Navigating Through College Social Scenes: My Experience at a University (Part 2) | 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.

In my last post, I explained some of the social and communication challenges that people on the spectrum experience in unstructured conversations. Many of the social approaches I mentioned rely on speaking fluently and understanding what others are trying to communicate. This can be especially challenging, as individuals with autism may process sensory information in a unique way and may have hypersensitivities that need to be considered in social scenes.

Greetings and small talk are not the only challenges you might encounter in college. Fast-paced lectures and longer conversations can be tough to follow, especially in unpredictable environments with sensory distractions. I’m going to describe some of the processing and sensory challenges that I experience in college and list some of my strategies to keep up with social interactions in unpleasant environments.

Processing Challenges:

I personally need to concentrate on understanding conversations directed at me to keep up with fast-paced discussions. I find it challenging to generate a quick response to keep the conversation flowing, as I am not a multitasker.

  • It’s challenging to think of an appropriate response while listening to the speaker, but you don’t have to immediately generate a response. People are receptive to your ideas and opinions, even if your grammar and word choice aren’t perfect.
  • I often fixate my eyes when I’m thinking or speaking, but people like occasional eye contact. My solution is to move your eyes across the background without gazing on a point (about once every 2-3 seconds), which also helps make brief eye contact less stressful.
  • Sometimes, people’s words sound like mumble-jumble, even if I’m concentrating on deciphering every word. You can ask someone to repeat or clarify what they said, but it may still be difficult to understand the message that others are trying to communicate. Sometimes, you can gently nod to communicate that you are attempting to understand the information being thrown at you.

But what about maintaining lengthy conversations or discussions? For in-class and formal discussions, you may want to organize your thoughts so others can easily understand and respond. Some individuals might encounter challenges with voice projection, speech fluency, and translating non-verbal thoughts into words.

  • I find that speaking a little slower makes it easier for listeners to understand me. Try articulating important words that’ll allow others to pick up on your ideas with greater ease.
  • Non-verbal thoughts are often difficult to put into comprehendible speech. To explain these ideas, making comparisons/lists (like, “One of the reasons is because” or “Even if this looks…, I think…”) and visualizations (using hands to portray non-verbal thoughts).
  • It’s okay if some people ask you to repeat your speech or attempt to reiterate your thoughts in their words. This is a sign that people are genuinely interested in understanding your point of view!

For fast-paced college lectures, it might be challenging to concentrate – especially if it’s a long lecture! When I’m bombarded with constant verbal information, I’m prone to “zoning out,” leaving me susceptible to missing what others’ have said. Here are some solutions I’ve devised to help me concentrate:

  • Notetaking: an effective way to stay concentrated by getting the ideas down on paper. Writing or typing helps me concentrate on processing the content rather than letting my mind wander, or stressing to memorize what I hear.
  • Podcast or video-cast: some schools record the lectures that are converted to a digital file, which is accessible from a computer. If the lecture isn’t recorded, I recommend using audio recording apps on smartphones. This way, you can listen to parts of lectures you missed.
  • PowerPoint Slides or PDF: Many professors use slides and post their lecture materials online, where you can review the lecture at a later date. If the professor posts the slides before the lecture, print them out before class and use them as an organizer to writer notes on (or take notes on them with your computer).
Sensory Challenges:

These challenges are specifically associated with sensory hypersensitivity, which can be difficult to avoid during lectures and social interactions. The mere size of college campuses results in less predictability of averse environments. College lecture halls with constant sensory distractions make it difficult to concentrate on listening to verbal instructions. Without strategies to prevent exposure to averse environments, hypersensitivity may result in sensory overload.

  • Common distractors include air conditioning/fan noise, people talking during lectures, screeching sounds of desks/tables being moved, and doors being slammed.
  • To avoid these, the best place to sit in the lecture halls is in the front, where many common distractors are muffled out by the professor’s voice. This is very helpful if you have challenges processing verbal information or are easily distracted by background noise. I usually sit in the aisle instead of the middle seats, because I have trouble concentrating on the lecture with people sitting around me in all directions.

I’ve found that some sensory distractions cannot be avoided as easily in both lectures and social scenes. For example, bright projectors and LED lights make it difficult for me to see the text on the screen. Constant exposure to bright light makes me feel tired and drowsy, regardless of the time.

  • If you have a laptop and the professor distributes electronic slides, you can take notes on your computer with reduced screen brightness without having to struggle with bright projector screens. Many laptop screens have minimal brightness settings that are still too bright. My suggestion is to use third-party software including lux and/or Pangolin Screen Brightness to further dim your screen.
  • If you have a notebook or the professor does not distribute electronic slides before class, try to write down the text immediately to avoid staring at the screen for a prolonged period of time. I try to concentrate on what the professor is talking about, which usually ends up being more important than information projected on the screen.

Important Note: If you feel like your sensory challenges are significantly affecting your ability to learn and concentrate during lectures, make sure to talk your professor or academic advising; they may provide you with the extra resources or adjustments to classroom environments.

During social interactions, noisy environments make it challenging to hear ongoing conversations, especially if you have hearing sensitivity and difficulties shutting out background noise.

  • It’s important to tell your peers about sensory sensitivities, as they will likely understand your physical needs. Too much auditory stimulation can be detrimental to your physical health as stress and fatigue, so conversations should take place where you can understand what the other person is saying.
  • Cafeterias, restaurants, active study areas, and courtyards have periodic “busy hours” when it’s likely for people to gather within a confined space. If possible, try to make a list of (or remember) the “busy hours” and avoid these areas during those designated “busy hours.”
  • If you are sensitive to high-frequency sounds, try avoiding places near printers, laptop charging stations, motion-sensor entrances, and fast-food counters.

There are social scenes that involve lots of people and sensory information, especially at dinner, house parties, and campus wide events. If you are planning on going to social events for the first time, make sure to have a backup plan if you become sick or start feeling uncomfortable.

This post shares my experiences and strategies I use to overcome some of the challenges in formal or lengthy discussions. In addition to challenges with daily conversations and small talk, social and communication obstacles can originate from sensory sensitivities or how people with autism process information differently.

For my next and final blog post, I’m going to talk about my experiences and challenges on finding a home on campus, based on insights and opinions from previous mistakes I’ve made. Hobbies and interests may include joining campus organizations, research groups, and recreational clubs accompanied by a group of people bonded within a smaller community. To engage in college activities, it’s important to browse through campus resources and join the right group of people with whom you feel comfortable being with.

Being autistic doesn’t mean someone can’t attend college; there are many techniques to overcome “invisible” obstacles associated with processing differences. I believe that students with autism can attend college without having to sacrifice their health, or face social isolation and loneliness.


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.


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