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Living with autism at uni: how to deal with anxiety

While everyone with autism is unique, there are five common triggers for anxiety shared by many autistic students. Our expert shares tips on how to tackle them.

1. Living away from home

Moving away from home for the first time and living independently can be hard for anyone, but for those with autism it can be especially tough. Remembering the basics, including what and when to eat, can be difficult.

Prepare notes for how to prepare each of your 'go to' meals. Make them simple and easy, so that with everything else to think about, refuelling won't go amiss.  

2. Changes to timetables

For those students who prefer routine and structure, a sudden change to a lecture's time or location can cause anxiety. 

To stop these feelings from escalating, develop coping strategies, such as knowing where you need to go to find out where and when changes will be happening. Your department's reception or noticeboard will both be helpful for that.

Also bear in mind activities that can help manage your worries: breathing exercises, listening to music, having a safe place to go to calm down.

3. Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines

Impending deadlines can create a huge sense of tension when they come around.

To help reduce anxieties, consider every aspect of the procedure upfront. Questions you should ask yourself include:

  • How do I format the assignment? 
  • Where do I print my submission? 
  • What building do I go to? 
  • What is the building like and will it cause any problems that I need to prepare for, such as noise or lots of people? 

Once noted and preparations are in place, anxieties do reduce.

Another tactic is making a note of how you will be assessed at the start of each module - this is usually something you can find out beforehand.

Ticking off deadlines as ‘completed’ can also give a huge sense of achievement and help you reinforce the belief that things are going well.

4. Sensory overload

With university life comes lots of new people and settings. Buildings such as food halls, campus shops or study spaces bring lights, sounds and smells that can be too much.  

Plan out alternative places to go that are quieter or easier. Go along with a person who can support you, or take an alternative route.  

Preparation is key to coping here. Reminding yourself of options can make all the difference.

Keeping a note of your anxiety is also valuable. Look back at your feelings over a day, week or month to gain insight into places or instances that are causing you particular difficulty. This will help you to create new coping strategies as well as reflect on situations you have managed well.

5. New social groups

Remember, everyone finds meeting people for the first time a little stressful, so you're not alone.

Cue cards can be a real help here - somewhere to jot down opening words, what to say in a introductory conversation and topic ideas.

Although the move to university can be difficult, it is also a really rewarding experience. Taking the time to plan and prepare in advance will really help.  

There is support available

If you are struggling, don't be afraid to turn to your peers, tutors or student advice for extra support.

Seeking out the help that's available at university can make a real difference to your university experience, according to the Autistic Society:
For many students with autism, just the smallest adaptation can make a big difference. Working with a wide range of students, I have seen many of them flourish just from having one hour of extra support a week to touch base with them.

Having been a student with autism and now working providing support for students in a similar position, I can say that it is so important to make sure you access your mentoring and study skills support. Just that one hour to talk to someone solves so many problems. Martyn Brown - Student Support Coordinator, The National Autistic Society
Your university and students' union will both be on hand with a range of services and support to help you. Wishing the best of luck on your university journey!

More from our autism and university series


About the authors

This article was created in partnership with Carol Povey, Director of the Centre for Autism, at The National Autistic Society, Tina Sharpe, Head of Disability at DeMontfort University and Heather Cook, Client Director at Brain in Hand.

All contributors have an extensive knowledge of supporting students with SEND using a combination of best practice and technology.

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