As an autistic college student, how can you endure others’ judgment, discrimination, and misconceptions and find the confidence to be yourself? You can take steps to develop your own support systems that will promote self-advocacy and self-acceptance and help you thrive. Kathleen Burkhardt, an autistic self-advocate and previous winner of the Schwallie Family Scholarship, shared her advice for other college students in OAR’s College Guide. This blog post and infographic are adapted from Kathleen’s tips.
1. Be Yourself.
“Be yourself” is advice we hear every day. Yet, it seems that whenever we do something stereotypically “autistic,” we are judged or called “weird”. So we ignore the advice to be ourselves.
College can be difficult, since it is our first time living on our own. This makes the discrimination, adversity, and judgment we face even harder to endure. Honestly, the best thing I do to cope with—and combat—these challenges, as cheesy as it sounds, is to be myself.
2. Stand Up For Yourself.
Being yourself is easier said than done. In college, you may be pressured to conform to fit in with the rest of your peers. However, this can take a huge toll on your physical and mental health. Instead, the best strategy is to stand up for yourself.
Sometimes, standing up for yourself simply means saying “no” to activities you don’t feel comfortable with. For example, you may continually go to noisy, crowded parties even though they can cause sensory overload and you don’t like being around people too often. If you do not enjoy these types of parties, give yourself permission to say “no” the next time a party comes around.
At first, some might try to peer pressure you into going and consider you a “loser” or “lame” for staying home, but as long as you are enjoying yourself, that is all that matters. Your wellness is more important than a party. After declining the invitation, suggest fun activities that take place in more controlled settings that you know you are more comfortable with. That way, you continue to stay social and let others know
you still enjoy spending time with them.
3. Seek Accommodations.
However, you can’t say “no” to taking an important exam or going to lectures. There are other strategies you can employ for required activities like classes and tests. Another method of standing up for yourself is asking for accommodations if you need them. For example, you may need to take a test in a distraction-reduced environment, or you may need an assigned notetaker so that your attention isn’t divided between writing down notes and listening to the lecture. Such accommodations are important to help you stay on track and level the playing field with your classmates.
4. Figure Out What Works For You.
Sometimes, formal accommodations cannot be made, especially if you are outside the classroom. For example, my residence hall had quiet hours from 11pm–7am most days, but sometimes my dorm mates were very loud outside of quiet hours. I came up with my own coping skills for this situation, such as putting headphones in or, if that didn’t work, I would go down to the study room in my residence hall or the campus library.
If you are in a situation where you cannot use accommodations, figure out what works for you. Do you need a quiet place to work? Do you need to (healthily) stim? Do you need a break from a situation? Feel free to do anything that works for you as long as it doesn’t hurt yourself or other people.
5. Love Your Autistic Self.
Once you’ve found ways to stand up for yourself, you may find that you are much more confident. However, this does not change the fact that everywhere you go, you will still encounter discrimination and adversity. After learning to stand up for myself, I learned to love myself. Loving and embracing yourself for who you are can help you rise above negative people and experiences.
Part of learning to love yourself is realizing you are not alone. I happened to meet a fellow autistic self-advocate at Welcome Week, and he became my best friend from college! For once, I was not alone. Unfortunately, not everyone is going to be lucky enough to run into fellow autistic self-advocates. See if your school has a support group for self-advocates, join your local chapter of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), or find online support groups.
In general, surround yourself with people who understand, love, and accept you for who you are, and you will eventually love and accept yourself. Once I learned to stand up for myself and love myself, discrimination seemed trivial in my everyday life.
To quote Temple Grandin, prominent speaker on autism and animal behavior, I’m “different, not less.”
Adapted from Finding Your Way: A College Guide for Students on the Spectrum, Chapter 1. Download or order your copy of the guidebook here.