Five tips for autistic students starting college or university

On paper, I’m an amazing student. I have a Bachelors degree in Mathematics with Education (with honours), a postgraduate primary teaching PGCE, and last year I graduated with distinction in my Masters in Creative Writing. I’ve always been academically intelligent, and I’ve always been a pretty hard worker (during my adult life at least. I sucked at working hard as a teenager.)

But of course, further education isn’t just about studies, is it?

It’s unsurprising how often I get asked advice about preparing for college or university, whether through this site or on Autistic Not Weird’s Facebook page [all links open in new windows so they won’t interrupt your reading]. Educational establishments are loaded with brilliantly capable autistic people, but not all of them find further education easy. (And that’s leaving aside the fact that moving away from home is just generally tricky, with or without autism being involved.)

So here’s some advice I have for those starting out. If this is the first time you’ve visited Autistic Not Weird, welcome to the site and I hope you find it useful. (Also, feel free to visit the Facebook community, or my YouTube channel. There are even Patreon rewards if you feel like my work is worth supporting.)

Five tips for autistic students about to start college or university

Some of these cover the academic side of university, and some the social side. As is the case with plenty of my articles, feel free to pick and choose which pieces of advice apply to you.

I’ll start with advice I wish I’d known right at the beginning…

1. You don’t have to do what everyone else does.

When I was seventeen, most people’s descriptions of university included getting repeatedly drunk, wasting time at really loud nightclubs, and having sex with other students at random. More than that, I was pretty much encouraged to believe that if you didn’t get involved with these things, you weren’t doing university right.

This was pretty concerning for me and many of my friends, who lived our lives far away from all that stuff.

But the thing is… none of these ‘university life’ descriptors are on the final exam. You haven’t ‘done it wrong’ just because you didn’t do what everyone else did. While everyone else is out partying to loud music, there’s nothing to stop you from staying home and playing Mario Kart with your friends. While everyone else is trying to have sex with other random students, there’s nothing to stop you from, er, doing whatever it is you do in place of that.

The only way of ‘doing it wrong’ is to deliberately force yourself into activities you despise just because you feel it’s something that must be done in order to live a ‘valid’ student life.

In the same way that nobody at university cares how cool you were at school, nobody in the world of employment cares what life you lived at college. Executive offices don’t have signs saying “your liver must be this damaged in order to enter,” and job application forms will ask for your number of academic qualifications rather than your number of STDs.

So as easy as it may be, try not to feel pressure to experience university in the same way that “everyone else” does. (It’s not even everyone else anyway – just the loudest people.) These are your years of further education, and they should be experienced on your terms.

2. To make friends, find the common ground.

This is another point about the social side of college/university. Among the messages I get from people preparing for further education, most of them reference a fear of making new friends. It’s a fear I had too: I had a decent number of close friends before university, but I felt alienated from most of my peers in general. So… how on Earth do you meet people you might actually become friends with?

You find the common ground.

Most friendships (or relationships in general) are based on common ground, whether it’s interests, beliefs, attitudes or similar personalities. The more common ground you have with a new person, the stronger an anchor you have if you want to build a friendship with them.

I don’t know what it’s like in America, but British universities have clubs and societies for just about everything. The University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne had a club for just about every sport from fencing to aikido, and its other groups ranged from the songwriters’ society to the Islamic society. A bunch of people on my course were in MathSoc, a society for our mathematics students. My local university in Nottingham had a board game society last time I checked, as well as entering several teams into our county chess league. Not long ago, I gave a talk at the Disabled Students’ Society at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. (And in this era of rising autism awareness and acceptance, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are autistic societies popping up these days.)

So whatever your interest is, there’s probably a group for it. Somewhere at your university, there will probably be a room filled with people who you have some sort of common ground with. It doesn’t absolutely guarantee that you’ll make friends there, but it seriously increases your chances.

I experimented with a bunch of different groups during Freshers’ Week (the very first week at university, where the new students are welcomed and can sample everything for free), and the two I settled with were the Christian Union and the Taekwondo Society. I stuck with both of them for all three of my undergraduate years.

I was a Christian before I started university at eighteen, but at my church I was the only congregation member older than twelve and younger than forty. So being in a room full of Christians my own age was incredible, and it made the transition into university so much easier.

In contrast, I’d had zero interest in martial arts before university. But I was keen to learn, and found myself with a roomful of other students who had also never done taekwondo but were keen to learn. The interest was common ground enough, and a year later I was renting a house with four of them.

The opportunities are there to make valuable friendships if you look in the right places. I’ll be honest, I spent my first year of university in halls of residents (student dorms) among a group of people who, looking back, quite clearly disliked me. They made me feel devalued and alien, but I hung around them because I didn’t feel like I had a choice. Thankfully, as the year went on I drifted closer to the ‘common ground folk’ and further from those who just happened to live on the same corridor as me.

And wow, I’m glad I found these friends. I was the only autistic person among them (although I wouldn’t find out about my Asperger’s for several more years), but they understood me as a person, and they valued me.

