Finding a Sense of Belonging: My Reflection of the “Invisible” Barrier | Organization for Autism Research

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James Taniguchi is a 2016 OAR Scholarship recipient. This is the second post in his series for OAR’s blog.

Last week, I finished my 2nd year of college and would like to reflect on my experiences of trying to find a sense of belonging on campus. Using my socio-communication strategies (explained in my last 2 blog posts) to navigate through college clubs and organizations, I was initially able to join several student clubs and organizations because we had shared interests. But I discovered that despite having shared interests, it was difficult to find a group that I felt comfortable with. My socio-communication strategies initially helped me adjust to the social pace and environment, and I was able to engage in fast-paced conversations and build connections with fellow peers. But I always felt like a piece was missing; I realized that I was forcing myself to accommodate to my peer’s social needs.  I eventually noticed the same pattern where the distance between me and my peers increased over time, but not because of challenges I faced from autism. My peers respected my differences, and didn’t mind when I missed social cues. Although I can exchange my beliefs and ideas more effectively compared to before I came to college, I felt myself being an oddball and excluded from social gatherings, meetings, and events (that I would have gone to if I had been invited). It was disappointing when I finally realized that I couldn’t find real friendships in that group and needed to search for other friends, in hopes that I would not end up in the same situation again. Despite several attempts to overcome the “invisible barrier,” I couldn’t find a student group where I felt I was needed or perceived as valuable within my first 2 years of college.

I question whether close friendships and belonging in a group can be formed around respect, trust, and conformity. It seems like I disregard my autistic identity even when I use appropriate strategies to overcome barriers. My identity gives me intense emotional and sensory experiences, and it allows me to harness my passion, creativity, and intellectual capacity in pursing my hobbies and curiosity. My identity empowers me by allowing me to reflect upon interpersonal relationships and appreciate empathy based on what others are thinking. It’s something that gives “color” and intimacy to sensory input – and I’m grateful for perceiving emotions, music, and philosophies at a deeper level. Strategies for overcoming communication, processing, and sensory challenges can be helpful at the start of a friendship, but I’ve also learned that I create deeper and closer relationships when I can truly express myself.

Many people are very open-minded and respect my thoughts and ideas, but I’m often regarded as a non-expressive person who hides my identity in exchange for appearing well-mannered. Could the “invisible barrier” be about making too much of an effort to overcome socio-communication challenges in exchange for giving up my identity, passion, and trust of others?

I came up with a new social approach recently where I stopped perfecting some of the previous social techniques I’ve mentioned. Ever since then, I’ve been told by my friends that I became more easy-going and sociable, which surprises me because I am less conscious about overcoming my social challenges. I believe that it’s important for people with autism to use effective communication strategies for making new connections and friends. But simply expressing one’s autistic identity and being honest about it is the key to sustaining friendships and possibly finding a sense of belonging in a group. This balance between overcoming socio-communication challenges and using the same “challenges” as part of my unique personality has also helped me establish myself as a laboratory assistant. I’m hopeful that I’ve found a sense of belonging working in a lab team surrounded by lots of research opportunities that interest me.

  • Many of the social techniques I’ve mentioned in my 2nd and 3rd blog posts are effective when navigating through campus resources and conversations to find clubs and organizations. Once you’ve joined a group, some of your “challenges” can be perceived as unique personalities and character that will allow people to strengthen their intimacy with you.
  • In fact, being autistic can provide you with distinctive traits and experiences that others might be curious learning about. Don’t suppress your identity trying to overcome socio-communication challenges, which makes social interactions stressful in the long-run.
  • Make sure to look beyond student club and organizations, as opportunities in college can come along unexpectedly.
  • Don’t take it personally if you don’t feel comfortable being in your current group or organization. It’s okay to start finding and switching into another group, which is how I found my sense of belonging and purpose in a research lab.

This concludes my OAR blog post series about my experiences attending a public university and my thoughts on what autism means to me. I appreciate the advisers and editors who helped me with my blog series, as I couldn’t have published my opinions without their help. I also want to thank you for taking the time to read my blog posts and my opinions on how autism can influence life in college.

About the Author

James_Taniguchi_headshotJames Taniguchi is a recipient of the 2016 Schwallie Family Scholarship and currently a college sophomore who is pursuing a degree in neuroscience. His verbal language delay became apparent in preschool, and he was diagnosed with PDD-NOS at the age of 6. As an American-born Japanese person living in the Bay Area, he has been traveling to Japan every year since 2001. His hobbies include working in labs, reading research papers, listening to instrumental music, and occasional walks to the beach near his college campus. If you would like to contact James about his piece or ask him any questions, please email him at .

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