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University on the spectrum: a rewarding challenge


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According to the National Autistic Society, around 700,000 people are on the autistic spectrum in the UK. 

From a young age, I made it my personal mission to make something of myself. Although teachers and peers always remarked how I was extremely quiet and determined to stay in the background, it seems that, in my own way, I was desperate to stand out and to be noticed. I wanted to have a talent and quality of my own beyond my diagnosis: I needed something else to hinge my identity on. Being ‘the smart one’ seemed like a good option because it led to all the glory without the interaction, and so began my relationship with academia. 

Image Credit: nikolayhg on Pixabay.

When it comes to Asperger’s, I’ve learnt that people don’t expect much from you. You can tell from the way teachers talk to you slowly like you’re in primary school, and the way you’re always marked as being a ‘bad student’, with your predicted grades being way below what you’re capable of. However, with the right support from academic staff, you can achieve whatever you set your mind to.

What universities can do to support you 

Luckily, my university understood that it can take me a while to get my bearings and that I am completely and utterly useless in new surroundings: I need time, focus and a lot of practice to find my way around somewhere. With all the crowds, music, queues and events at Freshers. They gave me and other students on the spectrum the opportunity to come a few weeks earlier for a ‘transition day’ – allowing us to focus on finding our way around campus and getting our bearings without the potential for sensory overload.

They gave us a tour of the campus in advance and made us aware of all the support centres available; even arranging for us to have one-to-one sessions with our assigned ‘mentor’. The tour, which raised awareness of the services available was infinitely helpful, however, I personally found the idea of a ‘buddy’ trying to settle me to university a bit patronising. Of course, it was done with the best of intentions, but too often people with autism find themselves infantilised. I felt as if they doubted my ability to cope with university, and if you spend your whole life being underestimated, it can get quite tiring. Although autism is definitely a spectrum and some will benefit from this level of one-to-one support, don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel smothered and that this type of support is doing more harm than good. Often, this type of baby-ing comes from people who see the word ‘learning disability’ and then focus on what you can’t do rather than what you can.

The difficulties of student life

The biggest, and most intimidating, barrier for most Asperger’s Syndrome students looking at university is the prospect of moving out. If, like me, you have a protective family as a result of your diagnosis, making that leap into an independent life is all the more intimidating. People don’t necessarily know where to start. For this reason, many of students on the spectrum choose a university close to home to either commute to or live at, knowing that when things get too much, their home isn’t too far away. 

As someone who goes to a university near my hometown, I can definitely say that it is comforting to know that if I ever get stressed, upset, or overwhelmed, I’m just a short train ride away from my family, cat, and the place I’ve grown up in. I sometimes get a bit overwhelmed with change, so being able to go back to a place that’s so familiar to me is extremely therapeutic. However, it is equally as important to learn vital skills in order to live a fully-functioning, independent life – with university being a place between childhood and adulthood, there's no better place than to do just that, even if it means going out of your comfort zone.

Jack, another student on the spectrum, faced challenges living with people but ultimately learnt some valuable lessons from moving out. He says:

"The main struggle I had was living with new people.  I couldn’t understand why other people didn’t cook or clean in the same way I did, which can (and did) lead to arguments. The best thing to remember is that everyone is unique and has their own way of doing things. It might not be your way, but that doesn’t make it the wrong way."

Experiences with university accommodation

University halls, in particular, are a very good way to ease into an independent life without being thrown into the deep end. You don't have to worry about issues such as bills, whilst many also have a cleaner coming in most weeks to help ensure the tidiness of the flat. If you live at a distance from campus, there are usually direct bus links from your doorstep to campus, which means that if you struggle with directions like I do, they eliminate that worry and get you home safely.

Furthermore, if you haven’t got the hang of cooking yet or panic about shared facilities, there are options like en-suite bathrooms and self-catered halls that help provide your meals for you. My university specifically also give all students the option of living in a ‘quiet flat’, which means that if you like your own space, the university will accommodate that and pair you with like-minded people. Whilst there will definitely be ups and downs living in halls as opposed to commuting from home, the former is a lot better for social development and allows you to learn crucial skills you can apply further in the future. 

Overall, the best thing about university life is it's structured- and people on the spectrum love structure! Although university is reputed for its wild lifestyle of drinking, clubbing and gigs, that’s not all there is. For me personally, I tend to avoid places like clubs and gigs as the sound and lights tend to make me go into a spiral and have a sensory overload – and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has this. Luckily, university has a structured way to socialise and make friends with the help of student societies. All societies are based on a common interest like an activity, meaning that there is already a talking point and something you have in common with people, which is useful if you struggle with conversation. It also gives you an outlet for your ‘specialist interest’ – something common in young people with autism – in a judgement-free environment. 

University is stressful for everyone; so you’re not alone in feeling this way. Although it can be easy to be caught up in its fast-paced lifestyle, it is absolutely vital that you set yourself boundaries, know your limitations and go at your own pace. At the same time, however, don’t be afraid to go beyond your comfort zone – for me, at least, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. 

Don’t be scared about standing out at university: being different is embraced! It's such a big place that everyone and anyone can find their niche and a lifestyle that suits them. You’ll be okay. 

If you are a university student or a prospective student, contact your university or wellbeing service to find out how you can be supported. For more information on this, visit the National Autistic Society website.

Lead Image Credit: nikolayhg on Pixabay.

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