Me and the rest of Team Newcastle, 2006. Winning the National Student Taekwondo Championships for the second year running. (I’m on the front row, second from the left, with our coach – a former British champion – lying in front of us.) Also pictured: all four of my housemates, a bunch of people from the Christian Union, and other people I’m still friends with today.

3. Do your research.

Ok, time for an academic tip rather than a social one. It’s pretty self-explanatory, and you probably don’t need me to tell you that better preparation yields better results. But in the case of starting further education, I can think of at least three reasons why research is a good idea.

Learning resources.

I started university (for the first time) in 2004. Back then, it was an entirely different world in terms of autism awareness. During my creative writing degree (which I graduated from in 2017), an autistic friend of mine had a support worker who would occasionally attend sessions with him. I don’t know specifically what this person did for him and it wasn’t appropriate for me to ask. But if my friend had started that degree in 2004, he most likely wouldn’t have had a support worker.

These days, colleges and universities may not be absolutely perfect in their autism provision, but the tide is turning in the right direction and they’re closer to getting it right than ever before. Dyslexic students now get 25% extra time in exams. People like my friend occasionally get staff support. And the University of Cambridge (among others) specifically employs an Asperger’s support worker, recognising their high proportion of academically capable autistic students.

Obviously I’m in no position to guarantee that autism-specific support exists at your college/university. But do some research and see what’s there. You may thank yourself later.

Knowing your way around.

Ok… to be fair, this one’s pretty obvious.

But yes, having a mental map of the campus in your head will make things feel more comfortable once you’re there. In fact, their website may even have a virtual tour. (Some virtual tours are better than others, but at the very least there’ll be photos for reference.)

And if your daily travel involves roads, Google Street View may also be your friend.

Anxiety relief.

I’m fairly open about my anxiety issues, and how I try to handle them. And in my experience, the fear of unknown things tends to be worse than the fear of known things.

If you’re susceptible to anxiety yourself, doing your research will (if nothing else) alleviate fear of the unknown. It may not wipe out nervousness altogether, but it’s better to know what you’re actually nervous about, and help you put plans in place to address it.

4. Talk to the staff.

Ok, to a certain degree this is an extension of the previous point. Doing your research should ideally involve talking to the staff. It certainly did with me, and it certainly helped. Not least because the staff knew who I was before I started.

But I’m not just talking about preparing for university. This advice applies during your course too.

I must have been a pretty annoying student during the run-up to exams. (Or maybe I wasn’t, but that was my perception of myself at the time.) Why? Because when I came across something I didn’t understand, I knocked on the lecturers’ office doors and asked for guidance. I did this repeatedly, and unapologetically. Don’t get me wrong, I was always polite and appreciative of their time, but they all understood the importance of me preparing for my exams.

And besides, this was literally what they got paid for.

At my university, knocking on my lecturers’ doors was perfectly fine. Others may require you to book an appointment or have different preferred methods of communication. Learn what they are, and use them to find the support you need.

And if knocking on doors is something you feel anxious about, that’s understandable. I used to rehearse basically every sentence in my head before knocking (which helped, by the way). But anyone who works with students has a duty to be accommodating, and most will be accommodating to their students on moral principle anyway. If you feel an explanation of your anxiety would help them to understand you, there are certainly opportunities to do that too.

(Incidentally, I recently wrote a whole article on dealing with exam stress. Here it is, in case you find it useful.)

And finally…

5. This is an opportunity, not just a difficulty!

“The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

-Winston Churchill, apparently.

I know that half of the world’s decent quotes are attributed to either Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill or Mahatma Ghandi, but the internet seems to be pretty unanimous that this was actually from Churchill.

But either way, the quote is a valuable one. Like most big events in life, you can either approach college/university from a viewpoint of fear, seeing it as a problem to be overcome, or you can see it as a pathway to some amazing experiences with a nice degree and a career path at the end.

I look back at the person I was at 18, and the person I was when I was 21, and I recognise how much university helped me to grow. The experiences I got from it (good and bad) helped me to become the adult I am today. I didn’t use my mathematics degree for much in the end – I became a primary school teacher and taught multiplication tables to nine-year-olds – but the life experience was invaluable.

(Well, I say invaluable, but I’ve not started to pay off my student debts yet!)

Now we’re at the end of the article, I’ll admit that I cried two days into my university life. I just felt overwhelmed.

But before too long I had a group of friends, a healthy social life that was on my terms, and my studies were going well.

And right up until the post-2015 years of running Autistic Not Weird, those years were arguably the best of my life.

I won’t promise that your university years will be the best of yours. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But they are loaded with opportunities: academic opportunities, career-building opportunities, and opportunities to build yourself up as a whole person. And where difficulties exist, the opportunity is there to overcome them.

I did.

Any excuse to use this photo is a valid one.

I hope this article helps those on the autism spectrum who are about to start their journey into further education. I wish you all the best. And again, you’re more than welcome to join Autistic Not Weird’s Facebook community, or take a look at my advice videos on YouTube.

Finally, I’m aware that students aren’t exactly known for their masses of disposable income, but I usually reference my Patreon page at the end of my articles. Anyone reading this, student or not, is welcome to have a glance at the rewards available if you want to help me continue to write these articles for a living.

Take care,

Chris Bonnello / Captain Quirk

Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window).

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