Updated: Nov 23, 2022
They say when you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. Now, while I totally agree, I do think there’s some shared experiences that autistic students entering university can relate to. So here’s 5 common experiences for autistic students starting university:
1. Sensory overload
Starting university means dealing with a lot of big changes, new environments and new people all at once. If you’re not prepared, this can naturally lead to a lot of overstimulation.
Living in halls or with other people in shared accommodation means that you might not always have as much control as you would like about the level of noise or other stimulus.
It’s important to remember that this is to be expected, and to build in the time and space to remove yourself from overwhelming situations and to purposefully engage in positive sensory experiences, like letting yourself stim, watching or listening your favourite media, and eating safe foods.
2. Finding others who share your special interests
University is a big place! Check out your university’s list of registered societies to see just how many different interests are represented.
Especially if you come from a smaller or quieter area, you’re very likely to be surprised at just how many other people you’ll find who share your special interests and will connect with you on them.
3. Difficulty managing anxiety
University is stressful and anxiety provoking for many, and if you’re already prone to have a high level of baseline anxiety, like many autistic people, university can send anxiety levels into overload.
If you’ve moved out to attend university, you may no longer easily have access to the safe environments or spaces that helped you regulate and destress. Being proactive about finding or creating new safe environments and practices to manage anxiety can really help.
4. Being undiagnosed or late-diagnosed
It’s shockingly common for autistic students, especially women and AFAB people, to remain undiagnosed well in to adulthood.
Not knowing that they are autistic puts additional strain on these students, as they struggle to understand why they experience certain things differently or have trouble engaging the way neurotypical people do.
Even once they do understand they might be autistic, it can take a year or more to receive a formal diagnosis through the NHS.
5. Feeling guilty asking for help
Asking for extensions or accommodations can sometimes come along with negative feelings like guilt, shame, or embarrassment.
Autistic people can often present as hyper-competent compared to allistic people in certain areas, while struggling in areas that allistic people find easy.
Some people may not understand why autistic people need accommodations, and it’s easy for autistic people to internalise that doubt and begin to doubt ourselves.
Learning to self-advocate is an important and necessary skill for university and life beyond. We deserve to be believed and for our needs to be respected.
There’s more than five common experiences, and if you don’t relate to one or some of these experiences, that’s okay. Everyone is different and will have unique experiences while at university.
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