Special people serving the students’ special needs
The administration and support units of Stellenbosch University (SU) are known for their professionalism, efficiency, and service excellence. However, to myself and my dear daughters with neurodevelopmental needs, one unit stands out above the rest. This is not only due to the very nature of that unit, but also to the staff members’ compassion, dedication, and willingness to go the extra mile in assisting students – such as my children – with special needs as well as their families. That unit is the Disability Unit, led by Dr Marcia Lyner-Cleophas.
Both my daughters are on the autism spectrum.
Autism with its various manifestations is often very difficult to understand and support – not only because one cannot ‘see’ autism, but also because the needs of each person on the spectrum are different and unique to that individual. Also, so much real empathy is needed to understand the experiences of young people with autism conditions. What has been abundantly clear to us as parents is that our daughters have constantly required certain concessions and specific types of support to ensure that they reach their full potential and can actually participate in our world – the world of people without autism.
The transition from high school to university is somewhat frightening for all parents and children because the children become more independent and take the leap into an unfamiliar environment. This transition was especially difficult and nerve-racking for my two daughters and me, as I knew that, because of the incredible impacts of their autism, the odds that they would succeed in their studies without the right support, regardless of their levels of intelligence, were low.
On my arrival at the Disability Unit for the first time in 2016, I was overwhelmed by the warmth, respect, and professional care we were met with. We met with Dr Lyner-Cleophas of the Disability Unit to explain my eldest daughter’s needs and the assistance she would require during her time at SU. She was attentive and highly receptive to understanding my daughter’s needs and experience of learning, and asked questions to ensure that she could help my daughter in every way possible.
Prior to the start of the academic year a meeting was scheduled for my eldest, my husband and me with Dr Lyner-Cleophas, Prof Slattery (the head of the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science), and the course convener to discuss and determine what kind of special assistance my daughter would need to support her in obtaining her degree.
As this was done before classes had even started, my eldest daughter was fully prepared for her first year at university, thanks to the Disability Unit. She has now been studying for three-and-a-half years, after taking 2019 off to obtain additional Actuarial Society credits, and is still receiving amazing support. I use this word because it truly has been amazing. After many years of struggling to access authentic inclusion for my daughters, I have been and still am astounded at the real support and inclusion they have experienced here.
The Disability Unit also set up a separate orientation meeting for all special needs first-year students. During that session they were provided with the full particulars of the processes to be followed to ensure that they obtained the particular type of assistance they as individuals needed, for example, additional writing time during exams and tests, or separate exam facilities.
The following are a few of the support services offered by the Disability Unit that my daughters have used:
Dr Lyner-Cleophas has an open-door policy so that there always is a safe space to go to when needed. My eldest used this safe space a few times when she had an anxiety attack or suffered from sensory overload.
Dr Lyner-Cleophas has always consistently and patiently engaged with my daughters’ psychologists from outside SU.
My eldest daughter struggles with sensory overload in large crowds and lecture halls, so she wears noise-cancelling headphones during lectures. The Unit informed all her lecturers beforehand that there would be a student with headphones in class, as well as the reason why, so that she would not get into trouble.
They arranged for the chairperson of my eldest’s private students’ organisation to meet with her to discuss the orientation programme in detail so that she knew beforehand which of the sessions would be unsuitable for her to attend due to the size of the crowd and noise level that she would find unbearable. In fact, they came to meet her at our home (we live in Stellenbosch), and gave her the particulars of people to connect with during orientation, as well as people whom she could contact during her first weeks at university if she got lost on campus or needed any support.
The most recent example of the assistance provided by the Disability Unit was during the Covid-19 lockdown. My eldest daughter was extremely anxious and was struggling to work on her mini-thesis along with a large year module. They organised a Skype meeting for her with her course convener to explain the project in more depth, as her executive dysfunction was causing intense stress. In addition to this, Dr Lyner-Cleophas set up a Zoom meeting with my daughter to check how she was managing under the stressors of the pandemic, and realised that her anxiety level was extremely high (which basically blocks people on the autism spectrum from functioning on any level). Dr Lyner-Cleophas accordingly suggested that she focus on her mini-thesis and that she complete part of her studies in her second honours year, and guided her on what she needed to do to apply for this change to be accepted and implemented. After her meeting with Dr Lyner-Cleophas, my daughter said that she felt as if she could breathe again. I am profoundly grateful for the extent to which this has increased my daughter’s optimism and given her hope for the future.
Moreover, the sudden environmental change caused both my daughters to experience high levels of stress, and the Unit provided financial assistance so that they could each attend two intervention sessions a week at the Neurodiversity Centre, which specialises in neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disabilities and conditions.
My youngest daughter’s university career started in 2020, and she has received the same amount of support as her sister did, except with even more understanding of her autism, thanks to the UD having had a few more years of experience with the condition. One additional piece of guidance with which the Unit assisted us was in choosing a residence for her by informing her which residence was smaller and quieter and therefore the most suitable for our youngest with her auditory overload.
With the help of the Disability Unit, both my daughters are handling online learning well. They receive prompt responses and wonderful support at all times when needed.
The Unit also reached out to my youngest to check how she was handling online learning, so that they could support her if necessary.
Lastly, the Disability Unit has been extremely helpful by assisting my daughters with bursaries that corporate companies specifically award to students with special needs.
I would like to convey my sincere gratitude to these amazing people from the Disability Unit. May you always continue to assist and support those who need with such dedication. This is a unit that truly does what it was constituted to do, and it is my sincere wish that your work will receive the recognition it so richly deserves.
With deep gratitude and respect.
A grateful mother.