This is the second of three posts I will be writing about my experiences at university as an autistic undergraduate student. These experiences are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of other autistic students. I study mathematics in Scotland, other courses & countries would vary greatly. You can read the first post about academic structure here.
When someone mentions student culture certain images stereotypically come to mind. To many people, student culture is synonymous with alcohol fuelled parties and visits to nightclubs. This is, like all stereotypes, an oversimplification and an inaccurate picture of how things are. However it would be just as false to say that these things are not included in many students lives. I’ve already written about student drinking culture and how I ended up participating, but here I would like to focus on how inaccessible many aspects of student culture are to autistic people with sound sensitivities.
To begin, I’ll tackle alcohol and parties, the most well known element (but of course it is not the only one). Alcohol can taste disgusting to people with taste sensitivities (source: me, cause I have so many taste things I could write a dissertation on it). And then of course there’s people who just don’t want to drink, and that’s fine. I wish I hadn’t started half of the time. But the chances are, if you want to participate fully in student life beyond academia, you will be around people drinking at some point, whether you participate or not.
Some of this drinking will take place in people’s rooms or flats, usually with cheap supermarket alcohol that gets people drunk quickly. But more of it will happen in pubs and clubs. While I have been in some pubs that are reasonably quiet (on a Tuesday night in a pub that’s now closed down so clearly wasn’t that popular) most others are very, very loud. They often have background music on, or the volume up on sports games, that makes it hard to hear what people say. Add to that all the other people having their loud conversations (I maintain alcohol makes people talk louder) and you are bombarded with noise from all directions.
And the pubs have nothing on the clubs. I’ve been to some nightclub-style events in the student’s union (and that is the extent of my nightclub experience, as an autistic asexual person I would really have no reason to go to a proper one) and hated every one. They are nasty events, usually with strobe lighting and music at a volume that I question whether or not it should be classified as a health and safety risk. In my first two days at university, I went to such events because I wanted to join in, but I couldn’t hear anything anyone said and all that happened was I ended up hiding in the toilet with my hands over my ears trying to prevent a meltdown.
The only loud music type event I go to now is the twice-annual Geek Bop by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Society of which I am a member. It’s a costume event where all the geek societies come together and party. Much of the music is stuff from shows I like and the type of people who attend share my special interests and aren’t just interested in alcohol and sex. It’s enjoyable. But it’s also way too loud. I usually have to stay in bed the following day even if I don’t drink to excess because I spend the evening being bombarded by all the sensory stuff I prefer to avoid. Twice a year I have to push myself to burnout in order to participate in an event I look forward to.
I came to university in order to get a degree, yes, but I also looked forward to making friends and participating in social events. I have done this, but at what cost to my health? I push myself to my edge and I know there have been several times I’ve fallen over. I hurt myself in order to participate. And so I know that for people with the same sensitivities who actually care about themselves and don’t want to sacrifice their health, these events are not at all accessible. If the volume wasn’t so ridiculously loud, the lights weren’t so bright and flashing, and there was actually a quiet recovery space, then it would be so much better.
Now, I will discuss living in student accommodation. For me personally, I doubt I could have done this if it had required sharing a bedroom like the internet tells me Americans have to. However it did involve sharing a kitchen and living in a room with thin walls around people I had never previously met. I lived there for my first two years. In the first year, I got by quite well and found it acceptable although hardly brilliant (the heating barely functioned and it was not worth the money I was paying). The second year was a complete disaster.
In my second year, I was in a corridor that very much enjoyed partying. I distinctly remember “Mondays are shots night” as something mentioned once. They seemed to assign each of the seven days in a week a different form of drinking in order to drink all week round. And they did. I joined in a few time, much to my detriment. On weeknights they would drink to excess and stay up until the early hours of the morning. But I don’t care how much alcohol others consume, that’s none of my business. What is a problem is how LOUD they were after consuming it.
I think part of the reason I began to join in was because I couldn’t sleep through it anyway. As well as general desperation to fit in, which was the cause of almost all my actions between 2012 and 2016. I wanted to go to my 9am on time the next day, but I couldn’t get to sleep until they stopped playing music and laughing and shouting. Also creaking mattresses when they had guests over but I don’t wanna talk about that.
