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10 My Autism-Friendly Guide to All Things University

I cannot quite believe it; I have finished my first year of university! It feels like only yesterday that I was filling out my application, going for interviews and sitting my end of secondary school exams. University has always been posed as a super daunting experience and I guess understandably so: moving to a new place (possibly in a new country), having to make new friends, living independently, learning in a different style and adapting to a new way of life. For autistic individuals, these challenges can be further exacerbated by social burnout from the huge effort of meeting new people. There are also additional obstacles we have to face (like the constant unknowns that lay ahead and lack of routine). However, reflecting on my first year, whilst there have been ups and downs, I have loved being at university.


I feel so lucky to have had the support from friends and family, helping me with my journey leading up to and whilst at university. Thus, I want to pay forward and encourage other autistic and neurodivergent individuals who may be looking to do the same. I reached out to several autistic communities and networks (both teenagers and their parents) to accumulate a list of university-related questions I could help answer, below.


How did you decide what university you wanted to apply to?

Everyone has different criteria when searching for universities, but here are my top four:

- Good student support services (you can find this out on the university website and also by signing up for zoom sessions, which some universities offer, where they discuss the support that they provide)

- A variety of societies (societies are one of the easiest ways to meet people with similar hobbies to you, so ensuring there are a variety of them available and ones that you may be interested in)

- Having good transport links (as my family live abroad it was important that there were good transport links and an airport nearby for me to get home easily whenever I need)

- A variety of courses (if a university has numerous courses on offer, this normally means the student population will be varied so again you are more likely to find your tribe)


Should I visit the university before applying (if possible)?

Personally, it was imperative that I visited the universities I wanted to apply to, for several reasons.

I think it quite common, especially amongst autistic individuals, to have a gut feeling, an instant like or dislike. It is hard to explain to people who do not have these experiences, but in regards to universities, I knew the minute I entered each campus whether it was right for me. I would get either a ‘feeling’ of warmth and comfort (almost like being at home) or a feeling of coldness and isolation. Autistic individuals can be very ‘black or white’ but when we know, we just know!

Additionally, whilst at university you will venture out into the city or town where the campus is located, so it is important when you go visit that you like the area. For instance, some people may feel like London is too big, noisy and busy whereas others may see it as a city which has something for everyone, filled with a variety of people and cultures, meaning you can just be yourself and fit it.


Do I tell the university I am autistic?

Declaring whether you are autistic (or neurodivergent) is a personal decision. Autism is considered a disability which is protected under the Equality Act 2010. This means that the universities have a duty of care to make sure they provide reasonable adjustments for students whilst applying and also when they are at university. Thus, I thought that if the university were aware of my diagnosis, they could help by providing me with the extra support I needed, whether it be academically or just generally. (If you decide to inform the university this is done when applying on University College and Admissions Service – UCAS, as opposed to notifying the universities directly.) Once I had received an offer the university’s student support team reached out to me to discuss my Autism further.

I know some people worry that the disclosure may count against them, but I would rather not attend a particular institution if that were to be the case.

I actually discussed that I was autistic in my personal statement. Like I have mentioned in my previous blogs, I see Autism as my superpower and so when writing about myself in my personal statement I felt compelled to talk about this and how I feel it sets me apart from neurotypical individuals.


What support is there at university?

All universities have different support measures so I will discuss my experience whilst studying at UCL.

Once I received my offer, their student support team reached out to me, arranging a zoom call. On the call we discussed what support I was currently receiving and what I thought I needed to help me through university.

After commencing at UCL, I informed them of my academic needs (including writing on green paper and having 25% extra time). I also have regular meetings with a member of the support team to discuss how university is going and how I am feeling generally. These conversations are very enjoyable and are quite informal, so it is easy to build a rapport and feel comfortable with the member of staff.

Aside from the additional support, all students have a personal tutor (a member of staff from the university who is there to support you, as and when you need) and a transition mentor (a second-year student studying your course who can help answer any questions you may have and offer advice).


Do you have any tips for moving to a new place?

I know moving to a new place can be challenging and hard to navigate. Firstly, look at a map as seeing the area may make it easier for you to visualise and gain bearings. Secondly, visit the place before you start, in order to orientate yourself before moving in day. You might want to trial the public transport and work out your daily routes and how long they take (e.g. home to campus and locating nearby amenities) with a family member who can assist you if you get lost or require extra support. Thirdly, download apps like ‘Google Maps’ and ‘City Mapper’ to make it easy to get from one place to another and even provide an estimated journey time!


Where did you live while at university?

For my first year, I lived in student halls. There are a variety of options satisfying everyone’s budget, including self-catered or catered accommodation and having an ensuite or shared bathroom facilities.

I decided on a self-catered, en-suite room. I knew I would battle with catered accommodation, due to my sensory difficulties as I struggle with foods- being able to cook my own food was a lot more reassuring. I went for an ensuite room as I needed my own space where I could clean and look after everything myself and be able to shower as often as I wanted.

