How the National Autistic Society helped me survive at university
This is the story of how I wouldn’t have been able to achieve that without the support of the National Autistic Society and my mentor, Arvind.
I’m Kieran, an autistic graduate of the graphic design program at De Montfort University in Leicester. My three years at university was the best time of my life (so far) and I am very proud to have graduated with a 2:1 last year.
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in the summer of 2013, five days after my 18th birthday. It meant I could finally get the help with my education and life I have always needed but couldn’t access without a formal diagnosis. Once I had this diagnosis, I got all the support I could possibly need from amazing staff at college and this is what helped me get the grades to get into DMU.
I actually applied to university without even telling my parents. I was worried that they wouldn’t want me to go and be independent yet; with me being autistic, I thought they would think I wouldn’t be capable. So, with some help from my college tutor, I sent off my portfolio and personal statement to various universities. If I’m honest, I didn’t think I would get a place anywhere or my work wouldn’t be good enough to get into one of the ones I wanted, and I would have to go through clearing.
It was only when I got an unconditional offer from DMU in May 2015 that I had to discuss it with my parents. They were so supportive and my fears that they wouldn’t want me to be independent turned out to be me just being negative.
The main issue with this situation was that I only had three months to sort everything out, student loan/grants, accommodation, summer design project and support. The university was amazing with all of this. They sent me a pack in the post that contained a whole host of information and I managed to get everything sorted within two months. In June 2015, I went to a meeting with Leanne Herbert, the autism officer at DMU, who helped me with arranging all the support I would need. This included arranging a mentor from the National Autistic Society to work with me whilst at university and writing and study skills support from various other organisations.
Going to university is a massive thing for most people, but imagine that slight fear, nervousness, anxiety and excitement and times it by a hundred.
Those were the feelings I had about starting university. I was worried that I wouldn’t make any friends or wouldn’t be able to complete the course without getting stressed out too much.
The support from the National Autistic Society was amazing and alleviated most of these concerns. I met Arvind, my mentor, during Fresher’s Week in September 2015. At first, I was slightly shy about talking about my life and we spoke more about my academic stuff, for example reading a new timetable which initially seemed to make no sense whatsoever made sense once he explained what the numbers and initials meant.
The first few meetings with Arvind were about getting me settled into the university experience, making sure I understood what I was learning and writing a timetable to help me to know what I was doing and when.
The support was very useful for things other than academic planning and essay support. For example, when my dad had a heart attack four weeks after me starting university, he helped me through the process of getting an extension on my coursework so I could go home and be with my dad for a week. This was a hard time for me and the support I got from everyone at both the NAS and the uni was amazing, I felt so supported and able to take some time out without it negatively affecting my course. I probably would have dropped out if I didn’t have that support.
Arvind helped me when I struggled with new friendships, a new relationship with a girl I met at uni who was also autistic, and with managing my time effectively. University is a lot of work even in my first year and if you don’t manage your time properly, it can all get on top of you pretty quickly. I remember pulling a few “all-nighters” in the library to catch up with work I hadn’t done. (Although this is not recommended unless really needed.)
University can be an emotional rollercoaster at times and the support Arvind gave me was brilliant. I found that the stress of uni had taken a toll on my mental health at times, and he could always tell when I wasn’t feeling great. He supported me by talking things through and trying to come up with solutions to the problems I was facing, or at least sign-post me in the right direction if he couldn’t help there and then.
For my second year, Arvind continued to support me in any way he could, from academic planning and making lists of what I needed to do to emotional support and reading through essays for me. I wanted to drop out a lot of times, but he always made me feel that staying and working through what I needed to do was the best option and helped me to do this.
The National Autistic Society also set up a social group who met once a week in the pub after uni had finished. It aimed at helping other autistic students talk to each other and socialise as uni can be quite isolating if you struggle to make friends, and this was a massive help with my confidence around people. We even went on a night out without the National Autistic Society staff a few times.
The support the National Autistic Society provided was vital towards the end of my second year and the start of my third year, which as almost any student will agree, is when you have to put in the most work and get your head down.
First year and second year I found there was a lot of partying and drinking, spontaneous nights out and hungover Sundays, but the third year is the year that can make or break your degree and I spent a lot of time in the studio doing work or in the library writing, which can get intense. He used to text me to double-check how I was, whether I’ve eaten and drank that day and how far I had got through my list of tasks. I would never have got through the third year without that support.
At the end of my third year, I started going to interviews for jobs, and Arvind and several other staff at the National Autistic Society helped me practice interview techniques, writing cover letters and checked over my CV. This was above and beyond what he was required to do for his job, but he helped me with it anyway.
I finally graduated with a 2:1 in Graphic Design in July 2018, which I never thought I would be able to do. This just shows that despite being autistic, I can do whatever I put my mind to, and you can too!