College: The Highs and Lows For An Autistic Student

At some point in our lives, we’ve all seen a movie or show that was set in college. Usually what comes to mind are buff men in frathouses jumping off their roofs to land in a pool, or perhaps promiscuous young women doing questionable things with guys in their dorm offscreen.

Initially, I thought college was going to have something at least somewhat resembling that. Moreover, I expected it to be a place where anyone could be accepted no matter what background they came from or what their neurology was. It turns out I was a bit overly optimistic.

Rewinding back to the summer before my senior year in high school, I was going to an event called the Ulster County Fair a little less than an hour from my house. When I saw some people dressed like hippies walking toward the fair, I knew right away that this was the college I wanted to attend. I was quite fascinated by 1960’s culture and music, so it drew me in and I felt no need to conduct any other research about the college.

Fast forward a few months, and I got my acceptance letter from the school. It was the last time I could recall where I jumped screaming “Yes!” with excitement. In addition, it was the only school I ever applied to. At orientation, people seemed quite friendly and were all seeking what groups they would best fit into.

Orientation was a great way of introducing you to the culture of the school and finding your clique. Much to my surprise and dismay, cliques were just as apparent in college as they were in high school. Remarkably, I had more friends in high school than I did in college.

What set the two eras apart was one significant feature: my filter. Let me elaborate. In high school, I had a lot of friends because I simply went with the flow and knew that that’s what people expected. Although I was diagnosed with Asperger’s at 10-years-old, my parents taught me to mask through a lot of trial and error.

However, they never judged me for lack of eye contact or my special interests, so it was more of a safety precaution against bullying as opposed to blatant ableism. Since I played it safe in high school, I tended to blend in with the other kids well due to me just following the crowd and following their conversations.

Once college started though, the brochures and my first impression from orientation made it seem that people would be welcome, no matter how outrageously you acted. In my mind, as long as you didn’t actually hurt anyone, what could go wrong?

For starters, bringing weapons to school is an example of something that could go wrong, but I didn’t have them for the reasons you may think. My roommates and their friends tended to be small and did not appear to possess any self-defense training, so I took it upon myself to be the “tough” one of the group because I was larger than them and trained in self-defense.

At my core though, I was depressed and had trouble accepting being autistic, so I thought creating a rugged persona would compensate for my lack of self-respect. Long story short, showing off my stun gun, knife, baton, and samurai sword instilled fear in them, although I imagined they would revere me as a badass of an almost action-hero caliber.

Throughout the year, I couldn’t pick up on any of the cues that my “friends” did not want to hang out with me. Because of my behavior, they all wanted to live away from me during the second semester. However, they told me it was because the room “was too small for three guys.”

That was actually true, because the dorm the three of us stayed in was the same size as the two-person dorm. So throughout the second semester, it was a nightmare. I lived in a dorm by myself because my roommate at that time couldn’t withstand my snoring (he even moved out after the first night and his mother explained to me that his hearing was sensitive).

For someone on the spectrum, I could understand being in a dorm alone perceived as a luxury, but for me personally, it was anything but. Every other night, I would try to call my old roommates to see if they wanted to spend time with me, but they would constantly ignore my calls.

In my head, I kept telling myself, “They’re just busy. It’s nothing to do with you, they’re just busy.” There would be times where they would occasionally invite me to a party out of pity, and it preserved the illusion that these guys were still my friends.

Through all that time, I never thought I needed any other friends. Relatives of mine would tell me that college was the place where you would find your lifelong friends, so it didn’t occur to me that I would need other friends.

At the end of the year though, the hopes and dreams of spending my life with these guys and renting an RV with them to go across the country all came crashing down. During lunch about a week before final exams, the guys were discussing a party they went to the previous night.

I then said, “you didn’t think to invite me. Don’t worry, you’re not obligated or anything, but I would love to know sometimes.”

My old roommate, without making eye contact with me, said, “It sounds like I am obligated.” In that moment, my heart was starting to accelerate with suspicion.

“Alright, something’s not right here,” I said. “Tell me what’s really going on.” Then it hit me. They told me the truth, that they did not want to be my friends, and that they moved away from me on purpose. The weapons scared them away, and their retellings took me aback because I never realized how I made them feel.

Especially when one of the guys in the group dropped my roommates game controller, and I said, “Don’t do that again,” which scared him. But because they never told me what they were thinking, I could not pick up on those nonverbal cues. That’s why I prefer that people are direct with me, whether they hurt my feelings or not.

That event shattered my expectations of college forever, so what followed was not much better. Dating was difficult for me, because the majority of the women at college were from New York City. From what people at school told me, women from the city are easily afraid when someone who deviates from “normal” men tries to talk to them, mainly because they’re prone to being approached by strange men on the streets regularly.

Since I grew up in a rural area my whole life, I’m not sure how much of that was true, but based on how often I failed talking to women from my college, it didn’t seem to be much of a stretch. Because I had trouble making eye contact and spoke in a very soft and unenthusiastic tone, dates didn’t go well.

But because they didn’t give me feedback or tell me why they were rejecting me, it was a mystery. However, I had better luck dating people outside my school.

Since I had almost no friends in college except for one guy who was also on the spectrum (he was the only reason I never gave up. If you’re reading this, I love you, buddy), I was in a four-year bout of depression. Writing and everything else I enjoyed no longer had that joyous feel to it, but my goal to graduate and prove those people wrong was the reason I kept going.

Once I found the neurodivergent community online, I discovered that there were many more people like me in the world, and that I no longer had to be alone. On a rainy morning, I graduated with my Bachelor’s in journalism. If you’re wondering the moral of the story… don’t follow what you see in movies.

Research wherever you go to school, and don’t be ashamed to be yourself. Try to find others who fit your personality. If your school has a disability program, that’s a great place to start. And if certain people don’t like you, then quite frankly, it’s their loss anyway.

2 Comments

  1. I’m sorry to hear that such a huge misunderstanding happened to you. That’s no fun.

  2. As someone also on the spectrum currently in college, I resonate with you completely. It made me sad reading this because it brought back memories from the past that were similar. It’s a lonely experience, however, it’s not a reason for me to stop trying to find romance / make friends because what’s the alternative? Optimism is always better than pessimism I’ll say and screw the past.

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