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Graduation journey

I am not sure for how long we were silent, but it did seem like a long time. I don't think either of us were surprised though; we had fought for so long to be taken seriously with years of politely listening to the empty reassurances and well-meaning speculation of others. But now the Schrödinger’s cat moment was over, the box had been lifted and uncertainty resolved; our beautiful fouryear old son had been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. I remember thinking, but what has actually changed? He was still the same James as a few moments ago; a boy content in his own little world, a boy of few words save for stock phrases harvested from television programs, a happy boy whose favourite gesture was a big ‘thumbs-up’. No, nothing had actually changed and yet everything had changed.

It was difficult for us both but it was especially difficult for Natasha my wife, James was her first and only child and she took it very hard. The consultant said we were experiencing grief for the loss of what we thought our child would become, but he added that whilst the destination had changed we had considerable control as to where the journey took us. It took a few months to come to terms with the diagnosis followed by two years of limited access to professional help. We followed the advice we were given and accepted any help that was offered, but after two years we came to conclusion it simply was not enough. So one weekend in the Spring of 2010, Natasha and I sat down over a bottle of wine and started to plan our new journey with James. Natasha decided to change career from being a personal assistant at a financial services company to working in a special needs school to gain practical experience in teaching techniques. I always had an interest in psychology, so we agreed that I would take an academic route and study the subject with the Open University. The OU website was useful and after taking advice I opted to start with two level-one modules; 'DSE141 - Discovering Psychology' and a 15-point module 'SK124 - Understanding the autism spectrum'. I started in October 2010 and it was exciting to receive my first set of books, although I remember feeling a little intimidated with the huge amount of information. The study planner helped though and that weekend I rolled up my sleeves, opened my books and became a student once again. I got into a routine with my study but two months in, disaster struck. It was the runup to Christmas and I had so much going on that I completely forgot to submit my first ever EMA. When I logged onto the site, it was closed. I was angry and upset with myself and whilst I suppose I could have appealed, I didn't want to; I felt I deserved the pain. I really studied hard to redeem myself securing 90% for each of the other assessments, but that one mistake significantly impacted my average. Time was always a problem for me, I concluded that careful planning and single-module focus was the only way to balance study with my full-time job. My next module ‘Introducing the social sciences’ was more sociology than psychology, but it did help develop my study and essay writing skills. At first I found reading the tutor feedback quite painful, but it was always constructive and I saw noticeable improvements in following the advice, although proper referencing took me a long time to master!

Level two and at last I was opening the materials of the module I had been looking forward to since starting my degree; 'ED209 - Child development'. It had a reputation for being tough and not really a sensible selection for the first level-two module. My tutor Caroline was really helpful and when I told her about James she sent through papers that explored child development through discursive analysis of children’s’ interactions. They were a tough read but interesting, she gave me the research bug and I sought out research around the socio-communicative challenges faced by children with Asperger’s. One paper I found discussed how conversational roles are negotiated during discourse between children, for example ‘teaching’ the other child about a toy. It was suggested that child-adult conversations often tend towards the adult taking the dominant role. This was consistent with my conversations with James and so I decided to let him be the teacher; I stopped correcting grammar and ‘expanding’ the conversation onto less stereotyped topics, I listened. I let him teach me about trains, his favourite book and the handful of other subjects he always talked about. The repetition no longer mattered, the focus was practice. Whereas before James would disengage after a few minutes, now our conversations lasted twenty plus minutes. I asked on-topic questions and, as the paper described, ‘verbalised a change in mental state’ with lots of “oh, I see” type responses. Questions like “It makes me wonder what would Mario think of that” allowed me to maintain my position of being taught but gently guide him into considering other perspectives. ED209 was full of great content; from Piaget’s ‘Theory of Cognitive Development’ to Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of proximal development’, I enjoyed it all.

Level three started with DD303 Cognitive Psychology, an interesting module that explored key theories around the lowlevel workings of the mind including perception, memory and word recognition. It was tough, but I really enjoyed working on my project at a weeklong residential, unfortunately the OU have stopped these. I met some great people at Warwick including my project partner Fiona who was hard working and funny. Our project was an investigation into the effects of homophones on word recognition. It was a solid project but unfortunately I made a simple mistake in transferring the data from SPSS into my report that led to dropping significant marks for the results section. I was furious with myself as the project was part of the examinable component. I remember walking the dog that evening and swearing under my breath about what a stupid mistake I had made. My Labrador Koopa is great therapy for when I am annoyed and by the end of the walk, my grumbling had been replaced with "Ok, fine, it is what it is, I won't make that mistake again". This made the exam more challenging, but I was systematic with my revision and thanks to the guidance I received at the excellent OUPS revision weekend, I got the mark I needed.

My final module was DD307, Critical Perspectives on Self and Others. I know a lot of people struggled with this module as it was such a departure from the style of the other modules. Personally I really enjoyed it. The course built up to a full project and I decided to investigate how identities were constructed and reconstructed through language during a change in employment status. Unfortunately, right in the middle of my project I had health issues that required hospital treatment and I feared I would need to defer the module. The support my tutor gave during this time was wonderful and I was able to complete both my project and my treatment. I was utterly focussed on doing the best I could in what was the last module of my degree. Once again the OUPS revision weekend was invaluable and combined with a structured study plan, I managed to secure the distinction I needed.

This has been a six-year journey with the Open University. I have learned so much about Psychology that goes beyond simply memorising course materials. Psychology has changed the way I look at myself and those around me and I have no doubt that it has changed the course of my son's development. It has been tough at times; holding down a challenging full-time job and trying to spend time with my family has been difficult, but I had fantastic support from my tutors especially Caroline, Katy, Heather and Andrea. With their help I was awarded a First-class degree with honours. My son is now thirteen, he attends a mainstream school and whilst there are still some issues, his speech is excellent, he is happy and I feel he has a great future ahead. In October, I attended the Milton Keynes Graduation ceremony along with my mum, daughter Becky, Natasha and James. It was a great day made very special when I heard my family cheer and shout as I went up on the stage for my moment in the spotlight. The most precious memory I have of the day was when I left the stage and looked over to see them with ear-toear smiles, including James who was also doing a big ‘thumbs-up’.

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