An Aspergers University Survival Guide
What I am going to concentrate on here here is: making that all-important break with the family home which all Aspies must make at some point, which, for most, seems to come hand-in-hand with moving away to college or university. There is never any “right time” to do this, but there is a time when, if you are anything like me, you will feel just ready to do so. It’s not really a feeling you can put into words, but you will know it when you feel it.
This is a time of change. You will have to learn how to cope with lots of different things happening at once. Your own hormones changing within your body. Having to learn how to budget. Having to cope with your own coursework. Having to cope with living with others who may not (at least at first) be your friends.
Some of this you will cause deliberately. Some of it will just happen. It is important that your parents or careers help and guide you. That’s “help and guide” you, rather than take over. Share with them what concerns and hopes and fears you have about making this move. If it helps, write them all down. From one point of view, this will give you something to refer to when you do discuss the matter with them. From another, it will show to them that you are thinking this move through properly.
The un-deliberate stuff will be stuff such as making mistakes and faux pas. Don’t be worried about making them. This could be anything from putting things in the wrong place, to upsetting your housemates unintentionally through being in the wrong place and the wrong time. These things happen to everyone. The important thing is that you will make these mistakes and learn from them.
These are also, I feel, therefore, skills which will benefit you, as the student living independently for the first time. Moving away from home will be a little frightening. It is ok to feel like that. You’ll have nothing to compare it with. This is why it’s important to come to terms with your feelings. Write them down. Talk to trusted friends and family about them.
I remember feeling a little scared when I first moved into my own flat. Some part of me still wanted to ask someone out there if it was ok to do certain things. This is, I think, because Aspies, and my generation of Aspies (born between the late 70s and early 80s) in particular have been brought up to lack assertiveness and yet also, by contrast, told that we need to think and act like adults and stand on our own two feet, by well-meaning (but ultimately mistaken) parents and guardians trying to help us but with no idea exactly what issues we’re dealing with.
Making the break away from the family home is one of the biggest and best moves you can, as an Aspie, make. It is, therefore, important that you both prepare for it properly and are prepared for it properly.
A recent article in The Guardian sheds some light on this. The full article can be read here: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/sep/22/mental-health-at-university-students-shouldnt-have-to-suffer-like-i-did – but the main points are as follows and, I feel, very valid to us as Aspies.
POINT NUMBER ONE:
it is important for you to understand what will, will not, may, might and won’t happen for you and to you as a student. The student in this article has OCD, which has some parallels with Aspergers, in terms of how those of us with each condition feel and are treated.
The student here has comfort with her various rituals, yet she also started, very quickly, to feel trapped by them. This is, or these are, I am sure, both feelings which are very familiar to you as an Aspie.
POINT NUMBER TWO:
Your concerns and worries matter. Too often in the past, I have been talked at about what my problems are, rather than someone sitting down and discussing them with me. Or else, I’ve not been ready to take in what people have to say to me.
What really works best here, is for you to work together with your parents. You will, no doubt, have sat down and gone through your course choices with them. You will have decided what will and will not work for you. You may have (this “may have” bit is very important here – as an Aspie, one of the key lessons which life has taught me is that, while we may want everything in every area of our lives to be a definite, everything rarely is) been told what to expect in terms of coursework and what will be expected of you.
The choice as to whether or not to tell anyone that you have Asperger Syndrome is, as I have written before, should always be an entirely personal one. If you want to keep it to yourself and work out your own coping strategies, then that is entirely your choice. However, university counselling has a key role to play here. If you to open up to them, they will listen to you. If you want to go to them with any queries or questions, or concerns, then you can do so. Support in this areas has come a long way from when I was at college. They sat there and listened to me. They told me what I was doing wrong. They told me how I needed to improve. But – here’s the key difference – they didn’t show me a way forward.
To quote the writer of The Guardian article:
“There needs to be a more open and inclusive dialogue on campus about mental health and where students can get support”
POINT NUMBER THREE – PEER SUPPORT NETWORKS:
Go onto the Facebook and other webpages for the university or college you will be going to. Read the feedback on each of them thoroughly. Use keyword searches on the likes of Aspergers. By doing this, you will be taking the very brave first step of finding out what help and support they can offer.
You will also be able to find out how others in a similar position have felt and coped.
