‘I was basically frozen out of student life’: Autistic students on their uni experiences

From socialising to job-hunting, autistic uni students share their struggles and strengths this Autism Acceptance Month

According to a Durham University study, 2.4 per cent of all UK uni students have an autism diagnosis, but less than 40 per cent of them end up with a degree.

This also means their drop-out rate is nearly ten times higher than the general student body: at 60 per cent compared to the 6.3 per cent national average.

Considering how little we know about autism, these stats (and the fact that autistic people aren’t all socially-awkward savants like Sheldon Cooper) might come as a surprise.

So during April, which marks Autism Acceptance Month, The London Tab heard from some autistic students to understand why some would say: “Autism is one of my biggest strengths, and my greatest insecurity.”

‘I was basically frozen out of student life’

Elliot is a UCL alumnus with an MRes in Biodiversity, Evolution & Conservation and a BSc in Biological Sciences from the Uni of Liverpool.

While he thought his time at UCL was great with “all these other exciting people who all had big ideas and were all doing amazing things,” his undergrad experience at Liverpool wasn’t the greatest.

“At the UoL, because I didn’t really like to drink, get wasted, or go to the club, I was basically frozen out of student life. 

“That alone was pretty bad for my mental health, but it also meant that I missed out on all of the insider gossip about which classes were good, how to do tricky coursework, and I was always last to hear about news and opportunities,” he told The London Tab.

He also thought “the hard drinking culture of the first year” is a problem across all UK unis. As an autistic student who doesn’t appreciate downing shots as much as your standard British student, he thought the freshers’ experience was “completely alienating” and had a negative impact on his entire undergrad as friends and social circles are often established during this time.

“So I was really isolated throughout my [undergrad] at the university,” he said.

Elliot is currently doing his PhD in Germany

Calvin, a musical theatre student at the London College of Music of the Uni of West London, thought his particular degree and, interestingly, Covid actually helped improve his uni social experience.

“My personal experience overall has been a positive one. I am lucky to be studying and working in an industry that, throughout history, has been socially progressive and led the way, where I generally feel very accepted for who I am.

“Making friends and socialising with my peers was something I was extremely nervous about coming to university. This is something I have hugely struggled with in the past and, as a result, often ended up isolated, which contributed to worsening my mental health.

“However, I feel really lucky that the kind of people I am around in the drama school environment are naturally eccentric and unique people, which creates a really accepting and nurturing environment,” he said.

And while he thought Covid was challenging in making it difficult for him to visit his family, he also thought it made freshers’ a lot more accessible as he could socialise “in a more slow and controlled manner” than the potentially overwhelming experiences of partying and clubbing.

Elliot would agree that the environment matters: “Even though there was still drinking, because everyone was more mature (and London prices for pints!), it was more accessible.”

The support services are great ‘so long as your disability is neat and predictable’

Aside from social interactions, another hurdle autistic uni students have to overcome is accessing support – something Elliot thought was “bureaucratic” at UCL.

This came from his fight for extra extensions for his thesis.

“The default baseline for the support they offer is just two weeks extra time for thesis writing and access to the SEN computer room. My specific needs or the course’s structure weren’t really considered in much depth.

“But in order to justify why I needed longer, I had to provide evidence of how I was also switching medications around the same time.

“I think UCL probably has good facilities for supporting disabled students, so long as your disability is neat and predictable. Otherwise, you need to persevere and be proactive in pushing for support beyond what they think you need,” he said.

The sunflower lanyard of invisible disabilities is often worn by autistic students on campus

Autism can be a ‘taboo topic’ and a ‘professional black mark’

While much progress has been made in recent years about accepting autism and neurodiversity, unfortunately, not all schools are committed to upholding this effort.

Calvin said: “It was really important to me that I picked a university that I felt was going to support my autism and even embrace it.

“When I discussed with the course leader at my current university about my autism, he spoke to me about how neurodiverse our industry is and how he thinks this contributes to some of the brilliant creativity across the music and theatre field. This hugely encouraged me to accept my place at LCM.

“Unfortunately, some of my other auditions at other universities, drama schools and conservatoires weren’t quite so positive. They weren’t able to make the small adjustments that autistic people like me may need to help them thrive and succeed.

“I hear horror stories daily of autistic people at other universities who are being encouraged to ‘mask their Autistic traits’ to supposedly make them ‘more employable.’

“This really saddens me to hear, and I am glad I am not at an institution like this,” he said.

Aside from being a music student and performer, Calvin also campaigns for mental health and is the Wellbeing Ambassador at LCM

But it’s also undeniable that “masking autism” is often still a requirement to succeed in the music and theatre industry (and the general job market, for that matter), and Calvin thought “recognition and accessibility are obstacles to overcome. 

“On speaking to some people about neurodiversity at Music events, I remember that despite the music industry’s inclusive nature, some felt autism was a taboo topic, and the stigma that we see all across society was still apparent.

“Many neurodiverse performers I’ve spoken to have brought up concerns of how our conditions end up getting commodified in music circles. There’s always that fear of being known as ‘the autistic artist’ or that being open about your neurodivergence turns into a professional black mark that can almost feel paralysing.

“I do believe more work needs to be done on an institutional level to help build an environment where we can feel truly safe, heard, and able to thrive,” he said.

‘Above all, stay strong! The fight is worth it’

Despite the struggles, which are far more nuanced than this article can cover, Elliot encourages fellow autistic students to not give up on trying to be the (depressingly low) 1.08 per cent of all uni graduates who are autistic.

“Each of us is different, and what we need to thrive will differ accordingly. Remember, we’re trying to survive in a system that wasn’t designed for us, so you’ve also got to advocate for what you need.

“Above all, stay strong! The fight is worth it.”

Elliot encourages autistic students to not be afraid of advocating for their needs

Feature image contains photo given and used with permission by Calvin Glen.

Related stories recommended by this writer:

• How I’m navigating, or trying to survive, Freshers’ as an autistic UCL student

• This is what it’s like having ADHD as a student at UCL

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