“No, I’m not obsessed with trains. No, I’m not a savant with some super skill that’ll blow you away. No, I don’t need to wear headphones in every public place to block out the noise.”
The word “autism” itself is one that often conjures up harmful stereotypes. It’s a punchline for fledgling internet “comedians”, a concept that drives fear into the hearts of potential parents, and a convenient weapon used by the anti-vax movement to further their agenda, all at the same time. Everyone knows what autism is, yet very few actually understand what it means. This is the reason why we have Autism Awareness Week; to combat ignorance, myths and discrimination perpetrated against autistic people, to shine a light on the issues that autistic people face on a daily basis, and to understand how everyone can help. While some (wrongly) associate autism with an inability to succeed in the world of education and work, there is a continued lack of knowledge and understanding regarding the experience of autistic students at university. As someone who has Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, I feel a duty to explain my own experience with autism at university, and how we can change things to make autistic people feel more welcome and accepted both within university culture and outside of it.
First off, let’s get some things out of the way. No, I’m not obsessed with trains. No, I’m not a savant with some super skill that’ll blow you away. No, I don’t need to wear headphones in every public place to block out the noise (although I do wear mine quite often for general music listening, but no more than any other student I’d wager). Yes, I do understand sarcasm and metaphors and don’t take everything literally. Yes, I do have social difficulties, especially dealing with social anxiety issues, but this doesn’t mean I can’t talk to people or get to know them. I do enjoy going out and being sociable like any other student; I just find that social situations, especially new ones, can cause me a lot of anxiety. I am autistic, but there is no catch-all definition of what an autistic person is like. We’re unique people with our own individual issues that we deal with day to day. Just because you know someone with autism “who does that” does not mean that I or anybody else with autism does it.
But how do I, as an autistic person, deal with university and all the challenges that come with it? Luckily, living close to the University means I didn’t have to leave home and could instead commute to uni; this solved the problem of having to move into a tiny flat in the halls of residence with people I didn’t know doing things I didn’t like, and making me feel uncomfortable by being judged based on my traits. Moving away from home for the first time is a challenge for anyone on the autistic spectrum – the safety, comfort and care you had with your parents is suddenly swept away from you as you face the challenges on your own or even worse, flatmates you come into conflict with. A universal issue among those with autism is struggling to deal with changes to routine, which can cause distress – university, which is very much unstructured and flexible in nature compared to school, can therefore be unsettling for autistic students. I know that when I first came to university, learning to adapt to this was a struggle, although with my third year nearly finished I’ve learned how to better deal with it. As we all know, uni has a lot of social interaction even if you never do it outside of class, but it was a challenge I naively believed I was prepared for.
How wrong I was! I had simply learned to become comfortable with my social interactions at school and wasn’t yet ready for the new situations I was going to be facing, and so become somewhat of a nervous wreck. With time and experience, as well as learning from the occasional faux pas, I’m much better at it now and I try to actively embrace the opportunity to meet new people and make friends.
Having being diagnosed with Asperger’s at around seven years old, I became registered with the Disability Service as soon as I joined the University. Despite not having to use their services since first year, I couldn’t fault my experience with them: everyone was warm, caring, friendly and understanding of my condition. I’m not sure if the Uni could have done much more – the problem with having autism both at university and in society in general mainly comes down to the people, not the institutions themselves. They can be ignorant and treat you like some sort of fool or also be incredibly patronising as you are singled out for special treatment, further solidifying the idea that you’re not “normal” like everybody else. It’s why I, up to this point in my life, generally avoid telling people I’m on the autistic spectrum, because even if they seem like they don’t think of you differently, you don’t know how they’ve decided to modify their behaviour to fit the new image they have of you as an autistic person. The best way to support someone you know with autism is to understand the issues they have and act in a way that is understanding of them, like you would for anyone else.
Despite all the issues that having autism brings, I wouldn’t change it for the world – it is an ingrained part of me and has defined the person I am. Without it, I’m no longer the same person. With that in mind, there should be a strive for acceptance, understanding, and equal treatment toward autistic people, rather than making unfair judgements and ostracising them – we’re all human and differences should be embraced, not feared. If that is a step you can take on an individual level, then you just might begin to make the world a little bit of a better place for those with autism.