Madison Lessard is a college student from New Hampshire pursuing a degree in theology and history. She enjoys writing YA contemporary fiction about road trips, hockey, and disabled characters. She has a blog about her personal experiences as an Autistic college student. This week she shared her transition to college life and how she advocates for herself as an Autistic college student living on campus.
When did you first become aware you were Autistic? Was it presented as something positive, negative, or neutral?
Technically, for my own experience, there are two different answers to this question— and I’ll explain both of them. The reason there are two is because I was evaluated for autism when I was very small, but I don’t have any recollection of that event, and only know it happened because my parents told me it did. Because I was operating with heavy social masking behaviors at that age around unfamiliar adults, the evaluators were unable to actually diagnose me with autism, and I grew up without a diagnosis.
I became personally aware about being autistic when I was twelve. Seventh grade was a difficult year for me on a number of levels, including social and mental health-wise, and I was becoming frustrated with the fact that I felt so different from my peers, and yet had no explanation for this feeling of difference. This was when my mom shared with me the story of my failed evaluation when I was younger, and from that point, I began to learn about the autism spectrum firsthand. This was presented to me as a positive thing by my parents, and I took it positively as well; it provided me with an explanation for the feeling of ‘being different’ which had been frustrating me. Because I knew what autism was, I was finally able to explain the differences I felt from my peers. This was what led to my self-advocacy for a second evaluation, and my subsequent diagnosis.
How has the transition to college life been? What has been most challenging and most exciting/rewarding?
I had a very difficult transition to college life, and I believe the only reason I feel adjusted nowadays is because I’ve been in college for two and a half years. I felt incredibly homesick, isolated, and above all, out of my element when I arrived at college, and those feelings persisted through my entire freshman year as well as part of my sophomore year. I think it got easier for me once I learned to treat college as something that was simply part of my routine, and pushed myself to make connections with people on campus so I wouldn’t feel quite so isolated.
The most challenging thing by far for me about college is being away from home. I grew up in a household with a close-knit family, and my parents have always been my support system, so college represented a huge step outside of my comfort zone. To this day, I massively prefer my school breaks spent at home and my weekend visits during semesters to the time I spend on campus. This isn’t because of disliking my school; I very much feel that my school is the best place for me in terms of my education, and I’ve learned to be quite happy there. Rather, I prefer to be home because home is and always will be a more comfortable place. Adjusting to being away from home was my biggest challenge, and it’s still difficult.
With all this said, though, the most rewarding thing about college is proving to myself that I can actually do it. When I was getting toward the point in high school when I’d have to start thinking about college, I thought there was no chance I would ever be capable of living away from home like this— and now that’s simply a part of my life. At college, I’ve thrived in my studies, as well as become involved in extracurriculars and built a small social life. These are things I never thought I would be capable of, so that’s something extremely rewarding for me.
Compare life as an Autistic high school student vs. an Autistic college student. Is either experience particularly easier, more comfortable, or more enjoyable?
I think life as an autistic high school student really varies depending on the school environment you’re in, whereas being autistic in college is, on the whole, the same, because ‘college life’ comes with a standard blueprint and most college students have a lifestyle in common. High school, on the other hand, can vary a lot, especially for autistic students, because some of us might go to a high school designed for kids with neurodevelopmental conditions, and others might go to public school, and others might go to private school, and still others might home-school. With this being said, I’ll talk about my own high school experience.
I found life as an autistic high school student a little easier than college, if for no other reason than the difference of living at home versus away from home. To be sure, high school was difficult for me. I attended a private school, but not one specifically designed for autistic students, so it was more or less a typical high school experience on the social side. I felt socially isolated a lot of the time, and spent most of my free time at home. I was busier in high school than I am in college, but I look back on all the time I got to spend at home in high school and miss that part of the routine.
Life as an autistic college student, on the other hand, is harder— because although I’m less busy in my daily life, I experience all the same social struggles as I did in high school with the added stress of living on my own. I think it’s difficult to characterize either experience as ‘more enjoyable’ than the other, because there were enjoyable things about high school, and there are enjoyable things about college; likewise, there are difficult things about both as well. But when we’re talking about comfortability, I would say that high school was definitely more comfortable. This has everything to do with living at home for me. The social struggles are largely the same.
In what ways have you had to self advocate in college?
A big self advocacy thing for me in college has been in dealing with the office of residential life. When you request a single dorm for medical reasons at my school, they charge you extra on your room and board bill for it. Students who have a single based on the housing lottery aren’t charged extra; it’s only medical singles. I think this is ridiculous, and it makes absolutely no sense to me, but advocating for the necessity of a single dorm in the first place is something I’ve had to do since I was a freshman. Sharing a room was something that seemed like it would be too much of an undertaking for me, so I’ve had to learn to be a self-advocate and jump through hoops in order to secure my housing arrangements each year.
Although I’m grateful not to have run into too many academic issues in college, I’ve had to self-advocate in social settings too; I’ve grown more comfortable with actually disclosing that I’m autistic to my friends and acquaintances when it becomes relevant. I’ve removed myself from a few overwhelming sensory situations, explained my social difficulties in conversations that felt a bit awkward, and even asked for an extracurricular director’s help when I was faced with the particularly daunting task of going on a trip.
What are you most passionate about?
In terms of special interests, I’m most passionate about writing, and have been for a long time. I write fiction, and I also love reading and being involved in the book world, usually reading books similar to the genres I write about. Writing will forever be a special interest of mine, since it’s a creative outlet, even if I’m doing it for no one but myself. Although I wouldn’t designate them ‘special interests,’ I’m also passionate about theology and history, which are my two majors in college.
On the side of autism advocacy, though, I’m most passionate about diversifying the way we think about autism. I want more acceptance for girls on the spectrum, and more awareness of the fact that autism can manifest itself in many different ways. I think we need to broaden our understanding of autism as a disability, because it does, after all, exist on a spectrum, and we can’t assume that just because someone appears to be “higher functioning,” that that means they don’t need help or don’t deserve accommodations and acceptance.
What do you wish more colleges/universities, or professors specifically understood about autism?
The number one thing I wish people in higher education understood about autism is that it’s a lot more prevalent than people might realize. In other words, I don’t think people pay enough attention to the fact that autistic people are everywhere. When autism comes up in conversation at my college— which, admittedly, doesn’t happen that often, but does happen from time to time— I feel like it’s always spoken about as if it this faraway thing, rather than something that students could be living with while they attend school. Our psychology department offered a course on “Autism Spectrum Disorders” a few semesters ago, and although it didn’t wind up fitting into my schedule, I was honestly tempted to take it just to find out what professors were saying about autism, and how it was being taught to psych majors. I think there’s a misconception at colleges and universities, as well as among the general population, that autism can only manifest in ‘stereotypical’ ways, and as a result, a lot of people talk about autism as if it’s a lot more distant of a concept than it is in reality. We need to move away from the autistic stereotype of a low-functioning, white, STEM-oriented, male autistic person as being the only representation of autism. Although of course these people exist, and are valid, I wish they weren’t the only way we see autism represented. Instead, I think we need to embrace the fact that autism is everywhere, and it looks like a lot of different things, because it exists in all kinds of people. Autism might be closer than you realize. That’s what I wish professors and universities understood.