When applying for student accommodation, I also applied for rent adjustment. I am unsure whether this is present in all universities, but with UCL they “work to ensure disabled students are allocated rooms that meet their needs and at no additional costs” [UCL, 2021], meaning that in my case I paid the price for a non-ensuite room even though I was given an ensuite room as I needed this due to my sensory challenges.

I think living in university halls is a great experience and is the main environment where I have made friendships. Although it can be nerve-wracking to move away from home, I think had I not lived in halls I would have felt isolated and struggled to socialise as much as I have, especially as we were still doing lectures online at the start of the year.


How have you found living alone?

I think living alone (without family) can be one of the most intimidating factors when thinking about starting university. I have to be honest it was a bit of a shock to the system in the first few weeks, not only because you are far from home but also because you have to organise yourself with cooking, cleaning, studying and a whole lot more!

Therefore initially, I made a list of everything I would need to do each week to understand how I would make time for everything. This way I could visually see how many tasks I had, and this made it feel more manageable. My list contained things like washing, drying, food shopping, cooking and cleaning my room. I tried to build a routine around these so I felt in control of my tasks, for instance I would do my washing and drying every Thursday and I made meals twice a week, on Sundays and Wednesdays.

I know it is common for people to feel lonely when living by yourself which is why it can be helpful to find some friends in your accommodation. To begin with, I made friends with people in other flats but within my floor, as I did not feel very close to anyone in my flat (do not be disheartened if it takes time to find people you get along with, this is completely normal!). Over time I branched out, meeting people on different floors. This made it more enjoyable as we would make time to eat and sometimes even cook together. We helped each other out with food shops and other tasks.


Do you have any tips for socialising?

There is no denying that socialising can be difficult, so I have a few tips and tricks that have helped me this year. I suggest you and take advantage of living in halls and going to lectures as these situations are standard to my daily practice, so making friends in these environments act as a two-in-one almost: carrying out my daily tasks (like walking to lectures or cooking food in the communal kitchens) whilst socialising at the same time.

Moreover, I would highly encourage you to join societies as these are a good way to make friends who may have similar interests to you. It is also a way to make friends with people in older years. This can come in super handy as they are great at giving advice and other tips and tricks to surviving university.

My biggest life hack, not just for university but for life, if you are meeting with one person or even a group of people, I find it so much easier to organise socialising around an activity. This could be going for a walk, going to play minigolf, going to a painting class, whatever it may be, but having something to do gives you something to talk about! Plus, it means less eye contact and less awkward moments.

I think the most important thing is to ensure you have regular, but not too intense, periods of socialising interspersed with quiet times. You want to try and prevent burnout but also keep up regular interactions, as if you are anything like me, a few days without seeing people can cause me to fall into a pattern of isolating myself, which is also unhealthy.


How do you deal with change and uncertainty? I have struggled with the unpredictability of university as my timetable changes weekly and it is common for plans with friends to change last minute. This is something I am learning to cope with and create strategies for, as life is filled with change and spontaneity.

If you have ever seen me, you will notice that I always have at least half a dozen hairbands on my wrist. It sounds silly but this is one simple thing that keeps me calm. Whenever I feel out of control, I just remember that my hairbands are always with me and so I focus on the feeling of them wrapped around my wrist. They have got me, safe and secure. This may not work for you, but you can apply the principle to other objects like a pen or a water bottle.

Another common strategy used by several autistic individuals I know, is always having a pair of headphones or earphones with you. I know if I feel overwhelmed, I can put my earphones in and listen to a familiar song which again helps me feel calmer, comfortable and grounded.


How do I make sure I have a work-life balance?

I guess you could say this is another question where people have very different answers. I always hear people say the time spent at university were the best years of their life and so I try and live with this in mind. My aim for first year was to enjoy myself and settle in without putting too much pressure on myself. Therefore, I was definitely not the person you would find studying in the library at 3 am, in fact I was out playing netball or hanging with friends.

Everyone works differently so the key thing to remember is not to compare yourself to anyone else. Some people may work for an hour and achieve the same amount as someone else who has worked for three. As my concentration span is not always the best, the strategy I have developed is working for around 50 minutes and then taking a short break, which could be as simple as walking around my room or the library, playing my favourite song and then getting back to work. At the end of the day, it is about trial and error to see how you work best. This not only includes experimenting with times but also places - where you work (as with university there are so many study spaces available!).


You are about to enter a new chapter in your life and so it is completely valid to feel anxious about applying and going to university. Neurodivergent or neurotypical, you won’t be the only one with those feelings so don’t let them put you off. I hope by answering these questions I have helped ease your mind a little. But feel free to message me with any other questions.


Thanks for reading,

Nidhi :)


 

References


UCL, 2021. Accommodation support for disabled students. Available at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/accommodation/prospective-students/accommodation-support-disabled-students#Adjustment [June 25, 2021]


Cover image: @naki-sama (Vecteezy)


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