Systems for Success: Advice for Autistic College Students
January 03, 2024
Starting college can be a huge transition. For many incoming freshmen, it includes moving into a dorm room, learning new college lingo, navigating a campus, attending large classes, and staying on top of homework. Incoming freshmen might also want to join a campus club, attend a tutoring session, or visit a professor during their office hours. It might seem overwhelming, and that’s okay!
Attending college requires independence, but you aren’t alone. Your professors, university, and personal supporters want you to succeed. In addition, there are systems that you can implement in order to stay on top of everything college requires. Admittedly, this blog post won’t tell you how to find the best food in the dining hall, or how to win over your professors. Instead, I’ll discuss systems like to-do lists, calendars, and other ways of staying organized. These are all things that I’ve utilized during my time as an autistic college student and as a part-time peer mentor. Whether you’re an incoming freshman or a curious junior, you’ve come to the right place.
A to-do list is one of the easiest systems to learn. After all, everyone’s made a to-do list before! If you want to implement a to-do list system, you’ll need to figure out how it works best for you. For example, you could write down a to-do list every morning during breakfast and carry it around throughout your day. This list could be in a designated notebook, on a notepad, or on a single sheet of paper. However, if you have problems losing things, a physical list might not work for you. It all depends on your own needs.
Another option is to keep a list on your phone and continuously update it. Everytime you receive a homework assignment, schedule a meeting, or hear about a cool on-campus event, you could update the list. This list could be located on your phone’s notes app, or it could be on a designated to-do list app. I’ve found that having a to-do list widget on my phone’s home screen allows me to view my list whenever I unlock my phone. Having widgets like this is possible on iPhones and some Android devices. This solution has been super helpful for me, especially in keeping on top of homework.
There are other alternatives as well. If you struggle with remembering what to pack for school in the morning, try using a whiteboard marker on your bathroom mirror to write a morning to-do list. The marker won’t harm the mirror, and you’ll be reminded of your list while brushing your teeth. You could also leave a notepad next to your bed, or leave a sticky note on your bedroom door. Remember, systems are meant to help you succeed; be creative and tailor them to your needs!
Back in high school, I knew my schedule pretty well. I had classes from 9am to 3pm, and lunch at noon. However, when I transitioned to college, I struggled with keeping track of everything. Some of my classes were later in the day, some only met once a week, and some had mandatory labs that occurred outside of class time. It was incredibly confusing.
To solve this, I experimented with different schedule options. When finding a system that works for you, it might take some trial and error. First, I had a physical planner that I used. That worked for a little while, but then I accidentally left my planner at home instead of bringing it to school. I decided to download Google Calendar, and I took time to put all of my events in there. That was also helpful, but then I realized that I would benefit from reminders, so I turned on notifications for my calendar app, and everything became much easier! I had my calendar everywhere I went (since it was on my phone) and I received a notification thirty minutes before any event. I also bookmarked Google Calendar on my laptop browser. This way, I could see my calendar on my phone and on my laptop. Lastly, I made a home screen widget for my calendar app, so I saw it anytime I opened my phone.
There are many options if you want to develop a calendar system. As I mentioned, you could use either a physical planner or a digital calendar. If you do choose a digital calendar, I recommend using one you can also access from your phone and laptop. Some schools like their students to use a specific calendar like Google Calendar or Outlook, so keep that in mind when choosing a digital calendar too.
It’s important to remember that developing a system takes time. You’re going to experience some trial and error before you find the system that works best for you. My words of advice: be kind to yourself, and get creative!
You may have never heard of a commonplace book before, and that’s okay! Wikipedia says that they were used primarily during the Renaissance and the nineteenth century, so it makes sense if you’ve never purposefully used one before.
A commonplace book is a notebook that doesn’t have a specific purpose; it can contain to-do lists, plans, notes, quotes, journal entries, reminders, letters, and more. For me, I like having a commonplace book to put all of my random information scraps that don’t belong anywhere else. For example, if I am put into a group for a class project, I’ll write down the group members’ names and hair styles in order to remember them. I’ll also jot down small to-do lists, reminders to myself, and even doodle a picture or two.
The most important thing about your system is that it is tailored to you. It’s not going to work if it’s tailored for somebody else’s brain. Commonplace books are flexible and perfect for whatever you need them to be. This can make them a helpful incorporation into your day, if they work for you!
Routines are a type of system that we often forget about. However, they can be incredibly important, especially for the way that neurodivergent brains work. Having a simple morning routine, bedtime routine, or studying routine can help signal to your brain what you should be focusing on. I know that it can be hard to start a new routine, but remember that it’ll become easier the more you do it. Eventually, it’ll be a breeze.
When figuring out your routines, I want to emphasize the importance of self-care. College can be extremely stressful, especially as a freshman or during finals week. It’s crucial that you take care of yourself, so that you can handle other tasks.
I also want to clarify— self-care doesn’t just mean bubble baths. Self-care is anything you do to prioritize your wellbeing. This includes taking regular showers, doing laundry, or cleaning your room. In my experience as an autistic college student, I find that these are the most important ways to spend my time. I know this might sound odd, but hear me out. If my hair is dirty, that causes me to have an unpleasant sensory experience, which makes it difficult to focus on my homework. We have to handle our basic needs so that we can take care of important wants.
When figuring out a routine, make sure to build in moments of self-care. This could look like cleaning your desk before studying, or folding laundry to wind down before bed. It’s also beneficial to take moments of reflection during college and ask yourself “Are all my needs being met?” That way, you can figure out what steps to add into your day. For example, if you realize that you have trouble focusing in class, you could build a step into your morning routine to fix that problem. Maybe you need to eat more for breakfast, or maybe you would benefit from waking up earlier.
When building systems, remember that trial and error is completely normal. It takes some time to figure out what works for your brain, so be nice to yourself! Start simple, and then fill in the gaps when problems arise. Systems are meant to be working for you, not against you. If a system becomes too stressful, that might be a sign that it’s not the right system for you. College can be difficult at first, but once you have supports, systems, and some experience, it becomes a lot easier. So don’t worry, give it some time, and be creative— you’ll do great!
Noelle Hendrickson is a senior English student at Utah Valley University. She won the OAR Schwallie Family Scholarship in 2022, currently works part-time with autistic young adults, and is hoping to pursue a writing career after graduation. She loves poetry, autism studies, disability advocacy, and cozy green sweaters.