This post comes with a trigger warning for discussion of suicidal ideation.
I’ve mentioned my mental health issues during university, including self-harming and a suicide attempt elsewhere so I won’t repeat them here. Instead I’m going to talk about my other difficulties at university and the problems the higher education system has with dealing with autistic students in general. Emotionally, this is a really difficult post for me to write and my alexithymia isn’t helping me put it into words so I’m afraid it’s more cold, clinical and factual than I would like but I don’t know how to relate it otherwise. And, after years of believing I was the only one who experienced university this way, it turns out not to be true; that my experience is not uncommon for autistic students. So I’m doing my level best to share it here in the hope that it is helpful to someone else.
Not unsurprisingly given the awful state of my mental health at university, my grades tanked as I struggled with what I would now know to be a form of stress-induced sensory fragmentation. Autistics tend to be bottom-up thinkers; it helps enormously with my job as a professional proofreader, but it means that piecing things together (i.e. seeing the wood for the trees) is harder for me than for a neurotypical person; at my lowest I would sit down to read a textbook and be unable to read, only seeing individual letters and words and not being able to construct coherent sentences. At the time though, I didn’t know what was has happening to me or why, as far as I could tell I was quietly going mad and nobody seemed to care.
If you can believe it, my deficits in social communication meant the situation deteriorated even further in my final year. I somehow managed to get my heart broken. I had a crush I had assumed was unrequited. It wasn’t. I didn’t handle it well and he assumed my actions were rejections (with hindsight it was a comedy of errors so tragically farcical it is clear to me now that it was a giant flashing neon sign of my autism). If that in itself was not bad enough, despite my being severely depressed, everyone I knew from university decided I must be toxic and that it was best to cut me off and treat me as if I was dead to them.
So I graduated with a crap degree, was ostracised by all my “friends”, and left with physical, mental and emotional scarring.
In all honesty, I don’t give a damn about Imperial’s reputation, I just wish I’d never gone to university at all. Even to this day, I don’t believe I’m cut out for anything other than distance learning. I just wish I’d known that from the start. I’d have spent a lot less time turning all my pain inwards and mentally beating myself up for being a hateful, lazy loser.
Most perversely of all, in this fucked-up excuse for a world that we live in, I get to be a “success story”. Less than 40% of autistic students complete their degrees. Imagine the (rightful) outcry there would be if universities were able let down their BAME students as badly. They only get away with such shameful behaviour because they’ve paid too much attention to “TV Autism” in the guise of neurotypical actors playing two-dimensional characters like Sheldon Cooper and convinced themselves that university is some kind of utopia for autistic students – when the stark truth is it couldn’t be further from one. Studies suggest it’s not uncommon for autistic students to experience university as “traumatic”. Like most autistic students, the cards were stacked against me from the start. And nobody told me. They just gaslighted me into believing that I was a bad person, a failure, a waste of oxygen.
And now my children are teenagers. So I get to worry about whether they will kill themselves at university like I tried to. Ever since they were old enough to have these discussions I’ve told them that they are under no pressure to go to university, that they must put their mental health first and drop out if their universities do not support them, and that they need to be prepared to ask difficult questions of the academic staff and not blithely accept any pat answers about student wellbeing.
Additionally, because the waiting list for assessment is too long, I find myself having to pay £2000 for a private assessment for my daughter so that she can know before she begins degree-level studies and not languish on the 4-year long NHS waiting list like I am. I would rather die than let her go off to university as a potentially undiagnosed autist and suffer the way I did. But I am so incredibly pissed off that this is a choice denied to poorer families.
And neurotypicals think *I* lack empathy…..