When most people think of college, they imagine studying in a dorm room away from home for a couple of years. But really, my college experience has been pretty unique! Rather than head off to a dorm for a few years, I needed to take my college classes in a different way.
I found out that I was on the autism spectrum back in 2005 when I was a sophomore in high school. I didn’t really have a lot of time to process or understand what this meant before I graduated two years later and transitioned into adulthood. As a result, I didn’t really have the best school experience.)
My parents took me to visit some local colleges, but I didn’t realize why I was visiting them at the time. It was a fun trip in my mind, and I liked one particular college because it had the best artwork hanging on the walls, which made it feel less like a school.
I then visited a local community college. My parents helped me to fill out the application, since I didn’t know what information the different sections were asking for. Honestly, I didn’t even know what I wanted to major in back then. A few months later, I received a letter in the mail stating I was accepted into community college.
After attending orientation (during which I was too overwhelmed with information and the crowd itself to benefit from), I met with the office of disability services with my parents and signed up to take four classes that semester.
At one point, my parents gave me copies from a chapter in a book. It listed a lot of common traits and symptoms that a person on the autism spectrum might experience. I highlighted what applied to me, and handed one copy to each of my college professors. I think I learned more about myself from this than my professors did.
By the end of my first semester, I dropped three of the four classes. In 2008, I decided I didn’t like college and stopped going. It wasn’t for me, and I was “never going back.”
Maybe I just wasn’t quite ready for it. I began to receive autism services to help me work on work and daily living skills at home and in the community, from maintaining a clean living space to volunteering at my local library.
It was almost a decade later before I began to want more education. This time, I knew I wanted to work with young children with special needs because I wanted to help others like me. Yet, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to go back to college.
What if I had a meltdown during class?
What if I didn’t understand the material?
Taking it slowly, I started by signing up for one class. I ordered my textbooks months in advance, and studied them before the class began. My aide was allowed to sit in class with me, and even helped me make what we called a “coping journal”. The journal had tabs to label the situations I was concerned I might run into, and inside each one was a list of reminders for coping strategies that I could use. I’ve only needed to use it once so far.
Taking one class per semester (since two classes would be too stressful for me to manage), I now have three classes completed and am going for my fourth in the Fall of 2017.
I am majoring in Early Childhood Education. I don’t know how far I will go, or if I will ever get a degree, but I am taking it one step at a time. The fact that I’m still in college is an accomplishment in itself. The fact that I’ve received an ‘A’ in all of my classes so far is icing on the cake!
Some people ask me what year I’m in. But my college situation as someone on the autism spectrum is a little different than most, and that’s okay – life is not a competition. Everyone goes at their own pace, and in their own way.
Erin Clemens is a young woman on the autism spectrum. When she is not in school or working, she likes to spend her time volunteering and watching “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” She is also the author of the book “I Have Asperger’s.”