What I Want My Professors to Know as an Autistic College Student

Okay, I have a confession to make.

I made this blog for a college course. Which means that my professor is probably going to read every last bit of content on this site… Yikes! Hopefully he doesn’t think I’m TOO loopy by the end of it!

In my usual autistic fashion, I decided for some reason that it would be a good idea to make a blog about a fairly personal subject, and now I am faced with the awkward task of spilling my guts not only to the entire internet, but to my professor as well… and I’m not sure which is worse.

But, since we’re here, and there’s nothing that I can do about my potentially embarrassing choice of subject now that I’ve turned in my proposal, I thought I might as well have a little fun with it and use this as an opportunity to teach him a thing or two about me!

So, Dr. Black, if you’re reading, buckle up! Here are four things that I want my college professors to know about me as a student on the spectrum.

1. I have anxiety… but not in the cute way.

Anxiety is incredibly common in people on the spectrum; in fact, it is estimated that up to 40% of autistic individuals show symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Although nowadays we tend to picture cute, bashful girls with Fidget Spinners when we think of anxiety, the reality is much different… and much less fashionable. In fact, I am the kid who missed 48 days of the fourth grade because she was too anxious to go to school. I know – impressive, right??

Thankfully, my anxiety has improved a lot over the years, but it can still be quite intense at times, especially when it comes to presentations. I can lose an entire day fretting about them and will probably spend the morning before one walking laps around South Campus in an effort to burn off all that nervous energy… which, of course, is not nearly as effective as it probably should be!

Presenting is a skill that I am currently working on improving, but a little understanding goes a long way! Sometimes just knowing that your professor is aware of the issue can help relieve the pressure tremendously. Although professors are used to dealing with nervous presenters, the experience might be a little more intense for those of us on the spectrum, thanks to our tendency towards anxiety disorders…

2. Sensory overload can make it difficult to learn.

Paradoxically, the places that we go to learn are often not conducive to learning! Between the fluorescent lights, the shuffling of restless feet, and the hushed whispers of forbidden conversation, my brain is always tuned in to something. This is not unusual for an autistic person; for us, the world is brighter, noisier, and just generally more intense than it is for everyone else! This can make doing the simplest things (like sitting through a class) much harder.

Let me try to explain this in a way that would make sense to a digital media professor: You know how you can increase the brightness of a photo so that it becomes overexposed? That is what sitting under fluorescent lights is like for me.

How well do you think you could take notes on this?

What a white piece of paper looks like to me under fluorescent or LED lighting

In class, it can be harder for me to participate or work in groups because my brain is trying to process a million different things at once, and on top of it all, I’m not able to engage in stimming behavior to help regulate my sensory input and de-stress. (I mean, it would probably be a little distracting to other students if I just randomly got up and started flapping my hands!)

Although this can be interpreted as laziness, my brain is actually working overtime just to keep up with everyone else. So, if I seem withdrawn or uninterested, try not to assume the worst… I’m probably just overstimulated!

If you’re interested in learning more about the sensory experience of autistic people, here is an excellent video that was done by an autistic person that compares the sensory experiences of a neurotypical person to those of an autistic person.

3. Sometimes I get confused easily.

I am a straight-A student, but you might not know it from talking to me for five minutes. In fact, I can be kind of ditzy sometimes. Sensory overload combined with general feelings of anxiety can make it difficult to think clearly in the first place, and then on top of all that, I have the added challenge of being… well… kind of awkward. I mean, I am on the autism spectrum, right? It sort of comes with the territory!

Take last week in the computer lab for example: We were told to take some class time to work on this very project, and what did I do? I left early. Not because I was lazy or had already finished my project, but because I realized that I didn’t know how to log onto the school computers and had forgotten my laptop. So, instead of embarrassing myself by asking someone how to log in (which everyone else in the class seemed to know how to do), I decided to just leave and potentially risk missing out on a participation grade for the day.

Smart? No. But looking silly or less intelligent is a huge fear of mine. Heck, last week someone had to teach me that all you do when you divide a number by ten is move the decimal place. (Did I mention that I also have dyscalculia, a specific learning disability in math?) I guess I learned that in elementary school, but heck if I remember!

Then again, division was fourth grade, wasn’t it? That explains a lot…

When you’re lacking in what some would consider common knowledge or common sense in certain areas, sometimes you go out of your way to avoid looking silly… which sometimes results in you making questionable decisions and looking even sillier. Please try not to judge me too harshly when this happens and know that I usually mean well. And try to be patient if I ever end up asking you what seems like a ridiculously obvious question!

4. I am not as young as you think I am.

Ah, yes, my final and most important point! What can I say? I guess developmental disabilities have a way of keeping you… young.

I know, I know – I have the baby face, the little girl voice, and that deer-in-headlights look most commonly seen in college freshmen. (I’m an anxious person, remember?) But I’m actually 25. In fact, I’ll be 26 next month. I got kind of a late start to this whole ‘college’ thing, okay?

Although I’m beginning to appreciate it now that I’m in my mid-twenties, looking young is still kind of the bane of my existence. I get called “honey,” “sweetie,” “dear,” and various other terms of endearment on a regular basis, which I can tolerate to some degree… but for the love of everything that is good, do NOT ask me if I’m a freshman!! It’s bad enough being a 26-year-old junior…

On the bright side, looking young means you can exist peacefully as an older student on a college campus without anyone looking at you cross-eyed, and if you’re a little bit awkward or fumble over your words, everyone just assumes that you’re 18 and haven’t quite figured out this whole “adulting” thing yet. So… it’s not all bad! I find it always helps to have a sense of humor about things, at any rate.

Anyway, Dr. Black, I hope that you and any other college professors out there who read this have learned something useful. My hope is that college professors will be able to take this information and use it help them be more understanding of students who are different, so that everyone can receive the education they want and deserve. Remember: Things are not always as they seem!

2 thoughts on “What I Want My Professors to Know as an Autistic College Student

Add yours

  1. As someone with SPD who’s not on the autism spectrum, I so appreciate your perspective on the challenge of dealing with sensory overload and the social aspects of autism, simultaneously. I hope that you keep writing even after your class has ended!

    Liked by 1 person

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