For World Autism Acceptance Week, two autistic Strathclyde students share their stories. This is Heather’s story:
When I was in high school, people would ask me the same question over and over again. ‘Why don’t you talk?’, they’d demand, with all the confidence in the world. ‘Why do you never talk?’. In retrospect, I don’t think they meant for it to be harmful. They were genuinely curious, as far as I could tell. But I was curious, too. I would ask myself the same question, every day, along with many others. ‘Why can’t I talk,’ I’d wonder, after trying and failing to speak: ‘Why can’t I act my age? Why can’t I just get a grip?’
For the first twenty years of my life, I blamed myself for my differences. I hated myself for my inability to fit in, and for struggling to do things that should have been second nature to me. That’s what happens, I think, when you don’t know. When you constantly ask yourself ‘why is this so hard for me’, and nobody answers. If you don’t know that you’re autistic, you search for these answers within yourself. And you learn the only thing you can learn: It’s your own fault.
Finding out that I was autistic during my second year of university was a tremendous relief, but it was also heart-breaking. It reframed my entire life. It made me wonder what my life would have been like if I had known sooner. For me, I really do think that early diagnosis could have changed everything. I could have accessed support. I could have understood what was going on. Most of all, though, I could have stopped blaming myself.
Looking back, I can hardly fathom why my autism was missed for so many years. It was not invisible. I was not able to hide it. From the first year of high school to graduation, my ability to speak in school was severely impaired. My capacity for understanding social situations had reached its peak. I know that now. The added complexities of friendship hierarchies, social games, and romance was too much for me to handle. But, back then, whenever I tried and failed to speak, I had no idea what was happening to me. I lost all my friends. I was ostracised. I spent many of my school days completely alone. Only now, months before my university graduation, am I beginning to scratch the surface of this trauma, and I expect that the consequences will continue to impact me for many years to come.
As I prepared to start university, all I could think about was finally having a fresh start. Although I have always known that I was different, a small part of me still blamed everything on my surroundings. Perhaps I just haven’t found my crowd yet, I’d think to myself. Perhaps this time will be different. I was determined to make friends at university. In fact, I did everything in my power to make it happen.
Despite already living near Glasgow, I decided to move to the dorms. The proximity will help, I thought. It will give me more opportunities to meet people. But, of course, I was still an undiagnosed autistic person. My social difficulties had not disappeared. Despite my best efforts, I failed to make friends, and ended up moving back home for my second year. My time living in the dorms, then, confirmed something within me that I had always suspected. The problem was not my peers; The problem was me. Something about me was inferior, broken, and incapable. It was devastating to finally come to the realisation that, for some unknown and inexplicable reason, I would always be an outsider.
Throughout my degree, I have struggled with several aspects of university life. Even in my final year, the year that completely determines my overall undergraduate grade, I have no choice but to participate in group work. While I understand the merit of group work, it does not come easily to me. I often struggle to speak up or contribute to group discussions, and, sometimes, I won’t be able to speak at all. This leads to strange looks and subtle insults, which I don’t always pick up on immediately due to my issues in reading social cues.
Additionally, I am an extremely organised person, so being paired with people who prefer to leave things to the last-minute causes me a lot of stress. I’ll often take on more work than I’m supposed to, as other group members choose not to communicate or do any work on the project until a few days before it’s due. Similarly, I have spatial awareness issues, so I often get lost in university buildings and end up late for class. Even now, after living in Glasgow for a year, I still have to use google maps to locate the university buildings that I have walked to countless times. But, even with these problems, my autism brings helpful traits to my academics. I am detail oriented, creative, self-motivated, and passionate about learning. I know that people often tend to focus on the negative aspects of autism, but it’s important to remember that there are positives, too.
Ultimately, if there was one thing I could get across from this article, it would be this: Autism awareness is of vital importance. Educational professionals need to be taught about the autism spectrum, so that they can adequately support autistic children. Particular attention should be brought to how autism presents in girls and women, as we are often missed due to our tendency to mask (hide) our autism traits.
When I reflect upon my life so far, I always think about my teachers. The teachers who walked past me every day without a word, or failed to speak up when they saw me sitting alone at an empty cafeteria table. If these teachers had known more about autism, they could have realised what was going on. If they had known more about autism, they could have completely changed my life. Autism awareness, then, is not just for neurotypical people. Autism awareness is for autistic people. To help us understand ourselves. To make sure that every single one of us knows that they are not broken. To make us feel like we belong.
Autism Acceptance Week
Autism Acceptance week is an opportunity to learn about the experiences of people on the spectrum.
The Autism Friendly University Project strives to create an inclusive culture that supports, champions, and celebrates autistic people at Strathclyde.
They are committed to helping our autistic students and staff to feel like they belong in our community, and to make all aspects of university life accessible to them. We invite you to join them this week in raising awareness and understanding of autism across the university, and we hope that together we can move towards a culture that celebrates difference.
Learn about Autism
Gaining an accurate understanding of autism is crucial, as many myths and misconceptions remain widespread across the population. A lack of understanding can lead to some autistic people feeling isolated and alone, so it is important to stick to the facts: