My undergraduate BA in music in the early 90s was a bit of a wash out. Learning life skills and social skills took precedence as I attempted to learn the rudiments of house sharing, balancing a post-rent-payment budget of £7 a week, and basic self-care skills such as cooking, using the launderette and not burning the house down (that’s a whole other story or two).
I worked hard in orchestral and chamber rehearsals but lacked the motivation to practice my own solo music; turned up to lectures but couldn’t focus on a word I was told; coordinated a record breaking rag-week, fought for institutional ethnic inclusivity and threw myself into voluntary work assisting on art, music and drama workshops for disabled people in connection with the City of London Sinfonia – but didn’t ever figure out how to use the library, references or a computer.
There were no grey areas in my grades. I either aced courses or failed them. Autistic burnout caused me to leave town for a few weeks while I decided whether or not to continue with my studies; and a breakdown in communication meant I ended up short of credits and had to return for a fourth year while forfeiting my honours. I repeatedly confused, irritated, offended, and upset friends, housemates and lecturers while battling chronic anxiety, depressive episodes and executive dysfunction. My essays, handed in late and illegibly handwritten, were a mess. My room was a mess. I looked a mess. Hell, I was a mess.
But, this return to academia twenty five years later, thanks to a place offered on a research masters (without the necessary prerequisites of a 2:1 in a relevant honours degree but taking into account extenuating circumstances and gained experience) has offered a whole new outlook, increased confidence and widening of comfort boundaries. And why? Because of people’s unquestioning generosity but also my own new understandings since my autism diagnosis in 2016.
My husband patiently demonstrated how to use the automated system to take library books out and also how to return them. Twice. I still don’t use automated check-outs at supermarkets but glow with pride when I check a book out.
A classmate showed me how to log onto the university computers, send articles to print and then log in again and print them off in the designated print rooms. Magic!
Another showed me how to format assignments and automate references within a document.
Another showed me how to buy my bus tickets from my phone; proof-read my first assignments and explained how to use more authoritative language. He also recognised the signs of me going into meltdown from sensory overload during a lecture, swiftly got me out of the lecture room to recover and then later collected my books and drove me back to Bristol rather than me having to navigate crowds and public transport.
It takes a village…
Yet another classmate rescued an assignment that my laptop dramatically lost just days before the deadline.
The IT folk cheerfully sort out my laptop, WiFi, passwords and software for me on a regular basis.
My course leader helped me to find my way around campus and checked that I could access quiet places without me ever having to ask or explain that I needed that support. Most days someone has to help me open a door (apparently most of them are automatic. Maybe they just don’t recognise me).
On two separate occasions strangers recognised impending meltdowns, calmly led me to quiet, outdoor spaces and patiently waited until I was ready to rejoin other people. (Once was in reaction to a fire alarm – it wasn’t fear of fire that made me cry and shake, it was the change of pace, the noise, the confusion.)
All this support may sound trivial but it has all been profoundly helpful. Until I knew I was autistic I didn’t know that it was ok to ask for or accept help for these things. Autistic people are recognised as having a spiky profile. My spiky profile comes with difficulties adapting to new environments and situations; overwhelm at noises, lights, smells, people and unexpected changes. It also comes with a high IQ, an ability to see patterns and links across disciplines such as health, philosophy, art and science; and skills in effectively disseminating information to a range of audiences.
I’d not considered blogging all this until I messaged a shortened version to a super intelligent and accomplished autistic friend this morning and she replied: All that stuff? I know how hard it is. I have tears. I sometimes forget how much the experiences I thought were embarrassingly pathetic are familiar to my autistic sisters.
Accepting generous offers of help in my areas of challenge have meant that I’m succeeding this time around. I have learned more in the last six months of study than I did in four years in my twenties. I start my assignments in good time, plan them, give myself time for multiple drafts and submit them hours, if not days before the deadlines. So far all my assignments have been marked at merit or distinction level. Time will tell if I can keep this pace up. I need a bit of help from you too – please keep your fingers crossed for me!