I love being autistic: What it’s like being an autistic student at Lancaster University

There’s still a long way to go on autism acceptance

It’s World Autism Awareness Day so it’s the perfect time to tell my story of being an autistic student at Lancaster Uni. Being autistic at university has had its ups and down, to say the least. There’s still a long way to go in how people understand and accept autism, and that’s true in all age groups and walks of life.

I don’t “look autistic” – but that’s because I can’t, as there’s no way to. If your view of autism is still a white boy who likes trains and maths, we have a lot to talk about. That’s not to say that there aren’t autistic people like that, of course, and they’re totally valid. But it’s a stereotype that should be long gone by now, and one that seems to stick around even in the university setting, both in students and staff.

I like routine and things to be a certain way

I’ve had an extremely mixed experience being a disabled student at Lancaster, particularly during my time as a double major in first year that eventually caused me to change my degree from being across two departments to my current scheme (Politics and International Relations). I also did three subjects due to the major/minor system and so I had three sets of rules to follow concerning things like extensions, how to submit work, referencing and more. As an autistic person this was difficult because I like routine and things to be a certain way. This was especially problematic when I was also navigating a brand-new campus and city.

Moving to university as an autistic person who experiences a really high level of anxiety was a big decision for me. It is for anyone, of course, I would never deny that – but for autistic people, change can be incredibly overwhelming. I didn’t really feel very excited about the move because it was clouded so significantly by my anxiety.

I’ve worked on trying to mask less over my two years at Lancaster

A common trait of autism is masking. This is essentially a survival mechanism, and refers to when we mimic neurotypical behaviours to fit in. It’s an extremely costly thing for us to do because it can cause meltdowns and shutdowns afterwards, but it’s generally unconscious. I did this during Freshers Week, and the crash I had from it afterwards was probably the most intense I’ve ever had. I’ve worked on trying to mask less over my two years at Lancaster, but it’s still something I must do quite a lot. Until society gets to a place where it removes barriers for autistic people, I doubt this will change.

I’m lucky enough to have a department that supports me well

Lectures are difficult for me because I have auditory processing issues, and these heighten when I’m expected to be able to take in the information and note it down at once. During online learning, this has been fixed by captions and the ability to change speeds and pause where I’ve needed. However, the amount of time I’ve spent sending emails about captioning being missing has been problematic in itself – but I’m lucky enough to have a department that supports me well and fixes things when issues arise.

I’ve been very lucky to have gained the friends I have at Lancaster. They understood me from pretty much day one and have never pressured me into anything that could trigger problems for me. I’m also extremely lucky to have found a family in the Women+ Forum that I’m now honoured to Co-Chair. But not everyone is so understanding, and there’s still a reality check that comes when someone sneers at you for your access needs or makes fun of something that, to me, is clearly because of my neurodivergence.

No one “looks autistic”

I think something I’d advise to everyone is that no one “looks autistic” and many of the things that people laugh at or think are weird are often traits of autism or other neurodivergent conditions. That includes finding loud noise difficult, interrupting the middle of a conversation by accident, always being quiet in the corner, and fidgeting. Part of allyship to autistic people is supporting people with these traits, whether you know they are neurodivergent or not.

There also needs to be better support

I think Lancaster still has a way to go to support autistic students, including little things like more accessible PowerPoints, continuity across departments and making sure that our work is marked clearly and supportive. But there also needs to be better support including for exams without the need for endless paperwork, more support and encouragement for applying for Disabled Students Allowance (only 40 per cent of all eligible students apply), and more people in the Counselling and Mental Health team that truly understand autism.

I love being autistic – I can’t know who I would be without it, and I wouldn’t want to.  I don’t want to change myself. I just want society to continue to remove its barriers that prevent me from thriving to the extent I know I can.

The Tab Lancaster contacted Lancaster Uni for comment, in which they said: “Whilst we recognise there’s further work to do, we have really progressed our inclusive practice efforts this year and will continue to work with academic departments to ensure they advance this much further.”

If you want to learn more about support see here.

Recommended articles by this writer:

University Mental Health Day is is important: Here’s my story

First class Lancaster student faces 73-year wait until he officially graduates

‘We believe that all children deserve a childhood’: An interview with ‘Make a smile’