So you are thinking of going to college? That’s great! You may have lots of questions about what it will be like.
We have adapted this toolkit (developed in conjunction with autistic students as part of the Autism&Uni Project) to help answer some of those questions.
This post is a good place to start – but feel free to explore the toolkit in whatever order you like. And wherever you end up studying – the very best of luck!
This particular post looks at the challenges that many (but not all) autistic students may experience, and also looks at the inherent strengths that many autistic students may have that can be of huge benefit when they become college students.
Going to college can be a wonderful experience and often results in you gaining skills and develop your talents in a way that could benefit you for the rest of your life. Many people choose to college because they have a specific career goal in mind, while others decide to go because they have an interest in a particular topic.
You may find you start college with one idea about what you will do when you have completed your course and then end up in a completely different field when you do graduate. College is a great opportunity to explore your interests and challenge yourself academically. It is a good idea to recognise that your thoughts and feelings about your future may well change quite significantly over the next few years in surprising ways.
You may be eagerly looking forward to starting college and be confident about how you will manage as a student, or maybe you have some apprehension about what it will be like, especially if you have needed supports in school. As an autistic student, you will be entitled to receive supports in college and fortunately colleges are continually improving their understanding of what they can do to best support students on the spectrum (such as our Autism Friendly Initiative here in UCC).
Students with autism, like any other student, have their own unique profile of strengths and weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses may be a bit more exaggerated in a person with autism (sometime referred to as a ‘spiky profile’) but the good news is this can be a real advantage in college.
When asking autistic students about their experiences in higher education, researchers have found there are some common areas of strengths and challenges (of course this does not mean this is the case for everyone who is autistic).
Some of the areas of strength identified include:
- remarkable powers of observation (extremely useful in academic work at third level)
- being dedicated and persistent
- offer unique perspectives (the ability to think ‘outside the box’ is a skill needed to excel at third level)
- being sincere and honest (traits that are highly valued by friends and family)
Some of the challenges in college include:
- organizing yourself and managing your time, especially in a less structured environment
- perseverating (or ‘getting stuck’) on a particular thought or idea
- recognizing when you need help and then asking for it
How could this affect me?
It is possible you may feel like a lot of the challenges outlined above will apply to you. If this is the case, know that recognising something might be challenging for you makes it far more likely you will be able to overcome that challenge.
Also it may be helpful to know that we are changing our practice here in UCC to make things easier for students on the spectrum so things that might have caused a difficulty may be avoided altogether!
In order to make the most of your studies it is a good idea to spend some time thinking about your own individual profile of strengths and weaknesses. Remember that these may change – things you think may be challenging may not be at all – and conversely you may experience unexpected challenges. If this does happen, you can seek support. In fact all students are encouraged to seek support when they experience challenges as a student, whether they have autism or not.
What to do next?
Think about your own profile of strengths and weaknesses - and then consider what supports might be helpful in college.
Think about the challenges that students with autism tend to have
Do you recognise any of these challenges and experience them yourself? If so, you can find out how other students managed as well as explore what supports are recommended.
Think about and acknowledge all your strengths
It can be easy to get ‘stuck’ focusing on the things you might find difficult – so it is really important to identify and acknowledge your strengths. Are you very attentive to detail? Do you have a strong sense of fairness? Are you quite determined? Do you think ‘outside the box’ and in a different way to others? These are qualities that will be very valuable to you. Make a list of your positive qualities. You can also ask other people who know you well – they may tell you something you never even realised about yourself.
Use your understanding of yourself to get the right support for you
When you begin college you will be offered the opportunity to register with the Disability Support Service. As part of your registration you will take part in a Needs Assessment with a Disability Advisor. It may be helpful to bring a list of your strengths and weaknesses to your needs assessment as it may give your disability advisor a better sense of what supports might be helpful for you. If you are finding College difficult you need to make an appointment to meet with your Disability Advisor as soon as possible. They would be happy to arrange a review of your previous needs assessment if needed in case any your supports need to be changed.
Questions to think about
It might be helpful to ask yourself the following questions:
What do I find easy about studying?
What do I find more challenging about studying?
Do I know what I am good at and what my strengths are?
Is there a skill I know I need to improve but am avoiding?
How can I acknowledge what I might find challenging and put in place supports to stop these challenges becoming overwhelming?
These types of questions are also helpful when thinking about managing other aspects of student life, such as looking after yourself (e.g. eating, sleeping, washing) and managing your communication with the university and other people.