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I can’t stand it any longer. The stress, the stress. Constant stress unless I’m drunk. I’m drunk far too often, but how else do I cope? My dream came true, and I wish it hadn’t. They told me that university would be the making of me, not the breaking of me. Everything is against me. The systems, the systems. The tutors – they are so nice, so kind, so knowledgeable – and so utterly lacking in how to deal with my autistic way of being. The sensory hell, the ‘reasonable’ adjustments that are anything but. The social life – oh, the social life. “Get some friends at uni” I was told. Groups of strangers at Freshers’ Week – aka the week of hell – the only way to cope, get as drunk as them, at least it levels the playing field. Room changes are game changers. How am I expected to cope? I’m told “it’s only a room change; it really doesn’t matter” – is this gaslighting? Am I the only one who is useless enough to be unable to cope? Am I a lesser human? Were they right all along? Disordered, impaired, broken. Drunk. Groupwork – “it develops your team working skills” – does it? Does it really? Or does it demonstrate that I am not, and never will be, an effective person in that kind of setting? Give me a role, give me a goal. Don’t give me a bumbling group of ‘peers’ who have different views, different motivations, different language. They look at me in disdain when I ask if they’ve done what we agreed. “We’ll get it done, don’t worry” they tell me. I want to rail at them, scream at them; “I’ve done my bit, why haven’t you done yours?” The unfairness cripples me. We are graded as a group – those who worked hard get the same grade as those who didn’t bother. No one seems to care, except me. I lie awake at night, so tired, so wired. Anxiety leads to sensory sensitivity. Drinking numbs, does nothing else work? I’m told I need to present ‘better’ else I won’t get employed. But I don’t want to be assertive, I don’t want to maintain eye contact, I don’t want to be like everyone else. I want to drop out. That’s all I want.
I got a letter today. This is what it said:
Many congratulations on your place at our university. We are aware of the diverse range of neurotypes that attend our institution and note with great interest that you have written that you are autistic. We very much look forward to learning more about your needs, but in the meantime, we hope the following is of some help in terms of what we can offer:
- All our first-year autistic students can be linked with a mentor. Whenever possible, this mentor will be an autistic student on the same course who has just completed their first year, so should be in the perfect position to guide you should you want to choose this as an option.
- We know that Freshers’ Week activities are not always for everyone. We have a whole range of activities outside of this to make students of differing neurotypes as welcome as possible.
- Exams are stressful for everyone, so whenever possible we provide alternatives to assessing student knowledge, and these assessments can be altered to suit your individual skills.
- We have attached a sensory questionnaire. Feel free to fill it in and send it back, or we can go through it with you in person or via Zoom (or similar) if you prefer. We do our best to understand students’ sensory needs and subsequently do a sensory audit on the university environment to make necessary adaptations where possible.
- We do our best to offer flexible options. So, for example, you will not be forced into working as part of a group if this is something you are unable to commit to at this stage. It might be that you can pair up instead or work solo if that is a particular need. And please rest assured, plenty of our students work very happily on their own, so you wouldn’t be the only one!
- We have also attached a communication questionnaire to ascertain your preferred communication style. If there is an option that doesn’t appear on the list, please do let us know. We are keen to expand our knowledge and will happily be led by you!
- We have included links to screencasts and videos. You will see that your personal tutor has done an introduction, along with footage of your first spaces in which you will be taught. There is also a link to a screencast of the main university operating system and student portal so you can get a ‘feel’ for what our systems look like.
- Having so many different components to student life can be stressful, which is why you have your own allocated support advisor who is your ‘go to’ person for anything you need outside of academic support. He/she/they may have to signpost you elsewhere, but they are still your first port of call.
- Lastly, whilst we are determined to be as inclusive as possible, we recognise that we are not experts and are committed to working with you and learning from you as the expert. We have ‘quiet days’ over the summer and we would welcome you to come and have a look around and meet your mentor, your ‘go to’ advisor, and personal tutor if that is something that suits you.
I think I am going to like this university lark.
Dr Luke Beardon is a Senior Lecturer in Autism.