Personal Accounts of Being a University Student with HFA/AS

Clare (diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome):

In my first few weeks at university, I was summoned to see the college welfare officer as various fellow students had decided that I was behaving in such an odd and isolated fashion that I must be having a nervous breakdown. In fact, I was coping with leaving home and the shock of a new environment in my own way, retreating into my college room (occasionally retreating to under my desk) until gradually I felt safe and at home there and could venture out to explore. Because I couldn't see why anyone in their right minds would want to spend their evenings having conversations with drunk people in the overheated and crowded college bar, I was most happy avoiding my peers, investigating the wonderful libraries and bookshops, and going for long solitary walks around and around the college gardens.

Living away from home for the first time presented many difficulties. I had to remember to eat, and to buy food. I had no-one to force me to put my clothes to the wash when they stank past human endurance. For the first 2 years of my course, I was able to live in university accomodation, but after that it was necessary not only to find somewhere to live, but also to find someone who was not only willing to share a house with me but whom I could tolerate.

At university, there was a particularly strong expectation that people would want to spend most of their time socializing, although there was much more tolerance for the "weird" than at school. Socially, I floundered, and continued to get seriously depressed (as I had done since my teens) by my failure to do what "normal" people did (and by my guilty secret - that I didn't always want to do what "normal" people did). This all began to change when I wandered into the psychology section while browsing in an academic bookshop and came across a book called "Autism and Asperger's syndrome", which led ultimately to my getting a formal diagnosis ...

Academically, I enjoyed myself. I found that my difficulty in absorbing long strings of auditory information made lectures almost useless, even when I found the aisle seat which my problem with physical proximity makes necessary. However, my reading speeds compensated for this. The university was rare in that teaching was based on tutorials, with one teacher to one or two students. I found this much easier to cope with than larger seminar groups, where I was unable to tell if I was talking too much, or work out how to explain to someone why their argument was completely flawed without their becoming offended.

Because I was only diagnosed halfway through my undergraduate degree, it took me a while to have the courage of my convictions and adapt my learning methods to my own abilities, instead of trying to work and revise in the way I thought I was supposed to. My tutors were generally sympathetic and interested when I told them about my diagnosis, and I was able to get permission on medical grounds to have an aisle seat in all my exams. Before my final exams, I covered all the walls in my room with giant sheets of paper covered in complex diagrams of the philosophical arguments I was studying. It freaked out everyone who came into my room during that term, but I had finally learnt not to care.

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