Hari’s challenge: Finding a place of comfort

In a large sunlit room on the third floor of Doe Library, bookshelves fill the walls from floor to ceiling with a seemingly endless mosaic of colorful books.

For many, the books would be like wallpaper, receding into the background. But for Hari Srinivasan, a fourth-year student in psychology, those books are vessels streaming all their information into the air.

When Srinivasan steps into a new environment, he’s often bombarded by sensations such as these. Srinivasan has nonverbal autism and sensory dysregulation. Unfamiliar spaces can spark kaleidoscopic frenzy, and overstimulation can send his reflexes into overdrive.

At times, the sensory overload can be ecstatic. (“The rhythm of a waterfall can, for instance, touch the very soul,” he writes in a Daily Californian article.) But as a student juggling midterms, it can also be terribly frustrating.

During one review session for a midterm, Srinivasan recalls, the air vent in the Mulford Hall lecture room felt so loud, he could not focus at all.

“Each place has a different feel to it — tiny nuances that we pick up on,” Srinivasan says during our interview via text-to-speech software. “During an exam, I want to be able to focus more on the exam and less on dealing with unknown sensory input.”

Hari Srinivasan

Hari Srinivasan, a psychology student who wants to go on and get his Ph.D. (UC Berkeley Library photo by Jami Smith)

Srinivasan is one of about 2,700 students in UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, which works with units across campus to provide accommodations and services to students with disabilities. This past year, noting Srinivasan’s challenges, DSP worked with the library to secure a regular space for him in Moffitt Library, where he could take his exams free of distraction.

“The familiarity with a room and the sameness brings in a sense of comfort,” he says.

While Srinivasan’s particular case is uncommon — he is one of a small handful of students with nonverbal autism to ever attend UC Berkeley — the need for space on campus is certainly not.

DSP has designated proctoring sites on campus where students can take exams with a range of accommodations: extra time, assistive technologies and fewer people in the room, for example. But when exam season comes around, there are always more requests than DSP alone can accommodate.

So each semester, the library looks within its walls — usually in Doe and Moffitt — to find the spaces to meet those needs.

Read Virgie Hoban’s full story on the library website.