Autistic Students: Coping With Change – Speaking at A Conference!

A couple of weeks ago, I got to speak on a panel at a conference run by UniversitiesUK about how COVID-19 is affecting the mental health of students in higher education and it was a really cool experience. So, now that the whole process and experience is over, I thought I’d write up what happened and why it felt like such a special experience.


A few months ago now, someone from UniversitiesUK contacted me after reading this blog, specifically the post I wrote about my first week back at university and doing it in the middle of a pandemic. She asked me if I would be interested in being part of the conference and speak on a panel about how to support autistic students in coping with all the changes to their education experience, drawing from both my experience of doing a BA pre-pandemic and doing an MA during the pandemic. I said yes straight away; I was excited by the idea that my experiences as an autistic person could help others, both autistic people and those in universities trying their best to support autistic students. So often – at this point in my life anyway – it feels like my Autism hinders my life, so it always feels like a big deal when it’s the cause of something good or provides me with an opportunity to have a positive impact.

Before the conference, there were a handful of online meetings where, first and foremost, I got to meet the other panelists: Jonathan Vincent (Senior Lecturer at York St John University and Autism Researcher), Eilidh Cage (Lecturer at University of Stirling and Autism Researcher), and Marc Fabri (Senior Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, Autism Researcher, and Project Lead for IMAGE). They were all really lovely and working with them was a really positive experience for me. It was a bit of a challenge to figure out how we were going to deliver all of the information we felt was important to share without overwhelming the attendees. Between our meetings we collaborated on a powerpoint presentation and then met up again (online obviously) to refine things and make sure we weren’t missing anything.

On the morning of the panel, we met early for a quick technical rehearsal, since we were using a different platform than the one we’d been using for our meetings. All went smoothly but just as we were signing off, we got an email from Marc, letting us know that unfortunately he wouldn’t be able to be there. So there was a bit of a last minute scramble to figure out how best to share his contribution with the attendees, despite it being his field of expertise and not ours. I’m grateful that that didn’t fall to me, having no experience in the area of employability of autistic graduates.

I’ve never really done anything like this (the closest experience is probably being a guest at a conference where I briefly shared a project relevant to the talk that I’d worked on) so I admit I was pretty nervous when all the conference attendees started logging into our breakout room. But despite my anxiety, the whole thing went well, even though we did go over our allotted time. And that was with only the three of us!

It was really interactive so there were polls and questions for the attendees to respond to, plus the chat where they could ask questions, although we did have a Q&A set up for the end of the presentation. We went through the panels, taking turns to speak about what Autism is, the disclosure numbers in Higher Education, research into into how autistic people often struggle with uncertainty and change…

And then it was my turn (although I had spoken a bit during previous slides). My first slide was about my experience of how COVID-19 has affected me as an autistic student and the challenges I’ve been faced with. I’d put together what I felt were the most significant examples:

  • Increased uncertainty and anxiety – These are common and sometimes very extreme difficulties for autistic people but they have been seriously exacerbated by both the pandemic and the changes within education, which make it much harder to function at their normal level.
  • The stress of adapting to new methods of learning with no adjustment time – This, of course, will create more anxiety, potentially making it more difficult to adjust and engage.
  • A new and unfamiliar approach to practical classes when online learning is the only option – Same as above.
  • Communication challenges in online classes – Difficulty with eye contact may mean missing out on elements within the class and difficulty reading body language (as we are receiving a fraction of what we usually do when engaging with people) can make it difficult to interact in a learning environment or lead to misjudging situations, creating more anxiety, which will only make an autistic student withdraw more.
  • Navigating communication in blended classes – Personally, I had difficulty interacting with the group onsite: the picture and sound quality made it difficult to follow what was happening; the position of the camera meant I couldn’t actually see anyone’s faces, which made it extra hard to communicate when you’re already struggling with communication difficulties, such as knowing when to speak in a discussion; I could only communicate through the chat, which only my tutor could see and she obviously couldn’t spend the lesson checking it just in case I’d said something. It can be a very tricky set up. Eventually all of the online students on my course were moved to one group to avoid those problems getting in the way of an already content heavy course.
  • General lack of awareness around Autism and related difficulties heightened during this time – Autistic students are struggling much more than pre-pandemic and need more support, which often isn’t available due to a lack of understanding, while they may have been able to navigate around that pre-pandemic.

