Hometown: Boca Raton, Florida
University/Program: Currently a Second-Year Law Student at the University of Miami. (J.D. expected May 2018). Go ‘Canes: it’s all about the U! I graduated from the University of Florida in 2015 with a B.A. in Criminology & Law and a B.S. in Psychology. Go Gators!
Autism Diagnosis & Symptoms: Diagnosed with High-Functioning Autism at age 3. Major challenges in college included learning to live independently, learning executive functioning skills, and being stress/being overwhelmed.
To whom did you choose to disclose your ASD, and why? How was that experience for you?
Fact: Given that I was already on national television (CNN), met many celebrities, and have written a book about autism, my ASD status has not been exactly a mystery. Most icebreakers with meeting new people involved my “fun fact” relating to one of those things. I disclosed to some people in more detail, so I will share those here:
I mainly disclosed to people who I came in contact with socially. The first person I disclosed to in college was my Resident Assistant (hereinafter “RA”) because RA’s are student leaders and keep the dorm community together. As a new resident who had never lived away from home or gone to sleepaway camp, I felt that having an older ally was a good thing, and that there would be someone I could have as a “point person.” I disclosed to two RA’s over two years. My RA’s were very nice girls, but unfortunately it didn’t give me any additional support necessarily – I also had trouble approaching my first one about roommate issues, and I don’t know if being open helped or gave them extra info to help me socialize or make friends or go to events or better find my way around campus.
I also disclosed to friends, or potential friends, because I wanted to be surrounded by cool, understanding people, and also, I didn’t want judgment or to be shunned if I decided a party or a social situation was not for me.
I was most open during a diversity retreat my freshman year. I can’t recall if anyone else with a disability or who was neurodiverse speaking, so I opened up big time that weekend. It was the most accepted I ever felt in college, since everyone was sharing their most intimate social justice related thoughts and feelings, and generally there was an extreme feeling of closeness amongst people who understood what it means to be different.
Academically, I only disclosed to my disability studies professors. Why? It wasn’t to influence my academic performance, but my disability studies classes were relatively small, and I was a teaching assistant for one of them, so I figured my autistic first-person perspective could valuably contribute to the classes I took (and it did).
What, if any, academic services and resources do you utilize? (DSS, accommodations?)
I never received any academic accommodations in college. I did, however, contact and register with the Disability Resource Center in case I ever needed anything. They put me in touch with Housing and helped me get into my building, select my roommate, and when that didn’t work out, Housing was able to help me get a single room in the same building, where I remained for the next year and a half.
Outside of academic services, what other kinds of supports are important for you in college and why? (Friends, family, therapist?)
My family. I would be nowhere without their support, guidance, love, and everything else under the sun. They keep me going and keep me grounded and remind me it is okay and they are my biggest cheerleaders and I can’t say enough.
What have been your biggest challenges in college, and how have you overcome them?
Being away from home. Thinking I can do it all on my own. It takes a village. It has always taken a village for people on the spectrum. Like most of my peers, I struggled with homesickness, wanted to be closer to my family, and needed more support than I thought I would need (especially emotionally. College is draining because it’s stressful and very social for the most part). To overcome my challenges, I began coming home twice a month, and decided to live at home my senior year. I became more aware of what my limitations were, and being self-aware is the best thing you can be. It’s okay to say no to things when it’s in your best interest – your friends won’t care you’re don’t always come and hang out, they’ll be understanding.
What has been the best part of college for you?
This is cliché, but the best part of college was football games, because I felt like I belonged with 90,000 other students, alumni, friends, family. At football games, we are a big family of strangers on the same team. My best memories looking back are of those times I spectated from the stands, with everyone cheering and singing in unison.
So far in law school? The fact is that I wake up and realize my dreams of helping people have been coming true. I help people every day while I get my education, whether it is at an internship, or through something new I learn. I also get to give back a lot. And I’ve gotten to write for the Huffington Post through my first year, which has been nothing short of life-changing and incredible (it also made a lot of people in law school talk to me, which is always a plus, because as we know, socializing while autistic is hard).
