Half the World Away – Balancing Asperger’s and the University Life

In my previous blog, I talked about growing up with the condition Asperger’s Syndrome. One subject I talked about was moving away to university, how I have coped away from home and how it has helped me overcome some of my difficulties. I thought I would expand more on this topic to give people a glimpse of my experiences, in the hope it will inform people more of what it is like balancing university life with a condition and maybe (just maybe) inspire and encourage anyone either with the same condition or other similar difficulties who may be undecided about going to university. There are many people I know with the condition who haven’t had the same opportunity as I have which is why I am hugely grateful to be where I am today. I know this doesn’t apply to everyone with the disorder and many have got into university, but the main challenge for everyone afflicted is becoming properly independent for the first time and adapting to the social life that comes hand-in-hand with university.

A few years ago, the concept of me going to university seemed a lightyear away and many people close to me wouldn’t have dreamed of it happening, especially myself. I had admittedly poor social skills and zero confidence in school. I grew up in Cornwall spending much of my childhood in the countryside and later moving to Lostwithiel in my late teens, so didn’t have much access to the same social life other people my age had. The thought of moving away to a city so far from home scared me.  It wasn’t until my tutor in college encouraged me that university would get the best out of me and gave me the belief that I could do well in university, that I then decided to make the move.

I didn’t know what kind of career I wanted to go into or what I was good at. One thing I did know was I liked writing, mainly because it gave me an outlet to express myself. I also had an interest in news. Putting the two together, journalism seemed like an ideal career path to pursue. However, doing a journalism course would mean having to be able to talk to and interview people in order to find stories which was an obvious disadvantage. However, than I thought maybe this is a reason why I should choose this course rather than a reason why I shouldn’t. It would force me to step out of my comfort zone and test the limit of my abilities, and in the process improve my confidence and social skills.

When I applied for what university I wanted to go to, the main criteria was it had to be far away from my home in Cornwall. I had to move away from my safety net back home and be more independent, plus I wanted to get a taste of the city life that I didn’t have in Cornwall. Cardiff was my first choice. The journalism course looked exciting but before I even looked at the course and the university campus, I immediately fell in love with Cardiff the first time I visited the city. It’s a small city which made it easier for me and despite being a completely new environment, somehow I felt right at home straight away. I would be staying in student halls as well which would give me the opportunity to experience the social life at university.

The day when I found out I got the grades I needed and had been accepted into university was one of the happiest days of the life, maybe the happiest, and I remember feeling a range of emotions from purely excited to deeply nervous at the knowledge that I would actually be making the brave move from home for the first time in my life in just a few weeks. Going to university, far away from my quiet life back home and doing a journalism course, not to mention the concept of meeting new people from completely different backgrounds to mine – it was a huge, huge risk for me but one I knew I needed to take.

On my first day at university, I felt completely out of my depth. My new flat held a flat party inviting a few people on our floor and I was so nervous I could hardly speak to anyone. It was the exactly the same when I started my new course, and a couple of months had gone by and suddenly I could all of my coursemates clicking as one big circle of friends, and little groups of mates within that circle, and I didn’t feel a part of any of it. The lonely experiences of my school days came back to haunt me. Despite being in a busy social environment, I felt isolated and cut off from everyone, and I remember thinking that I already blew any chance I had to make new friends. It was that thought, and the fear I would forever be doomed as a loner, that spurred me on to be more confident and thrust myself into social nights out. I did exactly that. Within a week, I had made friends with my flatmates and by the end of term, I had started getting on more with the majority of my course.

Being at university, doing this course and living by myself in a big city has definitely helped me grow and develop as a person. I can definitely say since being here that I am more confident and laid-back, and a million miles away from the shy, withdrawn person I once was. There are things I can do now which I never could before and I’ve found so much about myself that I didn’t know I possessed. Many people didn’t think I could get this far and I owe all this to my belief in myself, my determination and the hard work in put in to get this far. However, I wouldn’t have achieved getting into university without the support and encouragement I had from the few who did believe in me. They are my parents, my brother and sister, the amazing lecturers I had in college and my tutor who encouraged me university was the best option for me. I have a lot to thank him for.

For anyone who is in my position and is contemplating whether to go to university at the end of their school, sixth form or college days, I can honestly say it is the best decision you will ever make and you will not regret it.

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Half the World Away – Growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome

Growing up and getting by in the world is hard enough for anyone and everyone has their own unique challenges they face daily , but the challenges are ten times harder when you also have to cope with autism. This month is Autism Awareness Month which aims to generate a better understanding of the condition and highlight the issues those affected by the disorder face. I like to share my own experiences growing up with autism.

I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, which means I have difficulties with coping in social situations, communicating with people and carrying out day-to-day tasks other people would find easy. Being in a crowded, noisy or busy social environment can often make me feel uneasy. Also, I struggle with being flexible and often have to do things by routine, and any changes to that routine can often be stressful. Growing up, I’ve found it hard to meet people and make friends, and couldn’t understand what I couldn’t mix with people easily and why socialising was virtually impossible. There were all these unwritten rules of socialising that I didn’t seem to have access to. To reference a song by my favourite band Oasis, it can be like living half the world away, in an alien culture that makes no sense to you and people speaking a language you don’t understand. Being painfully honest, I felt lonely and isolated throughout much of my early life.

Nowadays, my difficulties have faded though not completely disappeared, I find it easier to cope and have made a lot of good friends. Most of my friends who don’t know much about my condition say that they can barely recognise it, and that it’s virtually invisible. However, deep down some of those difficulties are still there, I’ve just learned to hide them better. There are times where I still struggle, and even though I have made plenty of friends in the past few years I still harbour those old feelings of isolation.

I don’t see my condition as being a disability, but merely a different way of living. The best way I can describe it is it’s like being a three legged dog. The dog can still walk, but it just has to learn to walk a little differently. People on the spectrum can still do the things that ‘normal’ people can, but we have to adjust to certain things in a unique way.

Going to university has, for me, been a huge stepping stone to regaining my confidence and becoming the person I am today. There are many people with the condition who haven’t been given the same opportunities that I have, and I’m very lucky to be where I am today and to have had the amount of support I’ve been given. In a way, I’ve come from nothing and I wouldn’t have got where I am today if it wasn’t for not just the belief I had in myself, but other people’s faith in me and the confidence they instilled in me.

My biggest hope now is that more effort is made to inform people of and create a better understanding of this condition and how the right support can help those afflicted to achieve their full potential. I hope that more people with the condition are gifted with the same opportunities I have been given. When I was growing up, there was very little awareness promoted of the condition and people didn’t exactly what it was, and because people didn’t know why I struggled the way I did it made life very difficult for me. In the past few years, there has definitely been more information endorsed about it, but I still think there is a long way to go. There are still many people who don’t know anything about it, and often the condition had been misrepresented or negatively stereotyped in the media. There are many negative opinions about people with the condition, which only heightens the difficulties faced by people on the autistic spectrum.

Despite some of the constant negative stories I come across written about people with autism, occasionally I come across one story which restores my optimism. I recently read a news article on a girl with autism, who managed to organise her own charity awards ceremony all by herself, Holly’s Ball. Inspirational stories like this are just proof of the great things people on the spectrum can go on to achieve if they are given the right support, and reminds me why I have reason to remain optimistic about my future regardless of the hardships I face.

There’s an old Beatles lyric that in a way sums up everything I’ve said here. “Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly.”