University – Student life on the spectrum

Autism

I very recently finished my second university year, yay!

As an Autistic Student, I feel that my experiences and abilities to handle given situations naturally vary from those of “neurotypicals”, and whilst that’s okay, it’s a matter I’ve been aiming to shed a little light on. I am diagnosed with high-functioning Autism (previously described as Aspergers), the spectrum is vast, filled with people of all ages, races and abilities. And whilst we remain similar in various ways, we also possess our own personal differences and struggles. It certainly isn’t a “one word fits all” criteria. 

Shortly after receiving my Autism diagnosis, I maintained the idea that I would prevented be from going to University. I envisioned myself being unable to work with animals due to my Autism. My Therapist ensured me otherwise and reminded me that my kindness and compassion would guide me far. I failed to acknowledge that I was the same person and I hadn’t changed, I was just gaining a widened understanding into why I found aspects of life so difficult at times. But I believe I’m doing considerably well and may have advantageous traits. Such as an inability to lose focus of my special interest (animals!) time management and organisation.

I often receive messages, words of encouragement and praise congratulating me on my efforts and achievements. And my capacity to overcome the obstacles often lumbered in my direction, which I appreciate wholeheartedly. It’s overwhelming to reminisce on my previous years in education, where I remained unaware of my Autism, unaware of why I regularly faced challenging situations. And I guess, unaware of who I really was. Looking back, I understand why I struggled to fit in, why maintaining friendships proved difficult and why I followed perfectionist standards. The two years I’ve spent engaging in university student life have been the best. I’ve truly begun flourishing and finding myself, whilst slowly learning the art of self acceptance.

Admittedly, I believe that my Autism can never affect my abilities or be a hindrance on my pathway to success, as long as I persevere and reach out for support as required. I believe my Autism is another personal characteristic in which I choose to embrace, it isn’t a disease, I don’t need curing, but I do appreciate acceptance. To begin with, my Autism diagnosis proved to be difficult to accept and it constantly played on my mind like a fault. But over time, I’ve started to feel proud to be on the spectrum and the concept of being Autistic no longer equated to my whole world crashing down. My diagnosis encouraged me to take on new and exhilarating challenges – using public transport alone, moving to a brand new town alone and meeting new people (students and teachers). And 3 months ago, I flew over 4,000 miles away from home to spend 10 days in Florida for University. This once seemed impossible, but perhaps, things aren’t impossible once they’re done.

I refuse to jump into new situations and tasks with the “I can’t do this because I’m Autistic” mindset. I prefer to access support to address my worries surrounding the situation, while preferring to use “Why shouldn’t I be able to do this? My Autism cannot stop me”.

I understand and acknowledge the fact that I’m more sensitive in comparison to other Students. I often dwell on feedback on my work, focusing primarily on the areas of weakness, I constantly worry over slight changes in tone or behaviours and discredit myself for being in the wrong, or for unintentionally causing upset, because it has been noted that I have a tendency to be quite “matter of fact”. I easily become caught up in the feelings and actions of others, holding the beliefs that I should be the problem solver, the peace bringer.

I often struggle with fitting in, although I’ve been pushing myself very much out of my comfort zone this year, with facing communication barriers and meeting new people. I love chatting sometimes, especially with my Tutors, where an insightful conversation can always be guaranteed. Whilst I love having a wide selection of friends, I am 100% more comfortable within a small group. However, my Tutor recently reminded me that barely anybody fits in, but I believe we can all find ourselves surrounded with people who share our common interests. Ie: passions for animals. It’s also okay to embrace our individualities and our uniqueness.

My Autism often leads to uncontrollable and unpredictable meltdowns, usually when I’m alone, or faced with a challenging and anxiety provoking situation, such as tackling practical sessions/workshops as part of my Degree, encountering sudden changes or landing myself in a crowded, loud environment. I often run away, begin pacing or shaking and find myself in a panic. The room can feel as though it’s spinning and I’ve found that stressful situations can contribute to lightheadedness. I can become tearful and stressed and engage in hurtful coping mechanisms because I allow my anxiety to build up as I struggle to express myself verbally. However, I’ve thankfully been blessed with the most supportive Tutors who I feel comfortable confiding in about, well, everything! There’s no judgement, just understanding and the issuing of advice.

I find timings difficult and often stressful. I arrive to lectures considerably earlier than necessary because I have a fear of being late, but also stick routinely to the same seat in the lecture theatre. For instance, if I have plans to meet another person at 11am and they arrive later than planned, it’ll really throw me off guard. This’ll also lead to me blaming myself, sitting back and wondering if I did anything wrong, as I cannot think rationally in the situation and fail to recognise that a problem may have occurred. My Therapist and I recognised that I often need to find fault in a situation in order to cope, I typically find fault in myself as opposed to others and frequently say “it must be my fault if it’s nobody else’s”. And, as you can imagine, I find the late arrival of public transport and cancelled trains demanding.

My mindset can be unpredictable, leading to a wide variability in my moods. I understand that anxiety and depression often go coincide with Autism, but it’s not a one word fits all genera. Finding happiness is still a factor I am currently dedicated to and I often face more bad days than good. I find that I require more alone time in comparison to my peers. I love collecting my thoughts and devoting my time to healing. But usually, I can become exhausted from communication and need lots of time to rest and recover, following the physical and mental exhaustion I endure frequently.

I wonderfully share my diagnosis with Temple Grandin, a well-known (and extremely intelligent) Animal Behaviourist, who inspired me to take pride in my diagnosis. I remain fixated in my interest of animals. Goats in particular. I talk about them alot, to anybody who’ll listen. Meaning I often become engrossed within the topic and find it difficult to focus my concentration elsewhere. This is improving as I take other modules and widen my interests, but I’m perfectly happy being the well-known goat lover and I wouldn’t change my interest for the world. 

Being Autistic does issue me with my fair share of challenges and obstacles, but ones I am determined to conquer. Because I can, I will, and I am not defined by my diagnosis.

For further information on Autism, please visit the following source: 

https://www.autism.org.uk

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