Studying with a Specific Learning Difficulty: what you need to know

Hi, I’m Megan, a Masters student diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and Specific Learning Difficulties. Studying with a specific learning difficulty can be daunting, so I wanted to share my experiences of this. I’ll also give you some tips for making the most of university life, whether you’re a postgrad or an undergrad. 

First things first; what is a Specific Learning Difficulty? 

A Specific Learning Difficulty (or SpLD) is a ‘difference or difficulty with particular aspects of learning’. The most well known SpLD is dyslexia. Other common and well-known SpLDs include ADHD, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia and Dysgraphia. Specific Learning Difficulties do not have anything to do with academic ability or success, but many people with SpLDs find that they need extra support in their studies. This helps them to achieve their full potential. There is actually a lot of support when studying with a Specific Learning Difficulty. 

Background to my diagnoses 

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when I was nearing the end of primary school. Asperger’s is not a SpLD, but is a form of autism. Autism is a developmental disability that affects the way you understand and take part in social interactions. Despite getting support in school for this diagnosis, I still struggled to complete timed tasks. I remember breaking down in a history GCSE mock exam because I couldn’t finish my essay, even with extra time. People with Asperger’s and other forms of autism often have SpLDs, particularly ADHD. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was diagnosed with ‘a Specific Learning Difficulty of Dysgraphia type’ and was given access to a laptop for exams. Essentially, my brain doesn’t send signals to my hands fast enough to be able to handwrite an examined essay, even with extra time. 

What kind of support can you get at university? 

Disabled Students Allowance

As a disabled student, you can apply for the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) using the Student Finance website. DSA can provide help towards the costs of specialist equipment (for example, a laptop if you don’t already have one), non-medical helpers, disability related travel costs, and other disability related costs of studying. After applying for a DSA, you attend a needs assessment. You can discuss what kind of issues affect you personally, and a personalised plan can be drawn up to help you with your studies. 

Equipment

Mind mapping software that allows you to create structures for essays

After my needs assessment, I was given specialist software for my laptop that helped me to plan essays in a way that was easier for my brain to process. This software has really helped me to structure my essays for around four years. It’s basically a mind map software that lets you drag different points around and fit them into the structure of your work. I’ve found it super helpful for ordering my thoughts. I was also given a microphone and software for my laptop that records audio of lectures. It also allows me to take notes alongside the lecture recordings. This kind of software is particularly helpful for people with SpLDs that struggle with keeping up notes, as it’s all recorded for you. I know other students with SpLDs that like to record the lectures themselves; but many departments also have lecture capture. 

Exam Support

You can also be given access to extra time, rest breaks, and laptops in exams. Rest breaks have helped me a lot, and were something I was not aware of until I had my needs assessment. They are chances to put the pen down or stop typing and put the exam paper away from you. You can have a walk around the exam room or have some lunch. In my final year I had an exam that ended up being around 4 hours long due to extra time. My rest break was a much needed opportunity to eat some pasta and stop thinking about the Ancient Romans. Extra time is fairly straightforward – you get 25% or 50% (depending on the severity of your condition). You can also get a laptop without access to the internet or spell check, and you can type your essay instead of handwriting it. 

But isn’t extra time unfair to everyone else?

I feel the need to address this, so I am going to post a quote from a blog post I wrote last year on the subject. 

“If we are to talk about fairness, is it fair that, in a history exam, a student who can write 30 words per minute and a student who can write 12 words per minute are given the same amount of time? The exam is not testing their writing speed, it is testing their history knowledge.” 

I think a lot of people misunderstand what extra time is for. It’s not so you get a better grade on the exam, it’s so you can finish the exam. I know a lot of people with SpLDs feel ashamed for needing extra time, and many people refuse it. If that’s you, I hope you reconsider; you shouldn’t feel ashamed for accepting the support you need. 

Tips for making the most of university life with a SpLD

  1. Accept the support offered to you 
  2. Remember – you are not stupid because of your learning difficulty 
  3. Speak to the support team at university 
  4. Learn what study methods work for you, not anyone else
  5. Go out, have fun, join societies! You got this!

If you would like more information on studying with a Specific Learning Difficulty, you can visit the Disability Support page.

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Megan

Hi! I'm currently studying MSc Bioarchaeology after completing my BA in Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Birmingham. I love art and travel, and I spend too much of my time in museums.

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