Campuses can be super overwhelming, and if you’re stuck studying at home, sitting and staring at a screen all day might not be ideal for your learning style either.
Considering you’re bound to face some obstacles, it’s wise to come prepared.
Here are some strategies that can boost your chances of succeeding as an autistic student.
Bring a sensory kit
Being in class is overstimulating at times, even for students who aren’t autistic. The large groups in small spaces, bright lights, loud sounds, and constant socializing can be harsh on the senses. Bringing a sensory kit with you can help.
You can take it on your way to stressful assignments and exams — or just get into the habit of carrying it around as a method to self-soothe.
These kits can include your favourite fidget toys, headphones, gum, calming and mild fragrances, notebooks, sunglasses, earplugs, and more. In a pinch, it can be extremely beneficial to have your comfort items ready, especially if you need to perform under pressure or need extra stimulus to focus.
Ask for time and space
Deadlines can be absolutely gruelling in post-secondary school, and if it’s not feasible for you to meet them, it can be worth requesting more time and space. Ask your profs for extensions via email or during office hours if you could benefit from them. You can explain your neurodivergence and unique barriers to thriving under traditional academia before making your request. A lot of the time, they are willing to be flexible if you’re doing your best to learn in their class, have a logical explanation, and are clear and polite. And if they say no, at least you tried.
Having a meltdown or being burnt out when you’re supposed to be working on a group project isn’t super helpful either. Again, communication is key here. If you explain how you’re doing and why you’re struggling to your group, it’s likely they’ll be willing to do a little extra work to help you out. Maybe you can take on something later when you’re feeling more comfortable.
If you anticipate you’ll need more time to complete an exam that’s coming up, talk to your instructor about it as early as you can. They are more likely to give you what you need when they know you’re just trying to deal with inevitable barriers before they arise, rather than making an excuse to cram in more study time.
Take stim breaks
Take stim breaks however it feels good to you. There are usually quiet nooks on university campuses that are great for stimming. If you don’t feel comfortable being seen, try to go to the bathroom for a little break, or have a supportive, non-judgmental friend keep you company.
It’s a good idea to get this done ahead of time before you actually start your classes, so you don’t have to stress about where to go when you’re already in a heightened nervous state.
Explore your campus and go to the less populated areas to find good spots. Walk around buildings and see if you can find any quiet, private places to sit. And if you can rent study rooms on your campus, those can also be nice spots for stim breaks.
Pro tip: Record deadlines in your planner. It’s easy to forget! Keep all your deadlines in one place to make sure you’re not relying on just sound/verbal processing. On a similar note, you can take recordings of class to refer back to if you don’t already have all materials online.
This can be useful if sitting in a classroom (or at home) and staring at one person talking for hours at a time doesn’t work well for your brain. Being able to go back and rewatch difficult-to-understand parts of the lecture can help you teach yourself the content in a way that will stick.
Get into extra-curriculars
Feeling isolated from your peers? Missing your special interests? Outside of class, you can consider getting into extracurricular activities focused on the things that fill you with joy.
Clubs could be great for this if you have the social battery! It gives you a pre-determined topic, so you don’t need to worry so much about how to act and what to say. Plus, they can be a safer space for gushing about your passions.
Having extra-curriculars also looks good to future employers, especially if they’re in your area of study, but beware of turning all your hobbies into professional development opportunities. Some things should just be for fun, even if it’s hard to make time to schedule time for enjoyment. It’s often worth the effort.
To find and join clubs, search “[your university’s name] clubs list.” You’re likely to find everything from arts collectives and chess clubs and improv troupes and pottery groups. There might even be something specifically for students with diverse abilities.
Make your first appearance when you’re in an open, relaxed mood, and remember that extracurriculars are for fun! Try to enjoy your time there as much as you can, and it might really pay off for your mental health.
Connect with the Accessibility Centre
If possible, consider getting support from your school’s accessibility centre. This is specific to people who can get diagnoses a lot of the time, unfortunately, but if you can get accommodation, why not make the most of the support available?
When you go into an Accessibility Centre and get a meeting with a member of the staff, they’ll probably need documentation from a qualified medical professional verifying your condition in order to give you support. Diagnoses make this process simple.
Once you’re all set up, you can get help from a teaching assistant while in class, use a personal device instead of needing to take notes or use school computers, regularly receive private rooms for taking exams, and even access funding support. It can be hugely beneficial.
If you’re unsure whether or not your accessibility centre can help you, ask! Search up “[your school name] accessibility centre contact” and reach out, preferably using your student email, to get started.
Join an AutismBC group
You can also join an AutismBC support group like Getting Together on the Spectrum (GTOTS) to make like-minded friends, connect, and learn. While this isn’t unique to post-secondary students, everyone is welcome, and it’s a wonderful place to share your thoughts and feelings with people who get it.
That can make a world of difference if school’s getting to you and you feel alone or frustrated. Having a strong support system is key to being able to thrive in any challenging environment.
Using these tips helped me get through college, even if I didn’t get the results I was hoping for at times. Learning to ask for support really paid off, and while I can’t guarantee that for everyone, I sure hope all autistic students are well-supported by their peers, instructors, and university staff on their path through academia.
Have your own strategies and self-care tips for post-secondary success as an autistic student? Contact us!
A lifetime of working in journalism and advocacy prepared me for becoming a content creator with AutismBC. As an autistic person with OCD, anxiety, depression, and myotonic dystrophy, I understand firsthand what it’s like to live and think differently than most, and I’m passionate about advocating for and communicating with others in the community.
I’m also a non-binary lesbian in a happy relationship. Outside of writing, I love to make music, watch horror movies, and hang out with my partner and cat.