Recently I presented at a transition fair this past week about my journey through college and beyond. After that experience, I thought I should write a more detailed post about my college years and the challenges that I encountered as well as some of the skills that I learned throughout the process. It is with this post, I am going to discuss both of my experiences through community college and University.
After graduating high school, I decided the community college route because my family felt that going to a four year college right out of high school would be too overwhelming for me emotionally. Community college allowed me the flexibility to mature and get college credit without having to deal with the stress of dorm life and independent living.
Needless to say, my transition to community college was not easy. This has to do with the dramatic differences in support between high school and college. In high school, I had a strong support system of adults who cared about my wellbeing and provided emotional support. This was all thanks to the legal document of an IEP which guaranteed individualized support services for me and other students with disabilities. However once I got my diploma, I exited special education services and no longer was guaranteed protections under the IDEA. In community college, there is an office that provides accommodations to students with disabilities but they only provided basic academic accommodations such as extended time on tests, notetakers etc. In my particular case, I did not need all those academic accommodations since academics wasn't the problem for me. I needed more emotional support since I was having issues adjusting to community college. It would have been nice if I had 1:1 support at college to help me navigate the various offices and bureaucracies of college life and talking with professors etc. However, such a support system did not exist since postsecondary institutions are not obligated to provide accommodations such as 1:1 aides. As a result, I felt isolated, anxious and a little depressed during my time at community college. Throughout my first and second year of college, I missed my high school support people (especially my aide in high school) that I would visit them constantly.
Perhaps, the most trying time in which I really needed the support was my second year of college. My mom took on a demanding full time position as a pharmacy tech at a hospital which took a lot of her energy and time. As a result of having two working parents, I was often left alone and was a "latchkey kid." During that time I felt like I had no one to talk to about the plethora of emotions of what I was going through with the exception of my behavioral therapist. Even with that, I felt that no one truly understood the emotional pain I was going through and as a result my anxiety heightened. Even though at the time the anxiety I experienced was unpleasant, I realized that I had a lot of resilience and skills that helped me persevere through these hardships. I realized that I was stronger than I thought I was and did not let my social isolation prevent me from doing well in my classes. The fact that I was a strong student was what kept me going to pursue my A.A. degree in 2013. As for the social and emotional difficulties I faced, my mom and I came up with a plan by hiring a companion/mentor who would take me out for social and recreational activities once a week. My experience in community college has made me realize my strengths and my potential as well as needing to be creative in finding supports that meet my unique needs when resources are scarce.
In 2013, I transferred to a four year university and decided to make the big move to living in a dorm independently. I was of course nervous about the transition since I never lived on my own in 21 years and did not know how I was going to do with adjusting to a new school and higher expectations combined with the stress of independent living and making sure my basic needs were met. My transition to the university went easier than I expected. I quickly learned my way around campus and was able to navigate the various offices and bureaucratic systems.
However, I still faced a lot of emotional challenges my first year. It was not so much the academics but the stress of living away from parents and navigating the college social scene. At my college, people already formed their social groups from freshman year while I came in as a junior transfer student. Since I attended a very expensive private religious affiliated institution, the demographic of the students tended to lean towards white and upper middle class. The homogenous composition of the college made it very hard to find other students that I could identify with. Another barrier in establishing potential friendships at college is the strong emphasis on Greek life and other exclusive groups in which you have to pay membership dues. Most club meetings were also held at an inconvenient time for me (most of the meetings were held at 10 o'clock at night when classes finished). As a result I felt isolated at school and felt that I did not belong anywhere. The combined anxiety from keeping up with coursework and struggling to find a social network contributed to me going on a downward spiral in terms of my thoughts. For the first time I actually felt the need to cut myself to deal with the intense emotions I was going through my first semester. I felt ashamed of revealing to my parents and others about my dark thoughts because I was worried that they would take it the wrong way. However I was able to overcome these feelings thanks to weekly counseling sessions through the student psychological services provided through my college. I found these sessions to be helpful and I also had a really good therapist at the counseling center who genuinely wanted to listen to my concerns as an autistic college student.
Luckily, I found a faculty mentor who happened to be related to a family friend through church. He took me under his wing and helped me navigate the numerous bureaucracies as well as being an informal academic advisor and an extra listening ear. He is an Asian American studies professor who has a background in anthropology as well as being both Asian and African American. His experience and challenges of growing up in a biracial household made him sympathetic to my struggles being an autistic college student . I would go to his office hours and I would chat with him about what was going on in my life. Having a sympathetic faculty member that I can turn to at school has helped with the adjustment process and ease the daily anxiety that I went through.
However despite all the challenges, the self doubts, and constant thoughts of wanting to drop out, I managed to get my Bachelors degree in psychology in December 2015. Not only that, I managed to graduate with honors. When I received my college degree, I felt that all the hard work and stress paid off since (as my parents have told me several times) getting a Bachelors degree will open more doors for me. It is also an accomplishment since many autistic people don't ever attempt or complete college.
That being said, my experience both at the community college and university levels show that there is a lot of work that needs to be done in making college accessible for autistic students. There needs to be supports and accommodations available that go beyond helping students in academics. For instance, a club or support group for autistic college students would have been helpful in meeting other students like myself. Another useful support I wish was available to me at my college, is having an older student mentor (like a graduate student majoring in social work and or special education) helping with the adjustment to college life. I know there are some colleges and Universities out there that provide these kinds of supports and accommodations that I just mentioned, but they are far and few in between. There are also some adult service agencies that provide additional supports at college. Despite some of these of these options the most important thing is that supports need to be tailored around each individual's needs and wants since no two college students with autism are the same. With the right supports as well as positive encouragement from family, professors and others, college can be a viable option for people on the autism spectrum.