What it was like starting university without knowing I was autistic (and some tips if you’re starting out, too)
It’s been seven years since I was an undergraduate fresher at the University of Durham, but it’s only the last few years that I’ve been able to make sense of why I had such a difficult time, particularly since realising that I’m autistic. Content warning: abuse.
For everyone going to university for the first time this year, Freshers’ Week will no doubt be different from before coronavirus. It’s been seven years since I was an undergraduate fresher at the University of Durham, but it’s only over the last few years that I’ve been able to make sense of why I had such a difficult time, particularly since realising that I’m autistic.
If you’re here looking for quick tips for starting uni if you’re autistic, here they are:
I hope these are helpful! And if you’re here for the full story of my first year at uni, then read on…
I was raised in Chile and went to two different schools. I was a problem student at both of those because of what I now understand was a mix of routine sensory overexposure, teachers completely unequipped to recognise disabled students, and having what was called a “spikey profile” - meaning that I performed well in some subjects and struggled with others. I was good at reading history books and learning about mythology and folklore, and bad at basically anything that had to be marked. Thankfully, Durham University offers foundation years for people from untraditional backgrounds or whose school marks have no British equivalent, and they accepted me into the History programme thanks to a very enthusiastic declaration of love for some of my historical special interests.
Having some British family myself meant that I never held a very romanticised view of England itself, but I was naïve enough to think that everyone would share my love of certain British creations. I got very into Doctor Who that year and, as a lifelong Harry Potter fan, I was often visibly enthusiastic about living in one of the cities where the Harry Potter films were made. Unfortunately, people at my college were more “grown-up” than I was. It seemed that they had experience in stereotypical ‘teenage’ things and showed less enthusiasm for nerdier interests. I instantly felt isolated and couldn’t tell exactly why. I would get weird glances and falsely welcoming expressions, but I had no way of knowing why that was. There was a very high school-like atmosphere in the sense that cliques seemed to form very quickly. I just couldn’t understand how people could become such good friends so fast when it never happened to me. I was lucky that, even when I didn’t know it about myself at the time, the only person in college who shared my love of Doctor Who was also autistic.
I have never been good at masking. In fact, I didn’t really know until I researched autism that there was the possibility for us to try to seem more “normal” in order for neurotypicals to find our personalities palatable. But the one thing I did in order to try and fit in with my British friends was to use British slang as quickly as I learnt it, but did so far too often for it to seem normal: things were always wicked instead of great and a bad smell was always rank. For many of us, masking can backfire. Rather than blend us into a crowd we will stand out. More importantly, masking can have a tremendously negative effect on our mental health. If we have to put ourselves through situations that are unnatural for us, we break at some point and our neurotypical costume will also be rendered useless. That’s what happened when I tried going to nightclubs, bars, and nights out: I would do my best to look and feel like I was enjoying myself, but in reality smells and noises hindered any attempts at socialising— which I wasn’t enjoying either— but I wanted to feel normal.
A common feature of the experience of discovering you’re autistic seems to be that we feel we were born without the guide to the implicit rules to socialising that everyone else seems to instinctively know. At university, I also felt like there were a whole lot of practical life skills that I had to learn the hard way; organization around university assignments being some of these. My first year of undergraduate (not in history, but in “combined arts” because it turned out that I liked too many subjects!) was easier to figure out when it came to the logistics of lectures, seminars, and using the time in between to study, but I was completely lost during the entirety of my foundation year. I’d never written a serious, fully-referenced essay in my life, but I couldn’t tell why I repeatedly got my assignments so wrong. My school never realised that I needed help organising my time when it came to studying—I wish I were joking when I say that the closest anyone at school ever did with regards to my autism was being told by a psychologist that, for some reason, I reminded her of Temple Grandin. I managed to learn the very basics of studying just before graduating, but the kind of studying required at the undergraduate level is completely different from simply skimming a textbook a few times and calling it a day: what you learn in a lecture only scrapes the surface of the subject you’ll be marked for. This would’ve been far less humiliating to learn over the course of my mistakes if it hadn’t seemed as though everyone else knew this already.
Relationships were also difficult to navigate. Crucially, I was lucky to be able to end a relationship with an abusive person fairly early on. I spent all of my teenage years thinking I was ugly and undesirable, but in my ex-partner was someone who was cultured, nice, and thought I was special. I was so looking forward to getting to know each other that I even googled how to kiss someone, because I genuinely couldn’t picture it and worried I’d get it all wrong! There was a problem with my room that meant I had to move elsewhere within college and there happened to be an empty room right next to his, so I moved there thinking it would make spending time together easier. What I didn’t expect was that I’d spend most of my time in his room because he wouldn’t let me leave, to the point where I was missing seminars and not taking material from the library to write my essays with. I also had to console him on a regular basis because he was an alcoholic, and if he became unwell I would think it was my fault. He admired my intelligence, but only said I was autistic as an insult when one of my interests annoyed him.
It may be true that not being able to identify people’s bad intentions can make us vulnerable, but I don’t want anyone to think that I nor any other autistic person who has gone through a similar thing are victims or “easy targets”. The tacit rules of relationships can be such a basic part of life for some young adults whereas for us they’re sort of the “final boss” of socialisation, but that doesn’t mean we should wait until we feel we know everything to enter a relationship; instead, it’s on your partner to treat you kindly and respect your differences and boundaries.
The highlight of this strange year was my diagnosis of dyspraxia in my second term. I had a couple of free sessions at the university’s counselling service when they flagged some autistic traits, but my home situation meant that being diagnosed autistic was not possible. Still, given my difficulties such as trouble studying and socialising, they ascertained that I was dyspraxic. The dyspraxia diagnosis helped me make sense of so much, but the only support I received was a mere 25% more time in my exams.
I didn’t get the best marks possible nor did I fully enjoy my time at university, but I really hope that these experiences make sense to you—whether you’ve been diagnosed or think you’re autistic or have a loved one who is—and can help you plan ahead so that you receive as much care and support as possible.
Some bite-sized tips!
Try to be yourself as much as possible! And if you feel the need to mask due to particular kinds of environments, such as formal events, make sure you take time to rest and recover.