Close your eyes and think back to when you first left for college, right before your freshman year. You’re excited for the opportunities that are ahead: the freedom of living away from home, making new friends, finding your passion and simply being an adult.
Then there’s the other side of that: you’re anxious because sometimes you come off as shy or stuck up, you think you might have trouble making friends, you’re nervous to adjust to living with a roommate, the idea of trying new food freaks you out and you’re unsure if you’re ready for something unfamiliar since you’re set in the routine you’ve had for four years of high school, if not longer.
This is where my story as a college student with high-functioning autism begins. Of course, it’s not always so black and white, where things that might be easy for others are hard for me, or that the opposite of a normal college girl’s experience is my reality. My experience has a lot of gray areas, too. Autism is a colorful (and also very gray) thing at times, since it isn’t easily defined. Each one of us who has autism is different. The challenges I have may not apply to someone else. When you read my story, I ask that you do not assume the challenges and successes that I have faced are the same for everyone on the autism spectrum, because that is not the case.
Chances are, you might have heard of autism. About one in 88 children today is diagnosed with autism. Your campus might have a group of students who help the autism community, or maybe you’ve participated in some sort of fundraiser to benefit an autism charity. Maybe you have a friend on the autism spectrum, or you have a brother or a sister with autism, or you know someone who knows someone who has it. If you haven’t met someone yet, today is that day: you now know me.
To introduce myself, my name is Haley Moss, and I am a University of Florida student with high-functioning autism who will likely graduate next spring. I am studying psychology and criminology, and I am thinking about going to law school. I love raising awareness of autism, giving back to others, drawing, writing and doing creative things. I am also shy around new people, anxious about social experiences and new things (such as trying new food, dealing with changes in plans or doing something completely out of the ordinary), excited about making friends and the future and so much more–just like you and your friends. I am not less of a person, just different.
In my life, there is nothing without great labor. It might’ve just been a given that you were going to go to college and would become a future something in your dream career field. For me, that wasn’t the case. I was diagnosed with autism at age three, and let me say, my prognosis wasn’t exactly uplifting: I was told I would be lucky if I went to a small school, had one friend and held a minimum-wage job in adulthood. An occupational therapist at one point doubted my mom when she said I would be going to a top private high school—the therapist said, “That won’t happen, but you’ll get to see Haley get her driver’s license.” Ironically, the driver’s license happened about two weeks before I graduated from that same private high school my mom dreamt of me going to. Having made it through high school, my next goal was getting to live the college dream that my peers were experiencing, and getting there would be the result of hard work, time, effort and a great support team.
With that great team of family, friends and educators, I am here. I am a second-year college student who will likely graduate next spring. I don’t receive special accommodations at school, other than the fact that I live in a single dorm room because the roommate thing was just too much for me to handle (I did try, however, but I could write a whole other article about that). I work hard, just like everyone else. I might, however, work harder in different areas. For instance, learning to do laundry, go grocery shopping and do homework all while adhering to a routine (routines are something people with autism, myself included, find calming) is a transition I find myself making every day.
I spoke to two classes on disabilities at my university last semester after their respective lectures on autism spectrum disorders. I gave both classes an example of how routine is important to me that I thought they could relate to: For instance, you and your friends might be jumping for joy when class is cancelled. Not to sound like a nerd, but it makes me anxious. It’s not because I particularly enjoy the class or want to go to class or enjoy the subject matter, but because it upsets the routine I am accustomed to. I look at it as a reason to freak out and figure out how else I am supposed to spend that chunk of time I am so used to spending in class.
I also told the students in the classes how I like speaking to them because I feel as if I am making a large group of friends just by talking about myself and my challenges, because, quite honestly, I struggle at making friends. A lot. I consider myself fairly friendly, but I don’t know how to get beyond the small talk, and I am often afraid to make plans, or I am not sure how often to take the initiative to make plans and hang out with people. I miss a lot of those social cues, but it’s okay. I have a few good friends from all walks of my life, and that is beyond the expectations those doctors initially had for me.
One of my biggest challenges right now in college is food. I am a very, very picky eater. It is mainly because trying new things makes me anxious, I am set in my routine and I’m scared I won’t like the taste or texture of something new in my mouth. This basically makes me nobody’s favorite person to go to a restaurant with, unless, of course, that restaurant offers pizza, French fries or some type of chicken dish. It’s really hard now in particular since people in college tend to be adventurous and try new things simply because they can. Food is just one of those battles my family and I chose not to fight early on because we had bigger fish to fry, such as getting me to talk, enter the mainstream school system and socialize with peers.
I am also hypersensitive to noise. Sometimes being in a place that is too loud freaks me out and I shut down and get very anxious. I feel as if I physically can’t control what’s going on in my body as a reaction to the noise; not that I don’t like it, but it feels as if I actually can’t handle it. I told a good friend it’s like comparing an allergy to disliking something, and my reactions to certain loud noises is a lot more like an allergy than simply not liking loud noises. For instance, I had a few of these situations in the past year: at a Gator basketball game (the squeaking of the sneakers echoed throughout the arena and set me off by halftime), at a J. Cole concert and at fraternity and house parties. I am lucky to have some very understanding friends and an even more understanding boyfriend right now, so everyone keeps in mind that even though Haley is trying to go and join you, she might find it to be too much. Also, from my experience, a lot of people don’t mind quiet nights in eating pizza and watching a movie (that takes care of my struggles with food AND loud noises)!
I also want you to know that if you meet someone like me on campus or in your community, think about his or her abilities rather than his or her disability. I am not a “hero” for adapting to having autism, because I do not know any different. As much as I am glad that I could inspire others both with and without autism, I could not imagine my life without autism. Instead of thinking of how I might have difficulty making new friends or trying new foods or that I’m anxious around very loud noises or strobe lights, think of how I am honest, friendly and caring. Think of how much you like my art, how cool it is that I have written two real books (Middle School: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About and A Freshman Survival Guide for College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders) rather than the fact that we won’t ever be roommates.
We are all different, and in order to get anywhere, we have to accept, love and get to know one another. So please, look past what makes me different or what might have made me someone you would overlook. I promise you won’t regret taking the time to get to know me or others like me.
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