Surviving the University Environment
University can offer a great deal to people with HFA/AS, but coping with the non-academic environment can be tough. None of these problems are insuperable, but they're much easier to handle if you are prepared for them in advance.
- If you are living away from home for the first time, you may have trouble planning and organizing chores such as buying food, doing your laundry, etc.
- If you live in university accomodation, some of these tasks may be made easier (e.g. by university canteens), but shared accomodation can often mean a shortage of privacy and solitude, and dealing with room-mates or house-mates can be very difficult.
- Eating a balanced diet can be very hard. Many people with HFA/AS tend to forget to eat, or eat much too much or much too little. Eating the same food every day or eating only a small range of foods can lead to missing out on vital nutrients.
- Unless you are living at or near your home, you will have to deal with a new doctor (the university or college doctor) if you are ill, or if you need medication prescribed.
- You will have to meet a lot of new people (this is made even worse if you have any tendencies to prosopagnosia (face blindness)), and dealing with the social environment can be difficult. Andrew Coll has put some advice on socializing for people with HFA/AS on-line. One advantage is that other students are often much more tolerant of "weirdness" than at school.
- University can be a time when issues of sexuality come to the fore, particularly for people with HFA/AS who may be "late bloomers" in this respect. Being Autistic and Gay is a useful resource if you think you might be lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
- If you are (voluntarily or involuntarily) celibate, as many people with HFA/AS are, it's easy to get the impression at university that everyone is involved in a relationship except you. If this gets depressing, try the Celibate FAQ (which presents a positive view of voluntary celibacy), or the Involuntary Celibacy page. Or try ACDate, which is a meeting service specifically for people on the autistic spectrum.
- Anyone who seems naive or vulnerable is particularly likely to be targeted for crime, abuse or exploitation (this is true for both men and women). "Friends" Raping Friends - Could It Happen To You? has clear and sensible guidelines for both sexes on how to help prevent date rape, a particular concern at many universities.
- University can be stressful for anyone, but naturally high anxiety levels (which many people with HFA/AS have) can make this harder to cope with. The Anxiety Panic Internet Resource has brilliant information and advice on coping with stress and anxiety. This student counselling center gives helpful advice for students on Test Anxiety and Stress Management.
- Regular vigorous exercise can help reduce anxiety and hyperactivity for some people with autistic spectrum conditions. It can also be helpful to find a socially acceptable form for physical "stims", such as swinging on a garden swing, rocking in a rocking chair, or jumping up and down on a mini-trampoline.
- People with autistic spectrum conditions may be particularly prone to sleep problems, especially when stressed. Check out SleepNet for information on sleep disorders. Some researchers have suggested that the hormone supplement melatonin may be especially helpful for people with autistic spectrum conditions (N.B. Melatonin is only available on prescription in the UK, and some people are concerned that its long-term safety has not yet been sufficiently researched).
- Relative immunity to "peer pressure" may seem to make us less likely to abuse alcohol or illegal drugs, but people can also end up abusing these substances as a way of dealing with stress, trying to "self-medicate", or coping with social situations (Gunilla Gerland describes this in her autobiography, "A Real Person").
- Whatever your moral views on illegal drug-taking, you should be aware that the standard medical advice is that anybody who has high levels of anxiety, tendencies to paranoia, depression or any other mental/emotional problem (a category including pretty much everyone on the autistic spectrum) should not take illegal drugs - apparently it can lead to serious and scary side-effects like psychotic episodes (my personal feeling is that my mind is weird enough as it is ...). One person reported that of the six people with AS he knew who had tried various street drugs including marijuana, all six had experienced symptoms of paranoia, in one case lasting several weeks.
DISCLAIMER: All this is based on personal experience alone. What works or causes problems for one person may not do the same for another.
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