All of our strategies that have been built over time no longer apply and there has been no time to develop new ones.

My second slide was about what I’ve found to be helpful or what I would find helpful during this time, considering all of the uncertainty and anxiety. They’re actually all ideas that would be helpful generally but since many autistic students are struggling even more than usual, these things are all the more important.

  • A designated point of contact – Consistency is not only important because consistency is helpful in general for autistic people but it also means an autistic student doesn’t have to keep explaining their situation. Having a specific person to reach out to for help or support (whether academic or wellbeing) can help an autistic student to feel safer in what can be a very stressful environment. (Note: it’s definitely more beneficial if the person is generally available and accessible – not just on certain days at certain times.)
  • Sharing of information and change of plans with time to adjust – Processing information and change and the emotions those trigger can be time consuming and exhausting and so having advance warning allows you to prepare yourself according to your own strategies and also potentially getting in contact with anyone involved, i.e. tutors for the sake of awareness or support.
  • Clearly stated expectations – This reduces anxiety and the potential for miscommunications that can cost autistic students time, energy, and grades.
  • Flexibility around assessments – Where possible, the autistic student and those responsible for the assessments need to communicate and determine the student’s areas of difficulty and how to accommodate them, making sure that it really is the student’s ability that is being assessed. For example, my high anxiety results in high levels of fatigue so long exams or presentations are a struggle for me, meaning that I need breaks or the assessment is split into sections. This does, of course, depend on the type of examination.
  • Regular contact with tutors – Having a good relationship with teachers or lecturers both reduces general anxiety but also means that an autistic student will feel safe to ask for help if they need it and having semi-regular check-ins pre-empts any potential problems.
  • Understanding from staff – Having staff be open and willing to support you, even if neither of you know quite what that might look like, is a very powerful and reassuring thing.

(This wasn’t all on the slide, by the way. The headers were on the slide and the rest were my notes for expanding on those headers in order to provide as much clarity and insight as I could.)

I shared this slide with Eilidh and she described what she’d found to be helpful with autistic students, going on to share some of the research she’d done into some of the causes of autistic students dropping out of higher education (obviously done pre-COVID but still very relevant – many of those issues, such as lack of understanding, still exist regardless of the pandemic). But it was really interesting to see how much our experiences of what has been helping overlapped.

The Q&A section was a bit scary, given that I didn’t know what the questions might be and so couldn’t prepare for them. I didn’t want to say something and then realise later that it was bad advice. But it actually went okay. I got a couple of questions but there was one that really stuck out to me. One of the attendees asked me about the situation of many autistic students wanting to remain online – in environments where they were comfortable, without the anxiety of potentially confusing social interactions, not have to deal with the exhaustion that days at university can cause, and so on – even once it’s safe to return to university as normal. She wanted to know, from my experience, whether that’s a good idea. I can certainly understand that. But in the long run, personally, I don’t think it’s a good approach. Every autistic student is different, of course, and will have different needs but I think that the experience of university is a really important one. It definitely was for me. So I think it comes down to supporting these students through the process of either joining or rejoining university. Depending on the student, this could involve visits when there are as few people around as possible, one-to-one meetings with lecturers or tutors as a first step to going to classes, doing certain classes (perhaps the smaller ones) in person and doing others online in a blended set up, encouraging them to do as much as they feel able to (and depending on the student, pushing just past the point of comfort if that feels possible) but allowing them to leave if they feel it’s too much, and just slowly building up to the full experience, as the specific student feels able to. It reminds me of the Māori word, ‘Takiwātanga,’ which translates into ‘his or her own time and space’ (devised by Keri Opai). So hopefully that was a helpful answer.

