Transitions

Liebe Leserinnen, lieber Leser,
As mentioned in the previous post, here is the talk I prepared to share with new university students as part of autism orientation week at my local university. I have slightly edited it for this blog post, breaking down some terms and explaining maybe why I have suggested certain things. I will place these additions in italic. This is targeted at young adults first moving away from home for the first time. Some may have never been away from their parents and home environment before while others may have. They will all have a diagnosis of autism/Asperger's, social anxiety or a suspected diagnosis or one or both. It may be also beneficial to bear in mind that this is more directed at students with Asperger's or who are quite 'high functioning' in terms of autism.
Change and transitions are hard for everybody, but the difficulty is compounded the these individuals mentioned above. Worries regarding change in environment (noise in the block and from flat mates, smells from food that makes me more than uncomfortable due to heightened senses for example), the unknown and potential lack of clarity (who do I contact if...? what do I do if they're not there? what exactly is expected of me? how will I know that? how many people will be in the class?) may be in addition to the 'standard' nerves of moving away and with a new group of people. I say may as everybody, autistic or not, is different and these are only mere examples from my own experience. Also bear in mind I am talking about the support available at my local university - each university provides it own support networks with slight differences in provision.
I will be addressing 'living with autism' (I have a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome - please see welcome post) in the coming weeks along with other topics. I hope you enjoy this addition.
Happy reading
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One of the main support networks I used and needed when I was an undergraduate was my mentor. Mentors are provided by universities to help some students in weekly or biweekly meetings and paid for through DSA, disabled students' allowance. Your mentor is a neutral listening ear who can help you break down problems you find overwhelming, help you with organisation skills and study skills and your go to contact who can signpost you to the right person or department when you are unsure. They can help with academic and non-academic issues. Students with autism and social anxiety will more frequently need help with non-academic issues, i.e. housing, how to manage fresher's week, etc. It may be beneficial to have an informal chat with your mentor the first time you meet them, or take some written notes for them to read if you feel you may struggle explaining, just to let them know what you do and don't need. Do not worry about anything being set in stone, the support is flexible and is there to help you when you need it most. I used to take a written list along to my mentor so we always had a plan and I didn't have the anxiety of forgetting something important that I needed help with or struggled to explain. No problem is too big or small for your mentor.
There are also now student mentors will be able to help too. These are students who are recruited and trained to assist and 'buddy' these new students. You may wish to speak to a student instead, in that case your student mentor will be perfect. They can also come to a society with you for the first time, get orientated with office hours,help you on public transport. Some have problems and anxiety using public transport, for example the uncertainty of knowing where to get off, the noise/smells/vibrations of the bus causing pain and discomfort and if the bus/train is overcrowded, general anxiety around time, feeling overloaded with all the various connections before and after your connection, knowing what exactly to say to the bus driver.
There are also other things that are available regarding lectures and seminars. Lecturers will often use moodle to update the topics they will be discussing in each session and may upload a powerpoint. A voice recorder may be helpful if you feel you would learn better listening in your own time, you can get them very reasonably from places like Argos. While waiting to go in, using ear plugs or listening to music may be helpful. This is for a similar reason to the noise/smells/vibrations on the bus. People with autism may find it hard to 'tune out' background stimuli like vibrations/noises/smells, thus causing additional discomfort/pain and overload in their systems. This 'tuning out' system may be lacking or not functioning as well as a person who is not autistic. Each person has different limits. It may also be helpful to consider where would be most comfortable for you to sit - at the front, in the middle, at the back, on the end of a row, etc. Everyone at the university will try to be helpful and it is always better to communicate with lecturers and seminar leaders than not to. Email is often best. If they know how they can help you, they can either help or contact student support. If you feel too nervous, your mentor can email them on your behalf during one of your sessions.
Counselling is also available if you feel unable to cope or not adjusting as well as you might have liked. Depression and anxiety are more widely common in individuals who are autistic than compared to the general population.
Some Techniques:
The first one - lists! I found it helped not to overload my memory with things I need to do and can also help you transition to a new routine. Individuals who are autistic may have greater challenges in functioning in day to day life. Apps for mobile phone like onenote (windows), wunderlist (ios), todolist (ios and android) come highly recommended and there is also https://www.getplan.co/login for desktop. Mentors also have day and week planners if you would rather have a hard copy to stick on your bedroom wall. Using different colours for different tasks/activities may help you notice at a glance and make the creation of these 'planners' more fun.
Another app I have heard only good things about is Forest. This may be useful to all students, especially those who struggle with distractions. ADHD can accompany a diagnosis of autism/Asperger's Syndrome, but not all autistic individuals will have ADHD. The technical word is a 'cormorbid'; sounds quite unpleasant as a word in my opinion! I can see this being good at exam time: you grow a tree and if you go on other app on your phone/exit the Forest app, you kill the tree. This app would be brilliant for anyone who gets distracted by Facebook and other social media apps!
Finally build time into your day for you to help you recharge and adjust. Introverted individuals may need more time to 'recharge their social batteries'. In addition it will allow time to recover from external stimuli and general university life, which is busy in itself!
Practicalities:
It may be useful to do practice runs of things if doing it for first time alone. Examples may include: finding rooms for lectures, going into town, etc. As I mentioned before, some students may get very anxious and having done something once may help reduce the anxiety felt. I certainly found locating my teaching rooms and orientating myself around the library before I needed to without the time constraints to be beneficial.
Regarding cooking, it would suggest cooking in bulk; i.e. cooking for more than one portion then you can defrost as you go along. This means you can eat with your housemates or alone. Things like pasta bakes, risottos, soups good for this (but not limited to these three suggestions). It can also reduce anxiety of going into kitchen to cook dinner if you have precooked and all you need to do is reheat. I can empathise with anxiety of going into kitchen as I has it in halls and in second year house. This was mainly caused by social anxiety - what do I say if someone comes in the kitchen? How much small talk do I need to make? I need to remember what X person said last time... Will they think I'm rude if I don't know what to say and feel awkward? Will they understand? I'd feel safer hiding in my room.
For shopping, some larger stores like ASDA and TESCO deliver to campus through online shopping if you find going into town stressful. See above for public transport. Alternatively both campus stores are quite good in terms of range. I used to eat certain foods on certain days so I knew my shop was the same every week as it kept me in a routine and I was rubbish at sticking to shopping lists and remembering to take them with me, so I always knew what I needed.

