and - crucially - the course looked amazing and was a major factor in me deciding to come here.
Before I arrived at Hope, my college had been in touch with the university to let them know about my ADD and ASD and Hope put into place things like a Learning Support Plan before I even set foot on campus. At Hope I get regular meetings with a specialist support group and there’s also a dedicated Neuro-Divergency Acceptance group, which is a really welcoming society that helps lots of students. And that’s all on top of being given extra time with exams and assessments.
For me, what Hope offers it’s a real step-up in support compared with what I had at college, where I often felt quite alone.
Yet those first few weeks in Liverpool were difficult. I want to be clear here - this was me causing the problem, and nothing the university or other students did.
But I found the whole thing extremely daunting. All of my food was inside my flat so I felt like I didn’t actually need to go outside - there was no point. I stayed in my room for a few weeks, only leaving to go to my lectures, seminars and tutorials. It’s a huge step going from your hometown to a big university city.
But as soon as I did make the decision to go outside, I instantly felt much better. I made a new group of friends pretty much straight away without actually needing to make much effort!. And it made me feel extremely happy that I wasn’t going to be on my own for the whole semester. Those new friends I made are still close now, and it proves I should have gone out much sooner!
All of this is a huge relief for my family, too, as I’ve gone from getting the train home every Friday to simply staying in Liverpool for months at a time with my friends.
What advice would I give to others with ADD or ASD who might be fearful about university?
Well, I often think about the fact that when I was younger I couldn’t even go on a Scouts holiday for a week without breaking down emotionally. And when I first came to university, I felt like I shouldn’t be here either - and that I couldn’t be here.
But things can change. For me, much of the dread I experienced has fallen away. I don’t have to call my mum every single day. I’m not upset about the distance between me and my family. I can stay in Liverpool and not be a complete mess.
It’s something that was inconceivable to me as a youngster, but I’m enjoying myself so much right now."