For many of us on the spectrum, university can be a challenging step. Leaving the comfort of your home and stepping into an unfamiliar place independently can cause us anxiety.
The new environment, the new social situations you will find yourselves in and the prospect of meeting new people are just some of the reasons why autistic people may find the freshers experience difficult. For me, it was the loud noises of the freshers fair, the alcohol socials, and being too shy to join any of the sports clubs.
It can feel very foreign to enter a completely new environment. You don’t have much control over what is happening, meaning that your senses have to adapt. Sometimes the pressure created from a new environment is enough to cause sensory overload.
Speaking from experience, I know what it’s like to enter university without any new friends or confidence to join in social activities. I even found it hard to partake in social networking during my induction week. It’s the little things that tend to put us off, sometimes.
As autistic people, most of us like to share stories which relate to what you might be going through. When somebody tells us a story, we often respond with our own story. To those who have stories of feeling anxious in the new social environment, I am here to empathise and share mine.
I believe that inclusion is in everyone’s ability. That includes accessibility, as we are sharing the spaces for which freshers events take place. A lot of autistic students benefit from the Quiet Hours in shopping centres and gyms, and after tabling a motion for Union Quiet Hours last year, this was passed. This will hopefully provide some respite for new autistic students, who may have hypersensitivities to noisy environments.
It is so important when you arrive at university to allow yourself some time to adapt to the environment. Settling in gives us time to let the new surroundings sink in, as often we can be quite distressed when new changes occur in life. Give yourself some time to get used to everything; it’s a bit like grounding yourself if you have anxiety.
The second important part of freshers is settling into university and making new friends. For an autistic person, forming and maintaining friendships is one of the hardest things to do. Indeed, just the thought of social networking or going up to someone can be exhausting.
Because of COVID-19, some of us will feel very isolated from people at university. It can be even harder when you’re on your own, as it takes a bit longer to access the support available to you. Some of us hate the thought of ringing up the Hub for instance, but don’t worry because they have now added a chat box to your student portal.
Social etiquette is also different when arriving at university. From experience, I was not used to how emails were worded, which made me feel as if the tone, or emotion wasn’t there. It felt like the sender was just being blunt.
The first days of university are very challenging for some of us. Because that’s when you enter a lecture theatre, or a seminar room for the first time, not knowing what to expect. Not being in control of what’s around you, not being able to retreat to a safe place if you get too overwhelmed.
As an autistic person, let me tell you how important it is to recognise that you are not alone in this. What is amazing is that you are here in the first place, and we should be celebrating that diversity, or in our case, neurodiversity.
Every autistic person that comes to university is in itself a massive achievement. Your hard work and recognition has paid off. Because I was bullied at school, being able to progress to starting university felt like a huge achievement for me, and hopefully it does for you too.
To make friends at university is tough. But just like we autistic people like to share our own stories with someone else’s, we also like to share our interests with others who possess the same interests. This is where the first days of university are a huge opportunity for us.
Every one of us will have a special interest or take a liking to a particular topic or a sport. How amazing is it that freshers serves as the perfect opportunity for you to connect your interest/hobby with a corresponding club/society! This is how I found myself integrating into university life and culture.
The second benefit about our hobbies and interests is that, because we have such a massive dedication towards them, this will increase the engagement in clubs and societies, and from then onwards you are bound to make new friends. The friends you make at university will shape your social life.
One of the most important things I can tell you is to be yourself. Work at your own pace, do the things you love doing, and you may be recognised for it. The more you do what you enjoy, the less challenging the university environment becomes.
Some of us like to mask in public. So it is important to look for clubs and societies that are inclusive, and understanding of your needs. It is perfectly fine to express yourself, and if you need to take a break, do so. Make sure you do what you feel is right for you.
Let freshers be the foundation of your university life. Remember it’s okay if you need quiet time, too. The important thing to recognise is that you will not be the only one. You will be given a warm welcome.
Featured image credit: collegeatlas.org