Navigating the autistic experience in college

Ava Dowdall discusses the unique and often challenging experience of being a third level student with autism

My experience of knowing that I am autistic is very limited to my time in college, which inevitably happens when you are diagnosed two months before you start your degree. It has been an experience where, as I have known for years, I don’t fit with the regular kind of person, but I don’t feel like I fit among other autistic people either. This drove me to try and understand the autistic experience in college from a wide range of different perspectives.

Being autistic is best described as a soundboard, one with lots of dials that are set to different levels for everyone. I struggle a lot with being overwhelmed by taste and smell, while someone else may love the experience of food and seek it out. Autism does not look the same for everyone, and if you’ve met one autistic person, you have met just that: one autistic person. 

Autism is also usually discussed in the binary of high or low support needs, but this  misrepresents the experience of lots of autistic people. The categories in which autistic people are placed are often based on others’ perceptions of us, not how much support we actually require. Typically those like myself, who attend college, would be classed as lower support needs. 

Being seen as having lower support needs means that I am perceived by many as being less autistic. My difficulties are very internal and hard to vocalise. Even some of my closest friends don’t understand how I frequently collapse into a meltdown, shut down after a long week, or how I would rather go hungry some weeks than step into the sensory hell of a grocery store. The people in my life especially don’t see the more embarrassing aspects of my struggle: executive dysfunction. 

Executive function refers to your ability to plan and organise tasks that often revolve around care for yourself and others. Following a spout of burnout I hit in October, I have really struggled to complete these tasks. My room — which when I’m well is perfectly organised — has been a tip, I don’t do laundry for weeks at a time, it can be hard to go through the sensory experience of showering and getting dressed some days, meaning I can’t go into college. My tolerance for socialising has dropped drastically and I feel like a terrible friend sometimes for not showing up as much as I want to.

Even on the days where you can make it into college, it can be a difficult sensory experience for many autistic people. My friend Abi, who is self-diagnosed, tells me how the lights and sounds of a lecture hall make it incredibly difficult to attend class, and a lack of lecture recordings leaves her with little alternative to just showing up and being deeply uncomfortable. This is especially difficult for self-diagnosed students who don’t have documentation to back up their difficulties and will, in turn, often not be registered with the disability service. 

On the contrary, others, like my friend Eoin, find the physical space of campus itself to be a nice escape from the busy city. The campus is removed, sure some places are louder than others, but many autistic people are able to adapt by using noise cancelling headphones or earplugs. This is made easier by the disability service’s new sense map, which displays different locations in the college and outlines their sensory profiles. 

There are also safe social spaces that autistic students can find within the college through society life. For myself and Eoin, this is provided by the Historical Society, its variety of social events and the seclusion of the Graduates Memorial Building. For Abi, this space comes in the form of the new DU Neurodivergent Society (DUNeS) on campus. DUNeS provides a safe social environment where autistic individuals can find people that they relate to and are comfortable with. It is a huge support for those who are autistic as they make their way through college life. A space such as DUNeS in which to discuss missed social cues, to figure out emotions without pressure, and to receive understanding from your peers is massively important. 

But then the question is raised of whether it should be the responsibility of students in student spaces to provide support for other autistic students. Given the cost of professional diagnosis, it should be a part of the work of the disability service to provide more open spaces for autistic students, for example, through better promoting their weekly autism drop in group. College also needs to expand lecture recordings to provide better accessibility to class content, something which would benefit many students, not just those that are autistic. 

College is an environment where many carry an idea that you should struggle and be challenged, but this can prevent those who need help from having the confidence to ask for it. Even with my LENS report, I hesitate to ask lecturers that are not providing my accommodations to do so. Many lecture slides don’t have sufficient notes on them if I am unable to make it to class. It would be of benefit to all students if College could better educate staff on how to support students, and if those who need more help are thought of before the expected normalcy.

A lot of anxiety and fear of being misunderstood can accompany the autistic experience in college. Equally, a lot of joy can also be found through society life and course content. Being autistic is a disability, and one that many in college deal with: last year there were 236 students with autism registered as a primary or additional disability with the disability service. This does not account for those who are self-diagnosed, have not yet realised that they are autistic, or do not wish to register with the service, all of whom face similar struggles in college. Autism is an invisible disability that cannot be seen from the outside, and it is far from the only one. Kindness, patience and consideration — at least as this autistic person will tell you — go a long way.