ARCHIVED Schooling for Autism Part III: University and Beyond!
ARCHIVED: Please note, whilst every effort has been made to update blog posts, this blog post has been archived and may present outdated and incorrect information and terminology.
The five most important things I learnt at university, in no particular order, were: that ‘then’ and ‘than’ are actually two separate words and should be used in two different contexts, not just out of preference; that it is never a good idea to start watching Green Mile at one o’clock in the morning, especially not when you are yet to start writing the essay due in at 9am the following morning (I passed out handing said essay in, and it wasn’t even through alcohol abuse); that things may feel big at the time but it is just a very small clip of your entire life; that people won’t care what you are like or judge you, so long as you wash up after yourself, occasionally take the bin bags out, and contribute to toilet paper buying once in a while; and finally, that no matter how weird you may think you are, you’re never far away from someone much, much weirder than yourself, a bit like that statistic which states that you are never more than 18 meters away from a rat, you are never more than 18 meters away from someone dressed as a Smurf doing their Laundry at 3am (just one of many examples).
University can be an Aspie’s worst nightmare, or a safe haven away from the real world. For me It was one of the hardest experiences and yet one of the best I have ever had. As the cliché goes, if I had the chance to go back knowing what I do now, I’d go back and get it right. By ‘right’ I don’t mean study more and procrastinate less, that would be impossible. I mean that I would be less scared of the world. I would have joined all the societies I was interested in and not cared about how rubbish I may have been talking to new people, I would have gone out with my friends more and not worried about not wanting to drink or feeling like I didn’t fit in, and most importantly I would have allowed myself to do the things that made me happy and felt stronger saying no to the things which made me really unhappy.
I thought I should start with this one as in theory it should be the most important aspect of university life, however it is not; it makes up only a tiny part of the whole experience. I struggled going to my lectures and tutorials, it became a bit of a joke amongst my housemates as I would collect my Early Warning Reports on my wall. The main issues I had were that the lecture halls were packed full of people, the tutorials were full of people I didn’t know making awkward conversation (clearly not awkward for anyone else but me). Where would I sit? Did I know people well enough to chat to them? How do I introduce myself? Once I’ve introduced myself how do I keep up the conversation? What if I’m made to talk to the whole class or do a presentation? What if people notice I’m behaving oddly? Can they see me jittering all the time? Why aren’t the chairs organised more uniformly? Can I get near the door so I can escape quickly? Is all this fear showing on my face!? On top of all that stress I had to process what the lecturer was trying to teach us. I started off having to teach myself from textbooks parts I had not understood when verbally taught, then soon realised I wasn’t actually getting anything from turning up at all, other than a lot of stress and tiredness. By fourth year I overcome a lot of those fears and managed to attend about 150% more of my lectures and seminars, so long as they weren’t before 10am. Everything just takes a bit of time, and luckily at university you have plenty to develop, especially if you have to retake a year. Much like my college teachers, my university lecturers paid no attention to me so long as my grades were OK. I wish they had given me more support, and I could list a hundred ways they could have helped now, but at the time I wasn’t aware I was autistic, I was just determined to prove everyone wrong.
My housemates were the ones who kept me sane(ish) throughout the four years. I have never been more nervous than walking into my first house full of 16 people, how was I ever expected to make friends with them all!? I hibernated in my room for the first week of my Fresher’s year, until gradually I had to eat and people started knocking on my door. Living in halls with other students is such a surreal situation, which you will never be exposed to again. Because of this making friends is incredibly easy, they are already made for you, and fortunately I also liked a few of the ones I had been imprisoned with. Through them I made other friends and managed to build my confidence up slowly. It is never easy living with people you don’t know very well, but it is only once you live with people you realise that you are not much different to any of them. I was honest with my uni friends from the started and they accepted me exactly as I am, so uni soon became one of the very few places I could comfortably be myself. We’d spend all day watching films and chatting in the kitchen, and then they’d all go out drinking and clubbing in the evening, whilst I had some down time. It was never a problem and I was never deemed weird or isolated because I did things a bit differently. In fact during my most anxious phases when I would be too scared to leave the house at all, a couple of them would go and get my shopping or any work I needed, and think nothing of it so long as I cooked for them afterwards. Living in houses was much easier than halls. I thought I would enjoy the safety of living on campus, but it actually turned out to be too stifling and pressured. Living in houses I became more and more independent, and by third year going out didn’t seem so scary anymore.
