It’s hard to describe what being autistic is like, in the same way that it’s difficult for most people to describe what breathing is like. When you’re born different, it’s ‘your normal’ and you can’t even imagine what it would be like not to be autistic.
The National Autistic Society describes autism as a “disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them”. I often describe it as my brain being wired differently. It means that I have some strengths that other people don’t have, like an excellent memory and an ability to look at the world from an outside perspective. But I also have some weaknesses, like sensory issues, varying levels of empathy, and finding it difficult to understand other people.
I worried a lot about coming to university and whether it would be the best place for me
Just 41% of individuals with a disability graduate from a Bachelor’s-granting institution. This includes Autism Spectrum Disorder. That’s because we face additional challenges in higher education, ones that most people wouldn’t even know about. While somebody in a wheelchair may be obviously disabled, most of us have learned to ‘mask’ our differences so people don’t even realise we’re struggling. And even when people do see us struggling, they often can’t understand why certain things are so difficult for us when they’re easy for us.
I worried a lot about coming to university and whether it would be the best place for me.
Being autistic presents unique challenges anywhere, especially during big transitions and in new places. While the change between school and university can be tricky for most people, I found the transition much more difficult than many of my peers. This is because even small changes can be incredibly overwhelming for autistic people, as they’re different from what we’re used to- last minute plans or new furniture are often enough to send me into meltdown. Therefore, a huge change, like university, was incredibly difficult to adjust to. For the first few weeks, my sense of self-esteem as well as my mood dipped dramatically. I retreated into my shell a lot.
Finding new friends was also something I struggled with. One of the main traits of autism, (and the most recognisable to other people), is that we often struggle with social situations and don’t find it easy to communicate with others. It’s hard to explain to an outsider. But things that come naturally to other people, such as making eye contact and knowing when it’s my turn to speak, are hard work for me. It takes me conscious effort to hold a conversation with people I know, let alone to find friends among strangers. I have been seriously lucky that I have been taken under the wing of my society, my flatmates, and friends of friends. Even though it took a while, it could’ve taken much longer and I had to push myself a lot to get to where I am now.
Moving to uni also meant leaving behind my support network
Moving to uni also meant leaving behind my support network. When you’re autistic, the support you receive from friends and family can be incredibly important. My parents understand what I’m feeling and what I need, sometimes better than I do. Growing up, they guided me through social rules and conventions that I didn’t understand. When meeting new people, my mum would suggest questions I could ask and we would practice hypothetical conversations in the car.
If I got overstimulated, which means overwhelmed by what’s going on around me, my parents could understand what was happening and how to help me. Being overstimulated is a lot like having a panic attack, except it’s brought on by environmental factors, and can look similar to people around me. To me, it feels like the world is too much to deal with and I ‘shut down’, blocking it out. Since going to uni, I’ve had to learn to look after myself in situations like this and it hasn’t been easy. I have to recognise when things are getting overwhelming and know when to remove myself from a situation before I start ‘shutting down’.
There’s no shame in admitting you can’t do everything on your own
But I’ve also learned that just because I’m independent now doesn’t mean I have to cope with things entirely on my own. My friends know to keep an eye on me when we go out. This is because flashing lights, blaring music, and crowds can overwhelm me quickly, making nights out difficult. They also know to check up on me if I’ve been having a difficult time recently or to leave me alone if I need some space. Another important thing I’ve learnt this year is that it doesn’t make you a failure to ask for help when you need it- especially when you’re already facing extra challenges. There’s no shame in admitting you can’t do everything on your own.
Additionally, my disability mentor from Wellbeing Services has been helpful with facing day-to-day challenges. She helps me navigate social situations and makes sure I keep on top of my work, as well as keeping track of my general wellbeing. Autistic people grow up in a society that doesn’t accommodate us correctly, which means that many of us suffer from mental illnesses. I’ve had anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember. While my mentor isn’t a trained therapist, she does listen to me and let me work through my problems during our appointments. In many ways, she fulfils a lot of the roles that my parents used to play for me.
What I’d like most people to take away from this article is that a lot of disabilities aren’t immediately obvious
A lot of the other problems with being an autistic student is that a lot of people don’t fully understand what it’s like or how it makes things difficult for me.
What I’d like most people to take away from this article is that a lot of disabilities aren’t immediately obvious. My quietness is often misconstrued as shyness and my inability to make eye contact is often immediately judged to be rude. Neither of these things are true. People think that I don’t want to talk to them, when I’m often desperately trying to work out how to break into the conservation. On the other hand, my honesty can often shock people in a way I didn’t expect and I can upset people without realising.
Without knowing I’m autistic, it’s easy to make snap judgements about my character from these traits. What you can’t tell is how much work I put in everyday and how hard things actually can be for me and people like me.
Starting university in September, I wasn’t sure I would make it through the first week, let alone the first year. And I won’t lie- to myself or any future autistic students who attend uni. It is really, really difficult adjusting to student life. There’s so many changes and much more independence and at times, it can feel really overwhelming. But the smallest victories can add up over time. If it only means going to one lecture (too crowded), or speaking in a seminar, (stressful), each time you do these things they get a little bit easier. Now that I’m nearly at the end of my first year, I’m happy I decided to come here. Despite the ups and downs, I really have enjoyed my time at Warwick.