‘It was draining’: This is what Freshers’ Week is like according to autistic students

‘It was a lot of effort to engage with others’

When Chloe* arrived at the University of East Anglia, she had no idea what Freshers’ Week would be like, having spent all her life up to that point in the USA.

She remembers feeling a bit uncomfortable on her first night in halls. “I think I stayed up late to put off it all being really real,” she tells me. “I remember it smelling a bit funky in the dorm – the mix of new bedsheets and furniture in an older building.”

And then the harsh sounds of noisy events and people chatting started to rumble through the corridors. Obviously for anyone trying to get a good night sleep this is irritating, but for Chloe, it’s much worse. “It was especially hard for me since one of my autistic traits is increased sound sensitivity,” she tells me.

Many autistic people experience increased sensitivity to loud sounds and strong smells, two things that, for better or worse, go hand in hand with Freshers’ Week.

There are various strengths and challenges that come with autism, and these differ slightly between individuals. The National Autistic Society defines autism as a “lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world.”

Roughly one per cent of people are on the autistic spectrum and many of those will attend university.

Freshers’ Week can be daunting for anyone and everyone, but for autistic students, the pressures and anxieties surrounding the first days of university are often magnified.

The Tab spoke to two autistic students and one graduate, to hear their reflections on what Freshers’ Week was like for them, and to see what advice they have for other autistic young people about to go through the same thing.

‘Turning up to the event alone was too stressful for me’

Georgina has just graduated from the University of Sheffield with a degree in Music Performance. Like Chloe, she experiences heightened senses of smell and hearing. That’s why events like the Freshers’ Fair were so challenging for her.

Nonetheless, Georgina was keen to get involved in societies and events so, accompanied by a support worker, she went to the fair. “The hall was so busy, noisy and cramped,” she tells me. “I hated every minute of it! I was pressured into signing up for some rugby team even though I’d never played (or even watched) a game of rugby. For me, as an autistic person, Freshers’ Week was stressful.”

Like many autistic people, Georgina deals with anxiety, something which came to the fore in Freshers’ Week, stopping her from going to events she really wanted to attend. “I knew how important Freshers’ Week was to make friends but the combination of going to the Student Union to buy tickets and then turning up to the event alone was too stressful for me,” she said.

Cass, a UEA English and Creative Writing student, also found going to social events challenging, finding spaces like bars too noisy and crowded. The sheer social intensity of Freshers’ Week also took its toll.

“I think in comparison to a neurotypical individual, it was a lot more effort to engage with others, and quite draining,” Cass said.

‘I definitely enjoyed my Freshers’ experience’

But for autistic students, although Freshers’ Week can be challenging, it can also be fun. Chloe got stuck in with some taster sessions for different societies, particularly enjoying roller-skating. For her the best bits were trying new things and finding people and groups to connect with at UEA.

Overall, Cass found Freshers’ Week exciting and a period when she formed some long-lasting friendships. “I definitely enjoyed my Freshers’ experience,” she says. “I met new people, managed to get a friend some free food from a vendor, got to explore the grounds a bit, and was beginning to come up with my own structure for the day.”

‘Don’t be afraid to take some time away from everything’

All three students were keen to share their advice for incoming autistic first years about to start university.

Chloe said that the noise levels are high during Freshers’ Week but it will probably quiet down after that. “Most students also stop partying so late and start actually studying after this week. You might want to get earplugs or something else of the sort to help you cope,” she says.

Cass encourages students to go out and meet course mates or other students at societies. “It doesn’t matter if you’re going on a walk, to the bar, or an event, it’s a great way to meet new people and have people there who can help you out,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to take some time away from everything, the people and the noise can be very overstimulating.”

Georgina adds: “It might be a sensory overloading nightmare but it is only for one week of your life. If things go wrong then at least you’ll have a funny story to share!

“Don’t be pressured into going round nightclubs, on pub crawls or drinking – do what you’re comfortable with. Maybe explain to some of your friends about your autism and how it affects you. I regret not getting more involved in freshers week and I can never go back and change that!”

‘It’s so important for universities and other students to really understand autism’

Tom Purser, Head of Guidance, Volunteering and Campaigns at the National Autistic Society said: “Every autistic student is different, with their own strengths and varying challenges. With the right support, we’ve seen many autistic people excel at university and go onto find jobs they love.

“For some autistic people, it’s needing extra time to process information – like questions or instructions in class. Others may feel intense anxiety in certain social situations – or when there’s an unexpected change – and find noise and bright lights distracting, even distressing. All of this can make university an incredibly challenging and overwhelming place to study, work or socialise, if support and reasonable adjustments aren’t put in place.

“That’s why it’s so important for universities and other students to really understand autism. The needs of autistic people must be considered ahead of the new term, including Freshers’ Week – it’s often the simplest changes that make the biggest difference to autistic students. For instance, arranging visits before term starts, providing clear information on fresher’s activities or when assigning work, and helping autistic students to organise and prioritise.”

For more information and guidance on autism, visit autism.org.uk.

*Name changed at the request of the interviewee.

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