For university students, life can be stressful enough at the best of times, let alone when coping with the challenges that autism may bring into the mix. For students on the autism spectrum, the stereotypical experience of university doesn’t tend to fit.
Asperger’s Syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism, is likely to be the most common amongst the student population. I spoke to one student who lives with such a disability to find out what the reality is, as opposed to the misconceptions people may have.
While the problems, as far as you may think, seem to be primarily with learning, autism is actually much more complex. It affects issues such as accommodation, social life and even mental health; all of which I will explore in this article.
One of the main issues brought up when speaking to the student was the fact that sensory issues and mental health play a big part in one’s daily life, restricting the activities one can participate in.
‘Well, I get quite overwhelmed by senses. What can affect my ability to get on with work? Erm … lighting, sound; things like that really can affect me’.
‘I’m really prone to anxiety and that’s normally caused by sensory overload. So, for example, lighting, noise; it can cause high amounts of stress for me and it can become overwhelming, on top of what I have already got to deal with. For example, some lighting can give me headaches, to the point that I get so stressed because of the headaches that I can’t focus and it makes me worse. Then I’m getting stressed out about not being able to focus, not being able to get work done. It’s like an endless cycle’.
I asked the student whether autism could hold them back academically. While the general answer appeared to be no, it did bring to light some of the elements of academic work which could be more difficult to deal with if you are autistic.
‘I’d say it’s a no to this question because yes, I can be slow and that can hold me back academically, ’cause I can’t get my work done as quickly as others but because of my autism, I feel like I’ve got a better sense of focus. […] Sometimes that can become a problem with slowness because I’m focusing so much on putting too much in, to the point that I have to cut it down by thousands of words each time, or sometimes luckily only hundreds, but I think it kind of disadvantages and advantages me at the same time’.
Autism & Uni, a project run since 2013, with the aim of helping those on the autism spectrum have a smooth transition to university, is a step in the right direction. I asked the student whether they had seen any improvement in this and their suggestions to universities for helping those on the spectrum adapt to university life.
‘Well I haven’t been in university long enough to, sort of, judge that but I think that they need to be more aware of, particularly, students living on campus with autism, as a traditional hall setting may not be appropriate. For example, I would find it, personally, a lot easier to be living in something a bit more like a self-contained flat, erm, as I’ve had various other problems while living with other people.
I need a lot of space to myself and living with others, in halls, doesn’t give me that space. Therefore, it can add to my stress that I’m already experiencing. So I think, really, universities should consider their accommodation options a little bit better’.
It is, however, possible to overcome some of these problems. This was what the student said about how they tackle such issues. It does not mean, however, that this is what works for everyone.
‘Well, I’ve got loads of support from my friends’ network. I also … I do access support around university from development tutors and disability support. I’ve also recently got an app called ‘Brain in Hand’ but I don’t know how effective that is yet, erm, because I haven’t really got to know it yet, so hopefully it will be helpful. I don’t know yet’.
I finally asked the student what is the one thing that universities can do to make themselves more autistic-spectrum friendly.
‘I think they need to be aware of sensory issues, particularly, because they don’t seem to take it into account when they choose lighting and stuff. […] I’ve, many a time […] seen florescent lighting or very bright light that’s often given me headaches because I’m oversensitive to that. Erm … I also think that they need, sort of more quieter areas in university, […] where you can like sort of get away from things a bit more because there are a lot of big areas to socialise and stuff but there aren’t many small areas just to sort of get away from everything. It can get a bit overwhelming at times’.
It’s obvious that there are other difficulties than just the academic side of university for those on the spectrum. Considering that until a few years ago, it wasn’t compulsory to provide support, there has clearly been improvement, but there needs to be much more. Hopefully, this has provided a small insight into the life of a student with autism.