Student accommodation is necessarily an epicentre of student culture – including all it’s noisy party elements. This is so damaging to people who are sensitive to noise. There is nowhere to escape to when the noise is bombarding you from outside while you’re already sitting on your own in the room you’re paying extortionate amounts of rent for (although other places are hopefully better priced). The alternatives to this are private accommodation (but if you’re not sharing with anyone, that will cost twice your loan) or living at home and commuting (only works if you live near enough to a university, and also will make it much harder to make friends and join in with activities).
There is also a whole aspect of culture surrounding both romantic relationships, and separately recreational sex within or without relationships. But I don’t know anything about it, so I’m not gonna say anything.
So let’s discuss societies. Now, this is an aspect of student culture that I absolutely love and has made me so happy and probably stopped me from dropping out in my worst moments. I am on four society committees (too much, I know, but I can tell myself that all I want, I will not listen) and I love each and every society I am in. But it wasn’t exactly easy for me to get here. For each of those committees, I had to stand up and make a speech at an AGM. For me, with a background in political campaigning, it wasn’t that hard (but it was the first few times I ever made speeches, way back when) but this would be an impassable barrier for some people.
Doing the work that being on a committee requires can also be difficult if you have executive function problems. For me, it provides a method of procrastination, and while I do have problems they work in such a way that the committee work does get done on time (even if other things do not). And of course, the amount of work is very much dependent on the committee – my position on DocSoc I estimate will take on average 0.8 hours a week, whereas my one on stausfi will probably take about 3-4 hours a week by my calculations. And of course, even if you don’t wish to join a committee there is still barriers.
I joined society mailing lists by visiting stalls at the freshers fayre. This had two issues – having to speak to strangers on the stalls, and the noisy, overcrowded, extremely warm atmosphere of the freshers fayre. I didn’t manage to sign up for everything I wanted at the beginning of first year because the crowd was disorienting and I almost passed out from the temperature. There are so many people and while you are given a map, it can be hard to get through the crowd to find what you’re looking for, and then difficult to hear what the person on the stall says when they speak to you. I’ve since then been on stalls for societies at them and while sitting behind the table makes you slightly further from the body heat I’ve still had to change afterwards out of sweat dripped clothes, and that’s even with me choosing the lightest, most summery clothes I could.
If you don’t manage to sign up there, then the other option is sending an email asking to be added. Which of course can be difficult – how to phrase the email so it sounds the right mix of friendly and acceptable? So if and once you’re on a mailing list and have an email with a time and location of an event, then of course there’s attending the event – and if you’ve come to university without a friend then this can be very nerve wracking going alone.
I was lucky that I managed to get through most of these initial barriers because of the temporary confidence I had that summer because of events outwith my control actually having a positive effect, but any other week and it could have been a very different story being told right now. I was lucky I managed to join societies and make friends there in a somewhat miraculous fashion.
The story of my university social life is certainly not a tragedy. But it so easily could have been – there were so many close shaves, chances that everything would be ruined that I somehow managed to avoid (yes, even the stuff this April didn’t destroy everything). And given how many aspects of student culture that I struggle to participate in, it is very likely that there are many more people who weren’t so lucky and didn’t push themselves quite so hard than there are success stories like mine. And considering how much of a mess I’ve made to my health to do this, I’m not quite sure it qualifies as a success.
The accessibility barriers autistic students face to participating in many of the major aspects of student culture are different for each individual, but they can be huge and immovable, and dangerous to even try. Universities don’t seem to offer much support (if any) for tackling these barriers to social activity, which means some students can be excluded from it, even if they wish to participate.
We would need a complete restructuring of society in order to solve some of these problems. But there are things that can be done to make student culture more accessible to autistic students. These could include: having quiet spaces in the student’s union to provide a break from noisy club nights; having an online sign up for society mailing lists that doesn’t involve speaking to humans or sending emails; and having quiet corridors in student accommodation.
The question of what can be done is one that needs to be discussed, but it must first be acknowledged by the wider student populace that there is a problem and a solution is needed.