Friday 28 September 2018

How to Succeed at University with Autism

Eloise writes about the challenges of being at university with autism, and gives her advice on managing change, disclosure and making friends.
- Eloise Stark 

Approximately 3% of students in higher education are autistic. I am one of them, and have successfully navigated my way to a PhD - although not without challenges. Here, I share my advice for how to succeed at university when you are autistic. 


Change is really hard for autistic students. Going to a new and unfamiliar city can be terribly daunting. Before I came to Oxford to study, I visited many times so that I became familiar with the city and the layout of the colleges, libraries, and departments. If it’s too far for you to travel, you can use Google Maps to navigate the city and work out routes between key places (accommodation, your department, the sports centre etc.) 

Give yourself credit for the extra energy expended while getting used to change. Take more rest breaks, and try not to do too much in one go. I find that change makes me a lot more anxious, so I compensate for that by spending more time in places where I can relax. 


A big question mark hangs over the decision to disclose your autism to the university, tutors, and friends. Many people who have not disclosed their autism express fear about the possibility of stigma or discrimination. Whilst this is a really valid fear, it is important to remember that the Equality Act (2010) asserts that it is unlawful for an educational institution to discriminate against anyone with autism, and you can complain if you feel you have been discriminated against. 

Declaring your autism to the university can open avenues to support. For example, you may be eligible for a specialist mentor provided by Disability Students’ Allowance (DSA). I have a mentor, and it helps to be able to chat to someone regularly about my course and experience of studying. You can also get specialist equipment from the DSA, such as mind-mapping software or a laptop. 

Disclosing your autism to friends is a personal decision, and you should never feel obliged to do anything that you’re not fully comfortable with. I prefer to get to know someone really well before I choose to tell them. The advantage of telling friends is that they can look out for you if you are in a situation that you find difficult, such as a party or a group seminar. 

Safe space on campus 

If you find the hubbub of campus stressful, you can always approach your university to ask them to provide a “safe space” for when anxiety is high and you need a low-stimulation environment to relax in. You might prefer to go to the library, or you may choose to ask for somewhere specific to be designated. Your university is obliged to make “reasonable adjustments” for students with disabilities. 

Making friends

Making friends is nerve-wracking for every student, including autistic students. My advice would be to join societies and sports clubs, to meet like-minded people. I’m a member of the Oxford University Walking Club, the Origami Society, and I also enjoy rowing, which allows me to socialise but in a more structured way. Don’t worry if you don’t click with the people living nearby – you will have plenty more opportunities to make friends, including with the people on your course. 

It is also important to remember that lots of students don’t like drinking alcohol or going on alcohol-fuelled nights out. For autistic students, the noise and bright flashing lights of a club can send us into sensory overload. If the people you live with are into this kind of thing, don’t feel pressure to join in if you don’t want to. 

See the positives

Many autistic students excel at university. Our focus, ability to spend hours working on things we find interesting, and attention to detail make us great scholars. Allow yourself to thrive and flourish. Celebrate every tiny victory. Find your “tribe” – like-minded others who you get on with. And most importantly, if things aren’t going so well, please reach out for help because there is always a way around a problem. Good luck! 

Hi, my name is Eloise and I am a second year PhD student at Oxford University, studying at the intersection between Neuroscience and Psychiatry. I am passionate about mental health, reducing stigma and increasing empathy for people experiencing distress. 
Twitter: @eloiseastark / @HedoniaResearch 

1 comment:

  1. Wow this is amazing! Thank you SO much for writing and sharing this post!!I am a psyche student and LOVE reading and hearing about mental health and university!!