I joined the folk club, the Neighbours society, Badminton Soc, Psychology Soc, Photography Soc, Quiet society and the LGBT soc. I went to none of them. I briefly attended a few Christian discussion groups, but had decided it was best I leave after I decided to spend the whole night playing devil’s advocate and had far too much enjoyment contradicting every Christian point which was made; when I get into a debate then God help you. My second society adventure was to Women’s Society with my housemates, where we sat watching a documentary on the menstrual cycle next to a girl drinking cider and eating a kebab, clearly she was having a good night out. I probably could have seen myself getting more involved with this one but felt my feminist spirit was lacking somewhat. Badminton Society lasted a little bit longer. Full of arrogance I jumped into the club fully expecting to astonish everyone with my Olympic standard racquet skills, three shuttle cocks in the breast and two in the head later I quietly slipped out and decided that racquet sports were best kept for rainy holidays. I was much happier pursuing my hobbies by myself, as my own boss. Through my best friend who was involved in acting, I started doing a few photo shoots for plays on at the Drama Barn. Without a doubt this was the one thing I most enjoyed doing at uni, and gave me the most confidence. People liked my work, and through my work I met other people. I’ve always said I could do anything or meet anyone if I had a camera in my hand, for some reason the lens adds a barrier to the external world which prevents me from overloading, maybe because I’m more in control of it, I can freeze the world through a camera lens and slow it down.
I don’t care what anyone says, the statistic that most people find their long-term partner whilst at university is a myth. It is a breeding ground of horny and experimental twenty year olds, unlikely to take a relationship any more seriously than their first year fire and safety talk (not very). This can have its advantages and disadvantages for the autistic mind. On the one hand it doesn’t matter how inept you are, no one seems to care and you are more than likely to find someone who will accept all your quirks. On the other hand students can be quite uninhibited, whilst most of us with Asperger’s tend to be quite inhibited, the pressure to do the ‘normal’ things ‘normal’ students do can be a little overwhelming at times, particularly when it comes to alcohol, drugs, and relationships. For me I always felt like I was a little bit behind on all my peers. Socially I have always developed more slowly, and having missed 2 ½ years of schooling I was behind them on all the normal social milestones, like having your first boyfriend/girlfriend. I think what is most important to remember when you are feeling pressured to fit in more but don’t feel comfortable doing so, is that it is only yourself who can make you feel pressured. Lots of autistic people find relationships hard, and as abnormal as you may feel about your sexuality, you are in fact perfectly normal.
Another issue, which concerns more of the female population, is that of personal safety. Particularly for autistic women, we may be intellectually above our peers but we are naive at the best of times, often black and white, and incredibly trusting, which can and does occasionally lead us into danger. For me it was in my fourth year when I had moved back into halls with a group of new students I had not met before. Much like my first year in halls I made friends straight away; however one of these saw my naivety and vulnerability and used it to his advantage. People who know me may be surprised to hear me mention this publically, however I feel it’s important to mention for two reasons: firstly, because women in general should not have to hide and be made to feel ashamed of such assaults, and secondly because I feel it is a very important issue which needs to be addressed for the personal safety of females on the spectrum, and I was luckier than most. What hurt me most at the time of this incident was that I could not comprehend how someone can be a friend one minute and then hurt you the next; my black and white thinking could not accept what had taken place.
Meltdowns and Breakdowns
My final topic turns to the much more uplifting realms of meltdowns and breakdowns, of which I had many. My first meltdown started just an hour after arriving on my new campus. I had spent all summer collecting my new equipment and organising it, but it only hit me I was moving home an hour after arriving whilst sat in the pub with all my new friends. After that episode at least twice a term I would seriously contemplate leaving. It is fair to say I don’t transition well, and once settled need to be left alone. University does not allow for this. I was fortunate enough to be given extensions on missed work and have my timetable made easier to manage after my first breakdown at the start of my second year. First year had taken so much out of me I had used up all my resources and was forced to take the year off. I patched myself up as best as I could in that year and with the persuasion of my mother and the new set of Cath Kidston crockery she had bought me, managed to get back and just about finished the following two years. Needless to say I was exhausted by the time I graduated. What I hadn’t quite mastered whilst at uni, which would have been helpful, was the work/social/relaxation balance. I am only just managing to grasp that now.
I would say that University changed my life, and for me it was the perfect environment to practice life in before I would be forced to enter the real world, in a similar way to how I imagine prison would. Although these blog posts on my experience of the education system seem quite negative in parts, I wanted the take home message to be that although something seems hard at the time, you learn a lot from it and you will work out how to cope with it. My experience does not represent how all people with Autism and Asperger’s will cope with school, college and university, but I hope the lessons I learnt can be of some use. If you be yourself and honest at all times and don’t worry about others judging you, then you can get through anything.