POINT NUMBER FOUR – SOCIETIES:
I am tempted, here, to say that you will learn a great deal about society when you move away from home and start at college or university. I think, from my own experiences, it would be fairer to say that you will find out a lot more about society when you go to these places.
Societies, when you move away from home, to college or university, are really good places to meet and mingle with like-minded people in a similar situation, whether they have Aspergers or not. Don’t forget, you won’t be the only new one starting!
That is so important to remember. It may feel like you are the only new person there, in a world of your own. But – here’s the thing! – there ARE others out there! They are, most probably, like you, waiting for someone else to reach out to them, to tell them it’s going to be ok, to give them some guidance and reassurance.
As I write that, a past experience sprung to mind. I remember sitting in a college class, at break one day, about four months into the course. These people were a mix of ages and backgrounds. They all seemed to know how to make a connection with each other. I didn’t, so I just kept to myself. This was in a phase where I was being told, every other day, or so it seemed, to “buckle down”, to “concentrate a hell of a lot more”, to “really watch what you’re saying to people”. All good and well-intentioned advice, but no one seemed to stop and think and tell me why all of this was so important.
Anyway, I was sitting reading Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, keeping to myself, as was my way, after a hard morning of note-taking and of trying to understand this whole new area of subjects and people and issues that I had had to take on board.
Then, out of nowhere, one of the other ladies on the course approached me.
“So, eh, what do you think of it so far?”
“Sorry, what do I think of what?”
“The book, Trainspotting. Just that I’m thinking of reading it, I’m just interested to know what you make of it so far?”
I always feel a little bit uneasy when people approach me like this. I haven’t had a chance to prepare myself for social interaction. This time, however, I think that was a good thing. It meant that I did not have as many of my usual social safety barriers up. So, I said to her “oh yes, thanks, I’m really enjoying it. It’s a bit challenging but I like it,”.
And from there, the conversation continued for the rest of the break. It gave me a nice feeling. I had found someone with a shared interest and made a small connection. Someone else had seen me with something that was of interest to them. Someone else had thought me interesting enough to talk to.
Societies are where you are able to meet different people and you may find yourself in situations such as this. Take advantage of them. Let your guard down, meet people, make a few wee gaffes and learn from them. It’ll be frightening at first but it’s ok to be a bit nervous and a little bit frightened. The more you do it, and the more social experience you get, the more you’re initial fears will be out to bed and your social courage and confidence will grow.
POINT NUMBER FIVE – MEETING PEOPLE:
Meeting people, regardless of their age or background, is stressful for us Aspies. I find that, even now, and I do it for a living now, then, you may ask, am I able to do it? How have I got this far? Well, the answer lies in how I met people, during my student days.
Meeting people is different from making friends because you won’t always like the people you meet. That’s an obvious point to make, I know. However, it is one that all too often gets overlooked. You need to learn how to get on with people you don’t necessarily like. They, by return, need to learn to get on with you. You will have to accept certain things about each other.
And that is not the same as bowing down to them. And that is not the same as “just ignoring”” them. I have been given that (mainly) well-intentioned but (ultimately) wrong-headed bit of advice advice, having had it and having thought about it, is to ignore that itself.
Better instead to assert yourself and learn about your own personal boundaries, as well as those of others.
Tempting as it may be, to just section yourself off and drown yourself in your coursework and your own interests and safety blankets, that just makes things harder in the long run.
Get to know your housemates slowly but surely. Look, subtly, if you can, at what they are doing when they are around about you. What are they studying? What are they chatting to others about? Are they talking openly or quietly about these things? Don’t be frightened to ask questions. If you aren’t comfortable asking them when you think of them, make a note of them.
Think them through and work out what you hope to get from having them answered.
Talk them through with people you know you can trust. They may not always be able to give you a direct answer, but you will always feel better for getting those things off your chest. It’s all part of becoming an adult and developing your own senses of what does and doesn’t work for you, in terms of relationships of any kind, throughout life.
POINT NUMBER SIX – MAKING FRIENDS:
I’m going to take a slightly odd turn here and say that this area is different from what has gone before, for a number of reasons.