You can register online for the university doctor's surgery, you don’t need to go in person. I would advise to do this as I got sick without being registered and had to register first before having an appointment. Going to the doctors can be a major source of anxiety if you feel unable to communicate to the doctor/nurse why you have gone or even sometimes knowing that you need an appointment. Pain tolerance varies from person to person. I still take my mum or dad with me to the doctors as I get very anxious explaining why I need an appointment when the doctor asks how can I help you? Also the question is very open and can be interpreted in many different ways - it may sound like you are asking me something else other than why I have come to see my GP. One 'trait' of autism is a literal understanding of language.This means that idioms like 'it's raining cats and dogs' would be confusing, as rain generally has nothing to do with cats and dogs.If I did need to go to the GP alone, I would write down what I need to say and read it to the GP. Registering in advance for the doctors also reduces an extra stress and anxiety of not being registered if you need to use them.
Lastly put important numbers into your phone i.e. campus security, your home landline, ICE contact (in case of emergency), a flat mate's, nurse services and GP surgery Just in case, you might never use them but you have them stored! This is good general advice for any new student, especially an ICE contact. This is even more important if the student is classed as vulnerable or may need extra assistance, the ICE contact should know the student well.

Looking after yourself:
Do what is best for you. Do try new things, especially if they interest you but don’t put a silly level of pressure on yourself to be like anyone else or force yourself to do anything uncomfortable. Everyone is different, whether they are autistic or not and we all need to love/like/accept ourselves. You are all amazing for getting to university (no mean feat). Learning to become self aware of what your limits are, what you like/dislike, what works best for you (academically and non-academically) is the best thing you can do at university. Peer pressure is immense at university among some students and learning what is best for you as an individual will help the individual who is autistic be able to know when they need to say 'thank you for inviting me, but I can't today' or 'sorry, I'm really tired' or a similar get out of jail card. There may be pressure to fit in and without realising make yourself in more discomfort due to external stimuli, etc. Each person is individual and special and since you are the best person to look after yourself, it is important to accept who you are, even if you don't love yourself. Also your mental health is really important, never forget that!
There is a large level of pressure to have this amazing student experience and to get the perfect job after you graduate. This is society’s expectation that can be adopted by other people. The best thing you can do is know that society does not cater to each individual and the perfect job or amazing experience will mean something different to each person and will come in different timings. This is fine, just enjoy life as it comes. Society only shows one means of success, not necessarily a diversity of successes.
Listen to yourself, if you feel uncomfortable then do NOT beat yourself up. As I said before, everyone is different. It is fine not to feel OK. Have something ready to do in your flat to help you unwind. I can be really harsh on myself when I do not achieve what I set out to do, and it seems to be quite common among women who are autistic too.
Take your student mentor with you to try new things: search the union website for societies, join the jobshop or try a new sport if you wish to try something new and you’d like them to come. There is something for everyone: sports, quieter, less alcohol focussed, social, current affairs, hobbies, academic. Ask for a recommendation if you aren’t sure/it’s too much. There is no shame in taking your student mentor - they can accompany you like a friend would. Social anxiety again! I usually try to take a friend with me when going to situations like this, although it's not always possible. What do you say to people? I feel so exposed, How do I go up to that person? What do I say? Why am I here... it's so uncomfortable. Some people will be fine going in alone but it is important to show that it is OK to go with a friend or similar - whether you are autistic or not.
Regarding homesickness : staying busy does help. Reading, gaming, day trips, shopping, work, study - anything you can do to keep your brain busy and to help you adjust to your new 'home'. Transitions and change can be hard - one 'trait' is a desire for routine and sameness. This is because a knowledge of the environment is at hand and I certainly feel I can have a bit more control over my environment when I know it well. The lack of 'sameness' can cause anxiety; it's the uncertainty again.
First year does go fast so if you fancy trying something, go for it. If is the key word.

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I hope you enjoy this and find it educational.

- krysiawally

Comments

  1. This is an excellent post, very useful and very informative

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