July is halfway over, and with the summer flying by, many students are starting to think about the fall semester. For autistic students, campus housing can present a number of unique challenges. From navigating shared spaces to dealing with sensory mismatches to understanding the social demands of dorm life, the experience of living on campus can present situations that impact neurotypical and neurodivergent students in different ways.
Fortunately, autistic self-advocate Molly M. has reflected on her own experiences living in a dorm to share her wisdom with present and future autistic college students. Maybe you’re a first-year student living away from home for the first time. Maybe you’re returning to the dorms for the first time since the pandemic began. Or maybe you’re a seasoned pro at dorm living. No matter who you are, these tips are for you. Read on to find Molly’s tips and a handy infographic below.
Adapt to your environment
When you live in a college dorm, you don’t necessarily have control over the sensory aspects of your environment. The temperature, the lighting, and other aspects of the space are fully dependent on the dorm building’s infrastructure, for example. Also, whether studying or partying, many college students (including you!) may be awake at all hours, and the noise level may not meet your sensory needs. If you have a roommate, the sensory environment may become even more challenging because you have to share the space and compromise with another person with sensory needs of their own.
To navigate these challenges, Molly suggests that you adapt to your environment by making a plan. If your dorm is loud, find a quiet space to escape to (like the library) or invest in headphones or ear defenders. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, make time and space to read, meditate, watch TV, play a video game, or do another activity you enjoy. You may not be able to change your environment, but you can find ways that enable you to feel safe and comfortable within it.
Meet people early
At the beginning of the year, especially for first-year students, you may feel overwhelmed by the number of events happening, both on campus generally and within your dorm. There’s a reason for this: the beginning of the year is when everyone is trying to make new friends and when clubs and other organizations are trying to recruit new members. While these events may feel demanding and draining, Molly encourages you to try to meet people early; it may be harder later, when friend groups become more settled and organizations aren’t actively recruiting. If you go to events within your dorm, you’ll get a chance to meet your neighbors and others who live on your hall or floor. Even if you don’t become friends with them, having familiar faces in your living environment can help you feel at home. Also, going to events and exploring campus organizations can be a great way to meet people with your shared interests.
Respect shared spaces
When they first move into a dorm, most college students do not have experience sharing spaces with people outside of their family. Like you, they suddenly have to get used to sharing bathrooms, kitchens, lounges, laundry rooms, and other common areas with their peers. Molly’s third tip is to respect shared spaces. What does it mean to respect a space? Keep these areas clean, especially if you are responsible for making a mess. Also, pay attention to your noise level in common areas — for example, if you are watching a movie in your dorm lounge, keep the volume low or use headphones. Finally, make sure that you do your part to make the space open to everyone. You have the right to use these spaces, but equally, so does everyone else in your dorm. Don’t monopolize the space or do anything to make your fellow dorm-mates feel unwelcome or unsafe.
Living among your peers creates a whole new level of social demands and introduces a whole set of new social rules to learn. While you navigate these challenges, miscommunications are bound to occur. Molly found that when one of her fellow students misinterpreted something she said as being mean or angry, the best way to handle it was to communicate — to say something like, “Hey, I am sorry if I am being mean, I am not trying to, but I have autism and it is hard for me to understand social cues sometimes.” For Molly, disclosing her autism in this way helped people understand her better. Also, you don’t need to wait until there is a miscommunication to disclose that you are autistic — you can share that with anyone at any time, based on your own comfort level, and it can simply be a part of getting to know someone new. Alternatively, if you experience a miscommunication and are not comfortable disclosing, you can still say something like, “I know I seem angry, but I’m not – sometimes I don’t realize how loud my voice is.” Disclosure is a personal choice, and there’s no single right or wrong decision about whether to disclose your autism. Ultimately, whether to disclose is always up to you, but finding ways to communicate clearly can help ease conflicts.
For more tips on navigating college, check out OAR’s free resource Finding Your Way: A College Guide for Students on the Spectrum. Download it or order a copy at https://bit.ly/OARCollegeGuide.