Disclaimer (09/10/2020) – I have received a few complaints about my use of the term ‘high-functioning’ in this article from 2017. I was simply using the terminology that my diagnosis letter used. I apologise for any offence.
Plenty of big changes in life recently. I got my A-Level results in August and I am now at Queen’s University, where I live and study in Union Theological College. I have come out the other side of the infamous freshers’ week relatively unscathed. I also finally received a diagnosis of high-functioning autism, which makes a whole lot of things make sense.
There is an invisible wall between myself and other people. They are there, and I am there. I understand them to a certain degree, for they are humans just like me, with bodies and minds and opinions and actions. I can understand them physiologically, but I do not get them. Others are an enigma to me, a seemingly unsolvable puzzle that I attempt to piece together. My deepest conflict comes from two desires, equally strong and completely opposing. One is a desire to avoid contact, to withdraw and be at peace, yet the other is a desire for warmth, attention, friendship.
I have recently finished school. I regard my time there with ambivalence. On one hand, I loved learning and discovering what areas of study were particularly interesting to me. I am one of the few people on earth who enjoy doing exams; I see them as a challenge, a game to be won. My favourite subjects include English, politics and above all, religion. That is why I am studying theology.
However, school was also an isolated and lonely experience. I was never bullied, never deliberately excluded. I simply never could master this art that those around me seemed to be experts in, the ability to go up to someone and talk nonsense and laugh and relate.
There are other more physical aspects of autism too. I cannot stand noise or bright light (no clubbing for me, sounds like a nightmare). I’m also not too good at delicate, physical tasks like handwriting and using cutlery. Put it this way, I wrote a novel before I mastered the art of holding a knife and fork!
Let’s not be too negative. I wasn’t completely alone, of course. I had my family, and I got on well with adults in Belfast Writers’ Group, Cycle for Christ and church. And of course, I had my Christian faith. There are other positives to autism as well. Special interests are great fun, I have a photographic memory and I like public speaking/debating.
And now for the point of this post: freshers’ week. I was quite nervous about moving into Union, because during August I went to a Preterm organised by the Christian Union, and even though it was a great event, there were far too many people and I ended up going home halfway through. Thankfully living in halls hasn’t been like that at all. Where I live, there are only 26 rooms and it is alcohol free, so nice and calm. Everyone I have met has been really nice, and I have my own bathroom. I am learning to live independently, even trying my hand at cooking… pasta with tuna, pasta with sweetcorn, pasta with tomato sauce, pasta with etc. Although my mum wasn’t too impressed when I cleaned my muddy boots with a facecloth.
I have been following advice from an excellent book called Top Tips For Asperger’s Students by Rosemary Martin. I’d recommend it even if you don’t have autism, as it covers everything, from socialising to washing.
During freshers’ I went to lots of events, mostly church or CU-based because they are slightly less manic than the Students’ Union events (but only slightly!!!). I have been to table quizzes, movie nights and a grub crawl (like a pub crawl, but better, because it is free and involves food). Sincerest thanks to the churches of South Belfast for providing me with breakfast, lunch and dinner all week!
I’m really happy with where I am socially. I was scared of being mute most of the time, but I have found the university environment much easier than school. People are older, we share common interests and a healthy dose of sertraline takes the edge off. It hasn’t all been plain sailing; the transition was stressful at times and I began to fall back into my obsessive-compulsive behaviour patterns as a coping mechanism, but I was able to apply the CBT principles I learnt at CAMHS to deal with it.
It is now the first week of term, and I am confronted with the reality that I came to university to work, not go on holiday. Wish me luck!