I am aware that there are areas I have not tackled here, which you may expect to find in an article such as this. Budgeting. Cooking for yourself. Caring for yourself, in terms of personal hygiene and making sure you have enough clean clothes for each day. caring for the place you stay, in terms of keeping it clean and tidy, playing your part in doing so but not being taken advantage of by so-called “friends”, who will get you to “do favours” for them, when in fact, you are becoming their own personal slave or whipping boy or girl.
I feel that each of these ties in with the area of making friends.
You will discover, through each, who your true friends at university are. So, first of all, budgeting. Martin Lewis, the well-known financial expert, who appears regularly on television, has a very good budgeting tool on his website – www.moneysavingexpert.com. While not specifically aimed at students, it covers a lot of the basics which you will need to think about from student life and beyond.
This will get you to list each of your in comings and outgoings and really, when you see them listed down in front of you (rent, textbook expenses, council tax, electricity, etc.), get you to think about each of them and how important each is to you. It will also show you what, exactly, you can cut out or cut down on if you really have to. How then, you may ask, is this relevant to friendship?
You will hear about others talk about such matters and about you. If you feel it appropriate, you can then join in the conversation and tell them how helpful, or otherwise, you have found such tools. This way, you may also pick up some useful tips from them. This kind of exchange, I have found, can really help to start a friendship.
Cooking for yourself also comes in as a very important part of life here. One of the most important life lessons my parents taught me, before I flew the nest, was how to prepare a few simple meals for myself.
Things like lasagne, shepherds pie, pasta dishes, meat and potatoes, different vegetarian dishes, they all came in very useful when I moved into my flat at first. Put basically, they meant I could feed myself and put a basic menu together, each day of the week. And from there, I could then add little touches myself, to add a bit of variance.
This then meant I had recipes I could share with others, which I did at work and on social outings with friends from college. It taught me how to share and helped me to take on board the viewpoints and opinions of others. It also expanded my diet and opened up new areas to me, which is also very important as an Aspie.
This is also a handy area when it comes to personal hygiene and caring for yourself. In my teenage years, this was not, it was fair to say, my number one priority. And it started to show. Like it or not, (and I know that many of us Aspies do not), simply because we feel we do not have the time or the inclination to clean ourselves every day.
Maybe we just do not like the feeling of soap and water against our bodies. Society, however, judges us very much on how we look and smell. It is, therefore, important, that, if you are not in the habit of taking a shower or a bath every day, that you get into this habit.
The same goes for doing your own laundry. As I sit here and write, I am on my way into work. I am wearing clean underwear, clean and pressed trousers and a clean and freshly ironed shirt. I will be sitting in a room full of people all day and it is important, both to me and to them, that I look presentable and smell nice. The same will be true of you, sharing halls of residence or a house or flat with other people. The nicer you look and smell, the more likely people are, to warm to you, to want to talk to you and get to know you.
This is a vital part of life at university or college, be you Aspie or not. It will also, in ways you may or may not yet be able to quite fathom, help you to become more confident, sure of yourself and outgoing. This will show through, both in your personality and in your coursework. It will, therefore, make you more successful.
So then, to conclude, what are the main parts of student life for an Aspie? Coursework, moving away from home, learning how to live with others, them learning how to live with you, finding out what your chosen course will require of you in terms of work and commitment, finding out what support is available at you chosen establishment. And learning how to use it.
Interacting, learning how to make that breakthrough from being on the sidelines to being part of the general life of your course and your household, feeling shy, gaining confidence and having a laugh are all part and parcel of this. So, go forth, explore and enjoy!
ROBERT LAING BIOGRAPHY
Robert discovered he had Asperger’s at the age of 20, quite by chance. His mother had been given Tony Attwood’s first book and recognized within it characteristics and situations similar to these encountered by both Robert and herself as a parent.
Robert has felt moved to write about Asperger’s – both his own experience with it and also the help that is available out there to others – now, because there are more people both being born with it and also being diagnosed with it retrospectively, in later life. He wishes to offer help and advice to others, just as others have done for him.
Aside from Asperger’s Syndrome, Robert also writes for a variety of website and print publications on subjects such as music, books and the local area in which he lives.
Robert has done a considerable amount of research into the average Aspie diet. He is sure that both parent and Aspie alike will find something to relate to in both this and future articles and welcomes feedback from both. He can be contacted for this and other writing matters at [email protected].