Fear and fun of freefall

16th December 2005 at 00:00
A close encounter with a ditch fails to dampen the exhilaration of university life for dyspraxic teenager Victoria Biggs

Terry Pratchett couldn't dream up my first term at Cambridge. My experiences so far - involving a posse of aspiring nuns, Chelsea buns, obscure martial arts and a rancid moat - tally with the careers advisers'

cliche: university is life-changing.

The idea of change makes fear clot in my throat. My dyspraxia means I have so little command over my limbs and memory that I have to maintain strict control over my environment, panicking at the prospect of speaking to a shopkeeper or travelling alone. Going to university was a leap into the unknown. But after a hesitant telephone call to Cambridge's disability adviser, I knew I had to fly solo.

I crash-landed during week two. In a filthy drainage ditch. In the middle of the night. I had temporarily forgotten the moat was there, on my route home from the Catholic Club, which is not a lapse I will make again. The stench of cow dung has been tattooed on to my brain cells, along with the humiliating memory of a passer-by dragging me out. "Dignity at all times", that's my motto. I accosted the passer-by with, "Excuse me? I seem to have fallen into the moat. Could you help?" and then fervently thanked God it was dark.

The ultimate hidden handicap, dyspraxia is an "impairment of the organisation of movement, also associated with problems of speech, language, perception, and thought" (Dyspraxia Foundation). Many dyspraxic pupils won't even consider higher education because of an illogical myth that associates intelligence with the ability to write your name legibly and remember phone numbers. As my schoolfriend Anna once remarked, "No respectable genius has any common sense." Einstein got lost in his own neighbourhood, was expelled from school due to his concentration difficulties, and still couldn't tie his shoelaces at his death. I doubt that he would have remembered the moat.

My special needs teacher's classroom creed ("Dyspraxia is not a disability, just a different way of thinking!") and a lot of planning made Cambridge possible. Every Monday a tutor helps me prepare a watertight timetable.

Manipulating a pen - let alone thinking at the same time - savages my attention span, so I type my essays on a computer bought with my Disabled Students' Allowance. The adviser from the disability centre has tactfully explained to various people that no "urgent" envelopes should be sent to me unless they have lots of spare copies of the contents. (Where did that bill get toI?) The college authorities were familiar with my memory lapses before I arrived; the application forms I didn't lose, I filled in incorrectly. But instead of welcoming me with a pickaxe, they assigned me a quiet, ground-floor room on the same side of the road as the English faculty, so I wouldn't have to perform a traffic-dodging circus stunt on the way to lectures. When a disability adviser told me to check my door handle ("If you can't twist it, we'll change it"), I knew I would be all right.

"Why do I want to apply to university?" writes Esther, 17, a regular contributor to the dyspraxic teenagers forum (www.dyspraxicteen.dhosts.co.uk). "Because a job that requires academic skills would be more suitable than a job that requires practical skills.

Because I know that universities are houses of tolerance. Because I know I will find eccentrics there who will understand my quirks."

Quirks are not only accepted but valued. If my preferred associates are potential nuns, if I want to camp in the library for a week, good.

Ironically, this is what teachers at my old boarding school were afraid of - that I would dissolve into the autistic spectrum's painfully beautiful isolation. To soothe them, I signed up for a ninjutsu class (casualties: 47) and regularly meet Anna for Chelsea buns and chat. "Happiness is measured by the quantities of food in the cupboard. Life is simple," she sighed through a gooey mouthful, before adding, "Not for you; you can't count."

University life with dyspraxia is far from simple, but there are people who are raring to go. "My main reason... is to have the tools to make a difference in the lives of other people with learning disorders," writes an aspiring educational psychologist. "I haven't ever let dyspraxia stop me trying before so I can't now."

Forget flying solo; try freefalling. It's an exhilarating plunge, and one that more of us need to take.

Victoria Biggs has just completed her first term reading English at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Her book about life as an adolescent with dyspraxia, Caged in Chaos (Jessica Kingsley), won the NasenTES Special Educational Needs Children's Book Award earlier this year

My first term

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