For thousands of teenagers in the UK each year, the transition from secondary school to university is fairly straightforward. But for people like me on the autism spectrum, the process can be anything but.
The differences between secondary school and university are enormous. From the timing of classes to the way classes are structured, everything seems to be different. As an 18-year-old leaving secondary education for the first time in my life, it seemed terrifying because of the sheer number of changes I’d have to face.
One of my biggest fears was that the support that Queen’s University would provide me was going to be a standard “box-ticking” type that would not sufficiently allow me to cope with the change. However, at the end of July, the university asked me to visit their offices one day to assess my condition. This was a very straightforward process and allowed the university to tailor the support that was to be provided to my exact needs, much to my relief.
My current support is much the same as it was in school. I have a note taker that attends all my lectures and tutorial classes. This support provides a consistent style of presentation for the notes and helps me to keep them organised. The support provided during exams is also largely the same: I’m given extra time, separate invigilation, a computer to complete the exams on, and rest breaks if needed at set intervals. This continuation of support was a huge help in settling me in.
The next big step was adjusting to the change in classroom scale. In my school, our classes had about 20 to 25 people in them. In university, my lectures can have upwards of about 200 people in the room at one time. As someone who has always had a fear of big crowds, this was particularly concerning to me. Over time, I realized that the theatre where lectures were held was large which allowed the crowd to spread out, helping to ease my fear of being squeezed into a room with 200 other people.
By far my biggest concern was the reaction of other people. I had occasionally been bullied at my secondary school, and although it had been completely eradicated by the time I started my sixth year, the fear started to creep back in when university loomed. The fear was less about being bullied, and more about being left out of the group and not being able to make any friends.
I worried about the reaction of the other students when they noticed that something was a little bit different about me. Would they be sympathetic? Would they be understanding? Or would they be ignorant to the problem? This concern continued over the course of the summer and, despite frequent attempts by my family and friends to persuade me otherwise, the fear never went away.
The first day at university was terrifying until I attended the induction day that had been set up by the University. This was an extremely helpful day for me, as it helped me to feel a bit more comfortable. I realised that many other people were in the same position as me, starting a new part of their education, in a new place with new people. The fact that we all had shared interests allowed us to have a common subject to talk about and gave us an opportunity to get to know one another.
My experiences with other students have been particularly encouraging for me. I wear a wristband that says “Autism Awareness” on it, and one of my friends happened to notice it and asked what it was about. I explained my condition, and that I had set up a group to try and help other people overcome the same obstacles that I was now facing. This was the true test for me, as I had no idea what the reaction was going to be, or whether I should even tell anyone. Her reaction was one of slight shock. She said that she only understood a little bit about autism. She also asked me if I wanted her to try and let other people know about my condition, in such a way that it wouldn’t come as much of a shock to people. I found this encouraging. The overwhelming reaction of most people to the news of me having autism is one of slight surprise, which quickly turns to understanding and also an interest in gaining a bigger understanding of the condition.
Even with all these positives, it still did take some time to get used to the change. I knew that it was always going to be a struggle at the start to get into the ways of life at university. I will admit the first few weeks were a huge battle. For the first time in my life I was expected to buy my own textbooks and basically build my own schedule to allow myself to complete my work on time and to an acceptable standard. This took a few months to get used to, but I knew that eventually I would get it. There were a few hard days, and some meltdowns as the stress built up at times but by the time Christmas had arrived, I found myself in a good routine, and starting to fit comfortably into the life of a student.
There is the occasional day that I do have a struggle or something doesn’t go the way I expected it to, but I try and learn from these to deal with the situation better the next time around. The support my friends have provided me with on the bad days has been very helpful. They keep telling me that everyone has bad days, not just me.
Looking back now, the decision to go to university has had an enormous effect on me, and it has allowed me to do things I never thought I was capable of. It has improved my confidence dramatically, and I now feel at ease with being able to do the tasks that others find to be second nature, things such as buying my own train ticket, going for lunch with friends, and going to the library to study. Being able to plan my own day has given me an amazing sense of freedom.
Just recently I finally overcame one of my biggest fears: public speaking. I gave a talk to a group of teenagers who have autism. Although the group only consisted of a dozen people, it was something that I previously would never have even considered doing. Thanks to the confidence my experience at university has given me, I was able to do it, and according to the person in charge of the group, they said it was an excellent talk.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.