2 April is World Autism Awareness Day in the UK, while the start of April also marks Autism Awareness Month in the US. These dates are important, as autism is still widely misunderstood. It impacts every aspect of your life in ways that non-autistic people wouldn’t comprehend. To mark this important awareness day, we spoke to Freddie, our Student Brands Apprentice at Net Natives, to gain some insight into this condition that affects the daily lives of over 2.8 million people and find out how we can work together to improve the lives of autistic students.
Can you tell us what it is like being autistic at university?
Despite the existing stereotypes about people with autism in academia, university is hard. It’s tough enough on its own, let alone in a world not built for you. The academic genius label doesn’t apply to all of us and, even then, issues can crop up further down the line.
If you take the usual stresses that an autistic person might struggle with, like sensory and social issues, then add in the fluorescent lighting of classrooms and the looming threat of deadlines, lots of issues can arise. Sensory overload, social anxiety and depression can all affect you.
Is it hard integrating into student life as an autistic person?
Each person is different, and that extends to autistic people. I had an OK time integrating into student life, due to my extrovert side. But I can definitely see where others would struggle.
You’re thrown into a situation where you don’t know many people and their social rules may differ from those of your friends. You may have to learn a whole new set of communication skills, which don’t always come naturally to autistic people. We tend to miss the unspoken rules that everyone else seems to know about.
Do universities do enough to support neurodiverse students?
A lot more can be done. Student support units and disability advisors helped me a lot during my time at uni, and I know others who’ve had positive experiences, too. However, some universities still insist that all learning must be done in a particular way.
Communication issues mean that lectures and seminars can be difficult when someone is talking at you. Even more so when theatres have bright lights and poor heating. Universities could look into how their classrooms contribute to overstimulation.
What impact has autism had on your academic achievements?
When interested in a particular topic, an autistic person will likely excel and maybe even exceed expectations. There were certainly modules I found especially interesting, which tended to be the ones I succeeded in. On the flip side, I struggled to engage with topics that fell outside my special interests.
This becomes difficult to address when most students are studying the same modules. Maybe a more compassionate approach could be taken on board for autistic and neurodiverse students, where certain topics are weighted differently.
Mental health issues can also affect academic performance. Autistic people are much more predisposed to anxiety disorders, depression, and OCD. More mental health support at university would massively benefit students on the spectrum.
What was it like moving from studying to work?
Again, hard. My experience joining the working world wasn’t typical, coming after spending three years recovering from autistic burnout from uni. There are many things that university and life in general don’t prepare you for.
There are now new social rules for you to follow. Office work has its own etiquette beyond the scope of academia. A good workplace will help you to adjust to these things, understanding that your brain operates differently.
What does autistic burnout feel like? Can it be prevented?
Autistic burnout is a little bit like sleep paralysis, except it seems to last all day, everyday. You know you should be living your life, but something weighs every decision down. Your emotions are a rollercoaster and even the slightest mistake can be irritating to the point of meltdown.
The key to preventing burnout is to ensure that autistic students are getting enough time for themselves. I worked throughout uni and I am fairly sure that contributed to my burnout. Let autistic students know about any funding that is available to them so they don’t have to work as much on top of their studies.
A huge thank you to Freddie for this authentic account of living life with autism and navigating through university and graduate life. Autism awareness days and months are a reminder to take pause and review how we can support every individual student within your institution, workplace or community.
This month, take a moment to see how your institution can help individuals with autism. How can you better signpost support at your university? What proactive outreach methods do you have for checking in with these students? Do you have bursaries or grants available which can be more broadly advertised to those that would benefit? And most importantly, how can you work with your students who have autism to share their stories and become ambassadors to help other individuals navigating through a world not designed for those with disabilities?