December 2021. I hesitate through the college evening grounds, counting the minutes until the next English Drinks event. Doubt takes precedence over my thoughts, accompanied by a rapidly accelerating heart rate. I approach the Naz Shah Center in Worcester but hesitate at the entrance. I retire to the field for ten minutes before returning. Upon arrival, overwhelming visual and auditory cacophonies bombard my senses in seconds. Each conversation blurs into an insurmountable whole, forming an indistinguishable white noise approaching the intensity of fever. This intensity cultivates laborious inner questions: “Why doesn’t anyone sit down? Is everyone formulated into friendship groups? Is there a dress code that I missed? What are the interaction rules? My inner monologue becomes more and more personalized: “What am I even doing here? “.
The noise intensifies as I walk around the room. Maintaining any eye contact becomes impossible. I am shaken and exhausted within seconds. I flee in terror and confusion, retreating to my accommodation. After spending 30 minutes catching my breath, I try again. This time, I recoil even faster, followed by a degrading self-talk: “What’s wrong with me? “. Nearly 90 minutes after my first depression, I finally enter successfully and gradually assimilate. Yet the ordeal exhausts me, seeing me regularly clutter my words.
While this event is the most vivid example of social and sensory exhaustion that I can recall from college, it is only one of many. As an autistic person, these anxiety-provoking experiences are endemic to college life. Although being autistic and socially anxious are not mutually guaranteed (with very different diagnostic criteria), they tend to overlap.
As such, events that are mundane and prosaic to many can become intimidating and overwhelming to neurodivergent students. I had panic attacks in the middle of preparing for unattended ceremonies, hesitated about attending a bop, and hesitated to eat meals in public with others. I can’t eat anything too textured and avoid noisy, crowded rooms, which make it overwhelming to attend formal events or parties. Even my “clutter” stifles conversation. A fluency disorder diagnosed by my former speech therapist, causing me to speak in bursts so quickly that I become unintelligible, often accompanied by excessive interjections, sudden pauses and skipped words.
While being autistic has undeniably strengthened my character, allowing me to gain a deep understanding of specialist interests, it comes with a dilemma in college. I crave interaction with others, but isolate myself in housing almost daily.
On the one hand, isolation acts as a damage limitation exercise, enhancing sensory overload and giving me time to think. It offers a refuge for relaxation, satisfying my basic interests. But it also challenges an essential facet of my personality. Isolation may be my default setting, but I’m not introverted. I can actively interact in one-on-one scenarios and enjoy connecting with others.
With that in mind, how many neurodivergent college students go unnoticed and unrecognized? 25% of children with autism go undiagnosed, while an autism diagnosis itself remains shrouded in stigma. This means that others could struggle within universities without recognition or support. I was diagnosed with autism, dyspraxia and inattentive ADHD at an early age. Not all neurodivergent college students will have these benefits. Many are unaware of the existence of the DSA (Disabled Student’s Allowance), a relay responsible for specialized financial support.
At school, I benefited from an EHCP (Education and Health Care Plan). I have established a support network, providing me with personalized LSA specialist support, special arrangements for examinations and clear deadlines for these support structures. The support network built into my EHCP evaporated when I started university, further complicating the adjustment process. The Disability Advisory Service (DAS) has provided helpful individual support, but this support is not accompanied by a wider tutor-based network. This forces my tutors to respond to my personal needs individually rather than systematically, which manifests in sending nervous emails every two weeks asking for adjustments and help.
A lack of clarity in government measures to accommodate students with disabilities does not help. The Equality Act 2010 outlines a proposal for “reasonable adjustments”, but does not specify what those “adjustments” are, or clarify how a student with a disability should adjust to university life after leaving their EHCP.
The number of students with disabilities at UK universities rose from 2,815 in 2010-11 to 10,595 in 2017-18. However, less than 40% of students with autism graduate. Reasons cited typically involve social isolation, lack of access to daily subsistence allowance, and poor executive functioning. As someone with executive dysfunction, I can confirm that it makes basic organizational tasks incredibly difficult, yet intrinsic to college life and future job prospects.
Here I have to make a distinction: I am not the problem, but the structures that have failed to support me are. I’m neurodivergent and I don’t need a cure. Autism is not a “disorder”. However, I am still technically disabled. I embrace my neurodiversity and would be an inherently different (and probably more uninteresting) person without it, but I recognize the challenges it poses in everyday life.
As neurodiversity activist John Robison has pointed out: “Neurodiversity does not deny disability because disability is absolutely real, but neurodiversity posits that we all have a mixture of disability and exception.” It can involve unbridled creativity and uniqueness. Neurodivergent students often excel in specialized subjects and areas of interest, and these positive traits could flourish in a safer support network. Neurodivergent conditions do not erode after the college admissions process. With more universities offering specialist support compatible with tuition and a program to help those who are undiagnosed, neurodivergent students could thrive.
The DSA and DAS are effective starting points, providing helpful accommodations and cathartic outlets where I can discuss my experiences without shame, but universities need to go further. By welcoming neurodivergent students, we should prevent anxiety rather than just react to it. Autism can be a superpower “under the right circumstances”, as Greta Thunberg acknowledges. But we should continue to welcome those in college who need extensive support networks, and not blithely assume that the need for such networks disappears at college age.