What has been the most important new skill or habit you’ve developed in college?
Knowing that I can do it after so many told me I couldn’t – that a big school might be too much, that it’s hard, etc. I’ve learned so much, like how to network and be social, but most importantly, that I am resilient and capable of being on my own and succeeding in a difficult environment. I have been challenged in more ways than one. I think I also learned the importance of taking care of myself, so I take time every weekend to do nothing, just to recharge. Whether it’s a nap or just chilling on the couch, it’s necessary for my overall wellbeing and health.
Something I wish I knew before coming to college was how much responsibility comes with being an adult. For example, I am still learning independent living skills, like how to clean my apartment better (Sometimes I still joke that I still live like a college freshman, because it’s okay when you aren’t perfect as a freshman in a dorm, but when you have your own place, it’s different).
Note: Some of this I learned in law school and I wish I had known in undergrad, so I’m passing it along so future college students don’t find out 3-4 years later like I did. I wish I took better care of myself when I was 18-19, and spared myself a lot of stress and weight gain. I probably wouldn’t have worried about feeling burnt out or whatever as much either.
What do you wish you knew before coming to college?
How to be an adult. I feel like we tend to neglect a lot of independent living and executive functioning skills. When you’re on your own, there are no parental reminders to brush your teeth, shower, wake up, eat three meals a day, etc. I find myself sometimes forgetting or failing to function properly sometimes.
I also wish we spent more time on these types of skills, period. So many things I learned for the first time right before college or during college, like ATMs (I recall practicing using them two months before college), or laundry, or even setting a schedule.
A funny story: my first week of college, I didn’t know how the dorm laundry machines worked. So I put all my clothes with my detergent in the dryer. I had no idea why they were still soaked in detergent, but warm. Then I realized that was the dryers all stacked and the washers were at another part of the room. Oops. I need to see or be shown things to know how they work.
The issue is so much effort is spent preparing students for the academic challenges. It happened in law school too. Sometimes I think students – especially autistics – need some prep on how important self-care is and independent living skills and remembering to actually do things outside of academic pressure and to maintain and find a sense of self and purpose. I am a huge proponent of teach important life skills, and it’s more than okay to take time to yourself. I thought college was going to be a lot more work than it was but you have a lot of downtime from schoolwork, so get out, have some fun, but also don’t neglect yourself (it happens. Look at everyone who gains the “Freshman 15” or watches Netflix until 3am and realizes it’s 3am when they have an 8am class the next morning).
How do you keep track of classes and assignments in college?
I use iCal for the really big things since it syncs to my phone and computer; for assignments and everything else, I have a jumbo sized Lilly Pulitzer agenda so I write things down the minute I hear or see them and check things off as I do them. I always wrote down due dates in my iCal and my agenda so I’d never forget; daily reading and assignments went in my agenda. I also put other non-academic things like plans, reminders to do things like pick up groceries or to take medicine, in my agenda. I like the to-do list thing – it’s my best bet at organization and I feel accomplished when I do things!
How do you maintain a comfortable routine in your daily college life?
I still struggle with this, especially because I started interning right after I was mostly settled in routine. I try to work from the front or back: when do I have to be somewhere? When do I want to go to bed? I love to sleep, so I try to build it in. My class schedule has always been a given, so I would then build in meetings and sleep and meals into it.
How did you balance your academics with your thriving writing career and other commitments?
I always say I have no idea. I find myself exhausted and stressed and burned out trying to manage things but I always work to make time to do what I love. Weekends are especially good. I also tend to treat school like a 9 to 5 job: I work hard then, especially since I am not in classes from 9 to 5. After dinner, I let myself do what I want, so that’s when I write, draw and paint usually. I look at it as a way to unwind and be passionate and happy at the end of the day after hard work and learning (it also gives my brain a good break).
On Campus Life & Relationships
Are you living on campus? How did you choose your housing arrangement?
In college, I lived on campus for two years and lived at home my third year. I lived on campus to join a community, make friends, and have a typical college experience, and I did not want to bring a car to college.
