How I’m navigating, or trying to survive, Freshers’ as an autistic UCL student
Freshers’ is fun, but not for all of us
I am preparing myself for a year of absolute solitude after scrolling through the Freshers’ Week event calendar for the millionth time.
So far, UCL Freshers’ Week has not exactly made the campus an inclusive space for me as an autistic student. Whether it is clutching onto my sunflower lanyard as I struggle through a crowd or simply deciding that the mental work required to attend the event isn’t worth it, I am in a constant state of struggling between FOMO and Fear-of-Sensory/Social-Disaster.
Even though most autistic people I’ve met share these struggles, I can’t speak for all (it’s called Autistic Spectrum Conditions for a reason). Still, here’s my personal experiences of why I find the Welcome Week less than welcoming.
The environment makes me physically uncomfortable
I Googled the deadline for requesting a deferral right after my first Freshers’ event on campus.
It is not because the people aren’t friendly and welcoming – everyone greeted me with smiles (from what I can tell behind their masks) and was eager to answer any questions. But to my hypersensitive autistic brain, everything is just way too much.
And I am not the only one: an autistic friend has described Freshers’ as “pretty inaccessible from a sensory point of view,” leading to them avoid “most of it.”
Let me put it into context. A welcome fair that is busy and happy to you, is instant suffocation from overlapping conversations in different languages and pitches, the indescribable “whoosh” whenever people walk by, brightness from the sun or light, and possibly overwhelming smells for me.
Maybe now you can understand why I am sticking to browsing through the irresponsive virtual Welcome Fair in my safe sensory sanctuary of a dorm.
Social interaction is a chore
Autistic people are born to be less understanding of the hidden rules in socializing, which can look like anything, from not sensing when someone doesn’t want to talk to you, to not understanding the meaning of a glance.
For me, a possible social situation during Freshers’ Week looks something like this:
Imagine a “Meet the Committee” event for a society you really want to join. After a round of introductions: question time. Cue awkward silence.
You rummage through your brain for any possible questions. Maybe you should ask (insert stupid question)? But the answer is kind of implied. How about you ask (insert personal question)? But it’ll bore everyone else.
Ah! A relatively socially-acceptable question.
Now comes the hard part: How to break the silence? Is it too formal to raise your hand? But maybe it’s not… crap! You made eye contact with the club president.
They are making a face. Are they tired? Angry? Sad? You suck at reading people, so you stare a moment longer, trying to understand their intention. The president sees you looking and assumes you are the saviour from their awkwardness. They gesture towards you, and now you are on the spot.
Cue you saying something that’ll haunt you in your dreams.
Yeah, you wouldn’t see me at a party, even if it was a paid job.
It takes a lot to leave my dorm
Believe it or not, the reason that most of the time I miss an in-person event is because I simply cannot make it to the location.
Or, more specifically, it’s because I stayed half an hour more in bed after waking up, as I think about what I need to do to get ready, before brushing my teeth for twenty minutes (while I clean up my horrendously messy bathroom) then realizing that I am already late, and thinking “Oh well, it’s not necessary so might as well stay home and save the embarrassment of turning up late”.
The technical way of phrasing this is “limited executive functioning skills”, but I would just think of it as struggling with the everyday tasks that non-autistic people can do unconsciously.
You probably don’t notice the steps involved in leaving your dorm, but the effort it takes for me to do them outweighs the “joy of connecting with people” in many Freshers’ events – which are most likely going to be sensory and social hell.
Welcoming all freshers
To make this POV article more concrete, I infiltrated an online group of autistic young adults (its name shall not be revealed for privacy reasons) to gather their thoughts on inclusive events.
While there is a variety of opinions given how diverse the spectrum is, the general consensus is accessible events for autistic people would be not too social in nature (where socialising isn’t the only thing to do… so, no parties) and is in a low noise environment with reasonable lighting. Many also pointed out that online events are generally better, so event planners and schools should consider maintaining a virtual element even post-pandemic.
An ending thought: While it is certainly amazing to see most UCL Freshers’ events highlighting whether they are accessible to physically disabled students, we can’t forget that many incoming students start the year feeling excluded from major events.
With disabled students being increasingly better represented in UK unis, we need to do better in welcoming everyone onto campuses in the years to come.