It was a really, really great experience. The feedback I’ve had has been really positive and I learned a lot too; the whole experience was really rewarding. I’m so grateful to UniversitiesUK for inviting me to be a part of it. I would love to do more events like this in the future. I felt like I was actually helping people, something that’s always been important to me regardless of my Autism. And on a more personal note, having spent a lot of time feeling helpless (as well as being a person who often needs a lot of help), it was so empowering to turn something that can be so debilitating into something positive and useful.

Again, I want to extend my thanks to UniversitiesUK, Jonathan, Eilidh, and Marc (although he couldn’t be there on the day) for making my first conference such a positive experience.

Seeking Treatment For Chronic Fatigue – Part 1

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve struggled with extreme fatigue all my life (I talked about this in my ‘Tired‘ blog post); Myalgic Encephalomyelitis and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (often referred to collectively as ME/CFS) have been tossed around since I was twelve years old but I wasn’t officially diagnosed until last year. This kind of acute ‘unexplained’ fatigue – unexplained as in there is no obvious cause, such as exercise or lack of sleep – is also a common experience for autistic individuals, as well as related symptoms like headaches and bodily pain.

I’ve been managing these high levels of fatigue for most of my life, trying various things to improve my quality of life. And I continued searching for a cause. I had test after test but nothing ever gave us an explanation. I resisted the ME/CFS diagnosis even as it seemed more and more likely because there’s no cure, not even a reliable method of management, but eventually it seemed the only way to move forward. So, after a long talk with my GP, she officially diagnosed me with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and we began discussing various options for next steps and support. She referred me to the local Chronic Fatigue Clinic and I anxiously awaited my session.

It was a bitter, heart-wrenching disappointment. I left in tears. Maybe it would’ve been helpful when I first started experiencing these symptoms (I think the longest any of the others there had been struggling was two years) but twelve years in, I knew more than the person delivering the information, had found everything suggested to make no difference or be outright unhelpful, and I just felt so patronised. It was an awful experience and I couldn’t help but feel so angry that this was the best on offer for what I was trying to manage and had been trying to manage alone (in terms of the health system) for more than a decade.

When we spoke to them after said awful session, they referred me to a doctor that we realised I’d previously seen – years and years ago and had a very traumatic experience with. I was obviously very reluctant to go. My Mum and I spent a lot of time talking about it, about the pros and cons of going and not going. The scary thing is that it’s so easy to get kicked off every list with one refusal so I said that I would go, despite having had such a distressing appointment with him – one I’m sure he doesn’t even remember. But before we contacted that clinic, we spoke to my GP again. We explained how upsetting the experience had been and how worried we were that it was only going to be worse this time, considering I would be going in with the baggage of the previous appointment; we told her that I would go if that was how it had to be to continue on this path but she felt that we were right, that it wouldn’t be helpful given the circumstances and as I’d technically already seen him, it wouldn’t cause any problems in the system. We asked if there were any other options and this was when she referred me for the hypermobility assessment (these posts are now out of order, not only because it’s been such a confusing and complicated process, but also because I’ve had trouble keeping things like this clear and ordered in my head since the pandemic started).

I’ve now had this appointment and been diagnosed with hypermobility, which potentially explains (at least in part) my problems with fatigue and pain. (At some point, we’re going to need to lay out all of these diagnoses and work out whether there’s any overlap, whether any of them are now redundant. But that’s a job for another day.) Apparently those with hypermobility are seven times more likely to be autistic, which is a very interesting piece to add to the whole puzzle. The post goes into it in more detail but basically, we’re now waiting to find out whether or not various routes are possible. For example, I’ve been referred for hydrotherapy but we don’t know whether I’ll get it and if I do, when it will be possible with the pandemic and lockdown. That has really stalled things. So it’s one waiting game after another.

But we’re not simply waiting. We – my Mum in particular – are also looking into other angles, other medical professionals who specialise in fatigue or who have studied fatigue in depth. We’ll take any advice we can get. I resisted a diagnosis of CFS for so long because it felt like admitting defeat – an expectation that I would just have to live with it with limited options – but I don’t accept that, not anymore. I’m participating in every research study I can find that I qualify for and my family and I continue to research potential specialists and potential avenues of treatment or even simply more effective management of the symptoms. The pandemic makes it hard but I am not willing to accept that this is going to be my life, that there’s no hope. Not that long ago, NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) removed ‘graded exercise therapy’ as a treatment for ME/CFS, after both research and those suffering with the condition proved that it was actually unhelpful at the very least. It’s slow but it’s progress. And I’ll take all the progress I can get.