In law school, I have an apartment but I live walking distance to campus, the metro, grocery stores, shopping, etc. Big cities are different. I wanted convenience and to maintain my independence without a car.
What is it like for you to live with a roommate, or multiple roommates?
I only lived with a roommate my freshman year of undergrad. It was…very difficult, to say the least. We didn’t get along. We had communication issues (they were NOT all a result of my autism). We were very different people in every way under the sun, and I ended up moving out after a semester.
I have not lived with a roommate ever since (my parents do not count as roommates).
What has your experience been like with social events and college parties?
Parties = terrifying. I went to two parties in college – a house party and a fraternity party. Had to leave both of them because of sensory overload and I am pretty sure the fraternity party brought on a meltdown. The house party for me was uncomfortable since a lot of people were drinking, I didn’t want to drink, I was underage and obviously didn’t want trouble (I was never a troublemaker), but a friend who planned to stay sober the whole night invited me and offered to take me home if I felt uncomfortable, so I went. He did end up taking me home and was sober, so I felt safe knowing that. I hated the party thing because I simply didn’t know anyone or how to act, and it was a small space with far too many people.
A lot of people laugh when I tell them the only “going out” college party thing I liked is one of the nightclubs in my college town had an indie night once a week, and I used to love it. I loved getting to dance to cool, alternative music, and a lot of people dressed up like hipsters, so it also made for great people-watching, and it had a relaxed vibe. I got to get lost in the music so the crowd on a dance floor disappeared. You would think I would be fazed by people packed on a dance floor, but other than the music, it’s surprisingly quiet – I can’t recall side conversations or anything; just people dancing.
Certain social events were also rough, like basketball games and some concerts. The sounds of the squeaking sneakers on the court or a jazz band or bad acoustics were enough to make me anxious and need to go home. Having understanding friends made me feel less guilty about what for me is a more normal experience. I was always scared I was ruining their nights out. I apparently never did, and I am so grateful to have been around people who “got it” and were accommodating enough to take me home or keep me company somewhere quiet when it was too difficult to function.
But my favorite social event?! Football games. I love football. I love being a part of something greater than myself. It is the collective feeling of pride and unity and I don’t otherwise have the words to tell you what it is like to be at a football game at a big school when you have school spirit – it is magical.
How have the relationships you’ve developed on campus impacted your college experience?
I think it made me more open to other people’s backgrounds and stories, because I’ve met far more people in college and in law school than I ever did in high school. So I think it made me more aware of the human spectrum.
Some of the people from college are good friends of mine still. Based on my social events experiences, you can probably see why: they’re great allies, and very accepting. I became closer with some of my college friends after college and life dragged us all to different cities and jobs and schools. It’s knowing you share something.
Where do you find peace and comfort on campus, and why?
My first semester at Miami, a double Cane (someone who went to college and who is now in law school here) showed me a really cool spot known as the Arboretum. It’s basically a nature preserve of all diverse species of flowers and trees, and there are a few benches and seats. It’s very quiet, and it’s not very well known, but I loved it as a quiet place to connect with nature and the beauty of my campus, since Miami and Coral Gables are relatively urban.
For students with ASD, how do you think attending a large university compares to attending a smaller one?
I think there are more opportunities to get involved with what makes you passionate in a larger university. There are more people to meet, so there are more chances at meeting “your people” and making friends. If some don’t work out, there are thousands more people to get to know, and there will always be something that caters to your special interest(s) somewhere on campus, whether it be a class, or a student organization.
I would compare my UM experience, because arguably, Miami is a much smaller school in a much bigger city, but graduate/professional school is a whole different ballgame.
What advice do you have for incoming college students with ASD?
Know yourself. I know a lot of people come to college to find themselves, but that’s not what I mean. Know what you think will make you feel comfortable and know what is hard for you and your own limitations. Know you don’t have to do it by yourself – register with the DRC or disability services, find yourself a “point person” on campus for emergencies or to talk to, whether it’s your RA or someone from counseling, keep your family in the loop with what’s going on.