(The following, placed here with the agreement and consent of the person about whose situation it was written, is a summary of the work I did in connection with my graduate degree – Master of Education – at the University of Birmingham. I was awarded the degree ‘with distinction’, on 13th December 2006. Because of my prior training in education and applicable psychology, this qualifies me to act as a psycho-educational consultant.)

Reasonable accommodation is that which overcomes structural discrimination, or which compensates for aspects of the teaching/learning environment and/or methods that would ordinarily leave the student at a substantial disadvantage (because, in my capacity as a psycho-educational consultant, I have to define things in terms of educational settings). That is as far as I can come up with a definition without having to rely on specifics.

My thesis deals with the case of a young chap who applied to study for a B. Eng. degree in Energy Technology, hoping to specialise in Environmental Engineering. He is (from the investigative work we have done over the past 18 months) clearly Asperger-autistic (having fulfilled the criteria as operationalised by Gillberg in 1989). In addition, when his responses to the ASDI were cross-referenced to the criteria developed purely for adult diagnosis by Tantam, they matched there also; it was concluded from this – and other psychological testing – that the chap is Asperger-autistic: F84.5 as opposed to F84.

At no point in his application process did this chap get any counselling – either at high-school or at the polytechnic – regarding his rather naive choice of degree for which to study. His leaving certificate profile from high-school did not contain enough background studies in mathematics or physics (8 courses out of something like 50-odd for the ‘lukion päättötodistus’). A reasonably competent educational/occupational psychologist, psycho-educational consultant, careers counsellor or admissions officer would have spotted that.

He passed an entrance examination, which – in Finland – has about as much reliability as a Lappish summer night has darkness. So, the polytechnic let him in, without calling him for an interview. His grades were monitored (as they are required to be when someone is on state student support payments), and yet it took the polytechnic three years to intervene. The intervention: stopping his payments, despite the fact that he was talking to a psycho-educational consultant well-acquainted with educational issues for autistic persons in higher educational settings.

On examination, this chap was found to experience difficulties learning mathematical and physical concepts. He was also found to have difficulties using language (although his colleague in the Green Party, a Communications major with a post teaching academic Finnish at another branch of the polytechnic, had been in a position to help him to improve his academic-linguistic skills to the level where anything he submits to the local newspaper is immediately published). Even so, his mathematical skills let him down, and he has definite dyspraxic issues going on (measured using DTVP-A); his verbal IQ in Finnish is at least 115 but his PIQ suffers from the problems he has either with movement or with planning courses of action and computing consequences of actions.

It was also clear that this chap has a working memory problem: his ability to do mental arithmetic tasks was severely compromised, and – given the emotional sensitivity element to his make-up, coming up in the next paragraph – was severely jeoparised in high-stress situations (even the testing situations proved nerve-wracking for him). A personality assessment showed him to be highly sensitive to his own emotional state and quite adversely influenced by it, as well as not being a very socially-oriented person. His social circles are few and have very subject or topic specific foci, which are centred on his special interests.

There were three points at which interventions should have been conducted during his academic career at the polytechnic. Firstly, his study counsellor at high-school messed up: this person should have questioned him on his choice of course, on the basis of his background studies. Secondly, the admissions officer at the polytechnic should have called him in for interview to ask why he’d chosen that course with the background he had. At any point where it became doubtful that the chap would succeed, the admissions officer should have rejected the application.

Thirdly, the polytechnic – after monitoring his grades for three years – failed to intervene even after the second year’s poor performance, let alone the first year’s. Had there been a study support network in place at the polytechnic, this chap could have been directed there at the end of his first year’s studies to get remedial support for his mathematics skills (during the three years, his failed courses almost entirely were in the fields of mathematics, physics and engineering technology – all highly mathematical courses). The polytechnic’s approach was essentially a way-too-little-way-too-late approach. The polytechnic, in order to get money for having this guy’s bottom on one of its seats, had wasted three years of his life and wasted three years of his study support entitlement… just for him to fail as expected (there is no evidence that the expected – or even wanted – him to succeed).

In his case, reasonable accommodation would have been something like:

1) additional time in examinations (and/or – for maths/science/technology exams – the requisite formulae on a card);

2) printed lecture notes given a few days beforehand, so that he could have built up some idea of what was going to be dealt with… lectures being conducted too fast came up a lot in interview with this chap;

3) separate examination facility, with opportunity to take a break when necessary;

4) opportunity to undertake project-based assignments instead of examinations (or at least to do occasional simulated project-based assignments) as a means by which to provide corrective information about his actual abilities, rather than his abilities under conditions that prove way too stressful for him;

5) other recommendations to be determined after further interview and testing.

I would not expect the polytechnic to allow someone else to do his work for him, and nor would I expect the academic standards to be lowered. But, given the clear discrepancy between what this chap is capable of (in a suitably sympathetic study environment) and how he has performed (in a completely negligent one), it is clear that accommodations at least commensurate with my recommendations above were necessary.

David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E.

Psychologist (Teaching, Learning & Development) and Psycho-educational Consultant,
Kotka, Finland