Living with Autism During a Pandemic

I know that everyone is talking about this right now and I’d rather not because it makes me so anxious but there are a couple of things I want to say and then hopefully this blog can go back to being a Coronavirus free zone. I know it’s scary for a lot of people and there’s a lot of information and advice being thrown in your face so I just want to document my experience so far and write about the things that are helping me to minimise my anxiety.

I think the first thing to say is that I hate change, as I know many autistic people do. I especially hate sudden change because it gives me no time to process what’s going on, which causes me a lot of anxiety. It also messes with my emotions, leaving me feeling unsettled and sick and empty and twisted up. I can’t really explain it properly; it’s such a specific feeling.

The first big thing to happen was Tin Pan South, the festival we were going to Nashville for, was cancelled, which meant we had to decide whether or not still to go as it could be more expensive to cancel our flights. But as the news from other countries got more serious, we decided that we didn’t want to go and get stuck there so we had to make the difficult decision to cancel. I was gutted. I am gutted (we were supposed to be flying out today). I was so looking forward to the trip and to the festival that, not only was the change stressful, it was very distressing too. And then, of course, there was the stress of getting the money back. With the travel ban, we have since managed to get everything refunded or in credit but it was incredibly stressful, in addition to all the stress coming from the news about the virus. I have family who would be in serious danger if they caught it so, even though I’m in much less danger, I was  terrified of unknowingly transmitting the virus to them. I still am so we’ve all been self isolating apart from essential trips like picking up extra medication and so on.

And then, suddenly, everything started happening. All of the concerts I was going to got cancelled, which isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things but they are the bright spots in my life that get me through when I’m in a bad place, which I arguably am right now. So that’s been difficult, especially the suddenness, as I mentioned earlier. Then one of my best friends was suddenly on a plane home, which was very upsetting (although, of course, I understand and support her in wanting to be with her family); one minute we were making plans for the next day and the next she was messaging me from the plane. That change has been hard and I’ve cried a lot about it. Plus, just as I’ve  started to get into the groove of going to therapy again, we’re having to switch to video sessions, which I thought I was fine with but turns out I’m struggling with. And then there’s just all the not knowing what’s going to happen or how long this is going to last. So there’s been a lot of change really fast.

I actually feel quite traumatised by all the changes. Stuff like this always messes with my head and with my emotions and I end up feeling like it’s causing brain damage, like parts of my brain are being permanently warped and will never recover.

The week after all of these changes happened (most of them happened over the weekend and into the Monday), I wasn’t going to go to uni. Many of my friends and classmates weren’t going, having gone back to their families abroad and within the UK, and I just couldn’t bear to be there and see it without them all with so little time to adjust. I just felt so unsettled and restless and anxious. I don’t think I’d’ve been able to concentrate if I’d been there.

My course discussed it through our WhatsApp group (we’re a small course) and ended up emailing our programme leaders to say that we didn’t feel safe and that we didn’t feel it was responsible for us all to be there, to travel in on public transport, and so on. Very few people went to the classes and I think it was later that day that it was announced that the course would be moving to online classes. I’m yet to see how smoothly that goes. They’re not moving our assessment deadlines, which many people are very upset about, something I definitely understand. There are a lot of reasons to feel an extension is necessary. My mind changes from hour to hour; I don’t know whether I’d want an extension. Yes, there’s massive anxiety affecting my life that makes it hard to work but at the same time, we don’t know how long it’s going to go on for and I’d rather just get the assessment over, if that makes sense. I don’t know. I don’t know what I want.

Me and my Mum – my household – are self isolating, apart from necessary trips out (getting the necessary supplies to stay in, getting supplies for the cats, getting what we need to allow us to work from home, and so on – making it possible to self isolate for as long as we need to). It’s weird: I usually spend days at a time inside but suddenly I’m really claustrophobic and restless and anxious and it’s been less than a week. I don’t know where that’s coming from. Maybe I’m just so full of anxiety that everything is making me anxious.

