Does moving to University always have to entail a breakdown for young autistic students?

On homesickness, routines, and sinking not swimming in the first weeks of higher ed.

Content note: food, calories, disordered eating, depression

When I moved to Cambridge in October 2012, I didn’t know that in three years’ time I’d be diagnosed with autism after the most difficult and painful three years of my life. I did not know that it would end up taking me an extra year to complete my degree, I did not know that I would graduate with no lasting friends from either of my cohorts, and I certainly did not think I would be as interested in disability issues as much as I am now.

There have been multiple people in my life who I can map as having a similar experience to me. All of them are autistic. It goes like this: you do well in your A-Levels, get a decent place at University, and proceed to have an unexplained breakdown within the first few weeks or months of being there. You break; you sink into a deep depression. You might learn you sometimes don’t know how to speak. Suddenly everything is new, nobody wants to talk to you, you don’t know how to get anywhere and everyone else seems to find it all so damn easy. I’ve seen some dust themselves off and get on with it; I’ve seen others take a year out (or three, or five) before having another go at higher education. I’ve seen enough quit and never go back.

“But everyone struggles in their first few weeks at university! Everyone experiences homesickness!” Yes, I’m sure they do. But an autistic homesickness is not like an allistic one. Because autistic people, on top of experiencing homesickness, experience something much worse: a breakdown of every single routine they’ve ever relied on to get through each day. For me, once I did not have the routine of the school timetable, once I had to live independently, once I was in an environment where I had to teach myself (with academics adamant and even boasting about the fact that they do not teach) – I broke.

This is because of executive dysfunction: broadly and imprecisely, anĀ impaired ability to do things like plan, start new tasks, learn things quickly, troubleshoot when plans go wrong, and adapt or cope with change. When I began to struggle at University, lectures were the first thing to go. I did not eat for 48 hours at a time. Or I overate, 3500 calories a day. 4000 calories a day. Nothing for two days again. I have only just begun to admit it, but I couldn’t conceive of the idea of leaving my room to wash my clothes, because I’d never done it before in this environment. Nobody was going to walk me through the necessary steps – like I needed them to – and show me that it’s just as easy to wash your clothes in Cambridge as it is at home. I think in my final two years of university I went to 6 lectures in total. I graduated with a good 2.1, and I am not remotely proud of the little work I put in to get this grade – far from it, I’m deeply ashamed – but I now completely understand why it played out this way. And it’s not that I wasn’t motivated or driven to succeed.

I’m writing this now because I keep on seeing excellent, bright, autistic young people in my life with promising academic and professional futures go to University and struggle to cope. It breaks my heart. I don’t have a clever and incisive analysis of the system that makes autistic students ill. It would only be a rehash of what disabled people have been saying for years: that there is little support for us, that we are disabled by this fact. And IĀ cannot say I have the answers to what coherent support could look like, even though I definitely have a few ideas. But what I can do is talk about what I experienced and what I am seeing others experience, and shout out about this devastating trend.

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