Rachel O’Connor, Psychologist in Clinical Training
The transition to University is a challenge for most; it involves a combination of factors that can be a recipe for mental health struggles; change of routine, challenging course work, increased responsibility, and disruption to our usual self-care routines and support systems. That’s why being pro-active about our mental health at University is important for preventing any issues from arising.
I recently conducted a systematic review of the literature on what autistic people say impacts their mental health. This review identified several key factors that are important for autistic peoples’ mental health. Based on this, here are some things that may help autistic college students to manage their mental health while at college.
The most anxiety-provoking aspect of starting college can be the uncertainty of what’s to come. It can be overwhelming – new people, new subjects, new teachers, new schedule, the list is endless. It can help to remove as many unknowns as possible. Get in touch with your lecturers if things aren’t clear. Most will be more than happy to help, especially if they know it will help alleviate your anxiety.
Feeling a sense of belonging and acceptance is really important for our mental health. Unfortunately, autistic people are more often made feel like outsiders and therefore don’t always feel that sense of belonging. This is why it’s important to find a space where you feel accepted. The research says that for autistic people, connecting with the autistic community or finding others with similar strong interests supports mental health. Luckily, most Universities have clubs and societies for almost anything, see what is out there that matches your interests, and find your tribe!
This goes for everyone; when we feel anxious, our automatic response is to avoid or escape that situation. If we give in to this urge, we reinforce our belief that we cannot cope and the next time that situation comes up, it seems even scarier. So, the next time you feel a tinge of anxiety about something, try to give it a go anyway! This being said, some things may really feel too much for you right now. In these situations, try slowly building yourself up to it. For example, if you want to go to a class party but feels impossible right now, don’t throw yourself in the deep end! Think about how you can take small steps week by week to build up your confidence. For example, this week you might ask a classmate a question about an assignment, next week you might have a short conversation with a classmate about the weekend; keep taking these small steps until you feel able to make an appearance at that class party.
To know when your mental health is suffering – you must know your normal. Mental health difficulties can present differently in autistic people compared to non-autistic people, meaning they can often go unnoticed by others (including professionals!). That’s why it’s especially important for autistic adults to get to know their normal.
When you go to college, you might find yourself surrounded by different people to usual; people who don’t know you as well. It can help for them to know your normal too, so they will notice if something’s off. That’s why a group of young autistic people (along with a research team from UCL) put together a toolkit* to help other young autistic people ‘know their normal’, which includes resources to share with people that you trust to support you.
While it’s important to protect yourself from mental health difficulties, promoting positive mental health is equally important. Devoting time to things you enjoy is a wonderful way to do this. This is perhaps even more relevant to autistic people, who often have strong interests that bring a lot of comfort and joy. Even though college will likely mean a busy schedule, be sure to make time for engaging in activities that you enjoy!