Archive for February 9th, 2010

I have shared before that my sister graduated college in December. She is now working on her Master’s degree in biology. She managed to get through her undergraduate courses well for the most part except that her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms caused her to fail multiple tests. She applied for accommodations at the college to get her own testing room. A doctor diagnosed her with social anxiety disorder, which qualified her for this accommodation. As soon as she started taking tests in a private testing room, she went from failing her exams to acing them.

Her problem is hypervigilence. When she is taking a test in a room filled with people, she must determine the origin of each sound to assess whether it is a threat. So, every time someone drops a pencil or clears his throat, she cannot focus on the test questions. Her brain stops processing the test, resulting in a failing grade. However, when she is in a private testing room, there is no “threat” to assess, so she can focus on her exam.

My sister is now being triggered by some of the labs that she is taking. She had to remove animal skulls from boxes, which was very triggering to her. Interestingly, she is not triggered by skulls if she comes across them in the forest, but it wigs her out to have to remove skulls from boxes or jars. We both suspect that this is a trigger from the ritual abuse we suffered. Regardless of why, she fears failing out of the Master’s program because of her PTSD symptoms.

I have encouraged her to apply for accommodations through the university’s disability office, and she is following my advice with the support of her campus counselor. Federal law offers protection for people with disabilities, and PTSD qualifies. My sister can apply for an individualized education plan (IEP), which will provide her with modifications to accommodate her disability. For example, she is going to ask that the animal skulls be removed from the boxes by someone else and be lying on the table when she enters the lab. She is hopeful that this will be enough to remove the triggers for her.

If you are in college (or high school), you have protection if your PTSD symptoms are interfering with your ability to succeed in school. Talk to your school’s disability office about possible accommodations. You should not have to give up on your dream of a college degree just because you have PTSD. Don’t let your abusers take that away from you, too.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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