Being a student comes with many challenges but even more so for those who are on the autistic spectrum. If you are autistic or know someone who is, this article will cover what Autistic Spectrum Disorder is, how it can affect a person’s ability to learn, how people on the spectrum process differently, and what strategies and support can be put in place to help autistic students thrive. It’s important to remember that this article is not written by a medical expert and should not be used to self-diagnose. However, it is written by a woman on the spectrum who has experienced some of the challenges that may arise in an education setting.
What is Autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a spectrum condition that affects people in different ways but often those with autism share similar difficulties with social communication and interaction, have extreme anxiety and sensory needs, display repetitive and restrictive behaviors, and have highly focused interests and hobbies.
Over the past few decades, the definition and the way we categorize people with autism have changed. Due to the broad and varying needs, it is difficult to help and support every Autistic person in the same way because no two people on the spectrum are alike. Autism is categorized as neurodiversity, which is an umbrella term for those who have brains that function in an atypical way, as opposed to what is loosely joined to a neurotypical brain. But it’s important to note that there is no standard for the human brain and therefore neurotypical and neurodiverse is a dubious construct. However, this is the language currently used to describe the difference between allistic (those who don’t have autism) and autistic individuals.
In the past, autism was diagnosed primarily in boys and men, however, new research and studies have shown that there are more girls and women on the spectrum than initially recognized and so many women are being diagnosed later in life because they masked their autistic traits to become socially accepted. Camouflaging is exhausting and demoralizing because you are hiding true parts of yourself to fit in and this can have a detrimental effect on a person’s mental health.
Scientists still don’t know why autism occurs in some people and not others. The recent evidence suggests that autism might be genetic but there isn’t enough data yet to understand what genes are involved and how this alters the brain’s development. It is important to understand that there is a lot of false information out there on autism and many people in the autistic community, myself included, see autism as a difference and not a disadvantage.
Autism and learning
Autism has a wide spectrum, not every autistic person will struggle with learning difficulties but even those who need less support may struggle with certain aspects of learning and processing information. Did you know that autistic students are ten times more likely to drop out of university compared to neurotypical students? If the right support isn’t available for you during your studies, whether you are at school, college or university, then request it. You need to ensure that you have all the tools you need to succeed and gain the qualification you are working towards.
Seeing things differently
Autistic people see things a little differently and one method of learning will not work for all students on the spectrum. There are many challenges that they could face including being non-verbal, struggling to concentrate and focus, speech and language disorders, and finding it difficult to engage with something that isn’t a special interest. But all autistic students can learn with the right support and dedication from the teachers, tutors, and professors that teach them. Every person, no matter what their disability, deficit or difference, has a right to an education.
The challenges of ASD
Many autistic individuals, especially females on the spectrum, suffer from high levels of anxiety. This can be challenging when dealing with the ongoing pressures of education including studying, taking part in class discussions and group seminars, and sitting exams. There are also the social interaction and communication issues that come into play, autistic students may find socializing and making new friends more difficult than those who are neurotypical because they misinterpret someone’s intentions or miss important social cues. Many autistic individuals also struggle with recognizing emotions and identifying them in other people.
How to seek support if you are Autistic
Having the added challenge of being autistic can be hard, especially if you are studying at college or university and are searching for independence for the first time. It’s important to reach out to services that your school, college, or university offers to give you the practical skills you need to succeed. Also, don’t be afraid to seek out emotional support if you find yourself getting overwhelmed, overstimulated or overworked, there will be ways that things can be adapted to suit your individual needs.
Studying tips for a divergent brain
Autism can affect a person’s executive functioning skills, this may include planning, time management, multitasking, and transitioning from one task to another. So it’s vital that you must figure out what practical tools you can get to help you stay focused, motivated, happy, and healthy. Some ideas include visual timers, planners, alarm clocks, color-coordinated lists, and visual timetables. More importantly, your health and wellbeing should always be prioritized. If you find yourself feeling overloaded and stressed, take a break, talk to a professional, a mentor, or carer, and communicate in a way that makes things easier for you.
How to thrive as an Autistic student
Thriving as an autistic student will come down to three things, support, adaptation, and determination. Ask for help if you need it, use your strengths and seek out support with the things that you find difficult. If you are determined to succeed as a student and you want to gain your qualification, then believe that anything is possible. Believe in yourself, your talents, intelligence and dreams, and never give up!