So, having said that, I wanted to list for you a few of the things I’m doing to try and minimise my anxiety:

  • Keep a routine – I’m not talking about being really ambitious. If you’re like me and you struggle with Autism and/or mental health problems, diving into a really ambitious schedule just means I end up crashing and burning and then feeling terrible. So when I say ‘keep a routine,’ I’m talking about the little things. I’m talking about getting up at a reasonable time, showering, remembering to eat, getting fresh air (even if it’s only opening the windows and getting out into the garden, if you have one)… Things like that. Yes, it’s motivating to be productive so if that feels possible, go for it, but it’s also important to be gentle with ourselves during a time of such great stress.
  • Keep to a regular sleep schedule – With nowhere to go (if you’re self isolating), it’s easy to just stay in bed, get up late, and then end up going to sleep at four in the morning. It’s really, really easy. But I’m trying to go to bed at my normal time and get up early, like I do everyday. It’s much better for my mood than if I stay in bed for hours. A regular sleep schedule is actually proven to reduce stress, help you to avoid getting sick, help you think more clearly, and a multitude of other things, all useful at a time like this.
  • Stay on top of my medication – This is a fairly obvious one but if you take medication, make sure you’re stocked up and that you take it diligently. I take a regular antidepressant, a regular anti-anxiety, and then I have an anti-anxiety to take as needed. And, as you can imagine, I’m needing it a lot right now. So I’m constantly listening to my body so that I’m aware of when I need to take it as early as possible, so that I avoid the unnecessary anxiety. Of course, there’s huge anxiety going around but there’s also anxiety that we don’t need to feel and if we can avoid it, then I’m all for that.
  • Start and end the day with something calming – I’m dealing with a lot of anxiety (as we all are) so I find it helpful to start and end the day with something that relaxes me. For me, this is usually writing my diary because it empties some of the stuff out of my brain and helps me feel like I’m not trying to hold onto so much. It’s all safe, but I don’t have to actively hold it in my head. So letting some it go is like being able to breathe deeply again.
  • If the news is too much for you, ask someone in your support system to keep you up to date on the important announcements – My anxiety has always been triggered by the news and it’s even worse now so my Mum listens to it, filters out all the noise and fear and things I don’t need to know and gives me the important, relevant information. This has been so helpful since there’s been so much confusion and misinformation and fear mongering. If this isn’t possible for you, check your national news once a day and then try not to look at it again. Because there isn’t as much information as there is news time, there’s a lot of speculation and opinion and it doesn’t do any good to get sucked into that spiral if you’re already really struggling with anxiety.
  • If you have to work or study, try to do it in manageable chunks (which will be specific to you) – As I’ve already mentioned, I still have an assessment deadline. I still have an essay due. So, even though I’m really struggling to focus because of all the anxiety (which means it’s taking so much longer than it normally would), I’m trying to work on it everyday so that it doesn’t pile up and so I don’t end up overloaded and overwhelmed (it hasn’t helped that I’ve had multiple problems with my laptop in the last few weeks). It’s hard, especially since it’s now much more difficult to get help with it, but hopefully the slow and steady approach works.
  • Indulge in simple things that improve your mood – This is not a trick question. If there’s something simple that makes you feel better, let it make you feel better. Some of the things that boost my mood (even temporarily) are having the fairy lights on, burning my favourite candle, spending time with my cats, watching my favourite movies and TV shows… You’re allowed to feel good, to try and feel okay even in the face of this big, scary thing and if something really simple does the job, then go for it.

If there was ever a time for looking after yourself mentally (and obviously physically), it’s now. I hope some of these tips are helpful and let me know if there’s anything that you find helpful in stressful times such as these. As I said at the beginning, hopefully this blog can go back to being a Coronavirus free zone after this post because I know it’s triggering for a lot of people, myself included. But if I find any helpful resources for getting through this, I’ll definitely share them because I figure we could all use all the help we can get.