Culture Editor Alex Blank on her experiences as a student on the autism spectrum.
This article is purely based on personal experience, so it may not apply to all (or any) other autistic individuals.
When I began my studies at Kingâ€™s, I didnâ€™t know about my autism. I stepped into the world of student life clueless, confused and frustrated with myself, but also in silent rebellion against the unspoken expectation to conform. There are a few things Iâ€™ve picked up over my two years here, most of them observations rather than clear-cut lessons. So, if youâ€™re a student on the autism spectrum just starting out at Kingâ€™s, this may, at the very least, amuse you.
I probably donâ€™t need to elaborate upon the struggles to socialise of many autistic individuals, and I must admit that human interaction in university is just as, if not more, tricky. If youâ€™re anything like me, you tend to go all in: ten minutes in, you will have subconsciously decided whether youâ€™re going to go into full-on isolation or spill all of your secrets, both of which can scare people off. When you go to a first society meeting, expect icebreaker questions whose logic you do not understand, as well as a constant sense of inadequacy because all you see are trees while everyone seems busy exploring the forest.
If, by any chance, you are lucky to have a seemingly life-changing conversation at an event of some sort, do not expect it will have an impact. After latching onto a group and having a very successful exchange at my departmentâ€™s welcome tea event, Iâ€™d initially thought to myself: â€œGreat, now that must be the start of a beautiful friendship,â€ but it has quickly withered away, and I was left confused and deluded, and feeling quite stupid, too. That being said, what decides upon a friendship is a mystery to me. Eventually, you might realise that maybe, just maybe, where students truly bond are at noisy and overstimulating parties, or at loud and overwhelming pubs. And if a group of people wants to go to a pub, you donâ€™t want to sound rude by suggesting a different spot, so you might as well stay home while they begin the elusive process of â€œbecoming friendsâ€, one I still donâ€™t understand.
During Freshersâ€™ week, and afterwards, you will most certainly say something weird; you will misunderstand something; sensory overload will overwhelm you (this is London, after all); and itâ€™s very likely that one of those days you will end up curled up in a bathroom stall or anxiously rushing back home faster than the wind. Itâ€™s fine if you donâ€™t want to go to the typical Freshersâ€™ events. I didnâ€™t, and Iâ€™m still here, tumbling along. Do also keep in mind that if someone tells you, â€œLetâ€™s do x sometime,â€ they donâ€™t always mean it. Especially if alcohol is involved, assume that they might forget about it the next day, and if you bring it up to them – because you remember everything – they will look at you like you said something stupid.
What also might scare other students away is your passion (read: obsessiveness). This was my experience with writing for multiple student outlets in my first year and becoming a bit too fixated on it, which resulted in annoying editors and crossing lines, and basically making a mess of things. Not only did I not gain friends, but I ruined any potential for that dreadful thing they call â€œnetworkingâ€. My solution? Well, I became an editor myself in one of these outlets, so now Iâ€™m hiding in plain sight, sheltered in faux-authority, though I realise this may not work for everyone.
Another annoying inevitability you might face is the non-stop sense of spontaneity. If youâ€™re about to meet someone, they usually wonâ€™t bother to establish an end time so that you can be calm knowing how long it will last. No, in the socialising sphere, people seem to have an intuitive sense around when things should end, and more often than not, their duration far exceeds your energy for the day. I havenâ€™t yet had the guts to ask: â€œCan we set an end time?â€ because I have a feeling it will come off the wrong way.
Last, but not least: weâ€™re all students here. As much as I dislike a neurotypical person telling a neurodivergent one: â€œI know exactly how you feel,â€ we are still all in this together. None of our experiences are the same, but sometimes it can prove comforting, knowing that everyone has something more nuanced up their sleeve than theyâ€™re letting on – and autistic people can easily spot it at times, even if many neurotypicals tend to think weâ€™re clueless and can read nothing between the lines. Sometimes, we can use being perpetually overlooked to our advantage.