I sat quietly, listening to a skills lecture on autism, secretly hoping my fellow students would take on board what was being taught. But instead, they just laughed when statements were read out to demonstrate how autistic people understand things literally. I squirmed inside, wondering what was so funny.
Why do I feel so uncomfortable disclosing my disability? Surely whilst studying for a social work degree I can be honest about who I am- isn’t it one course on which people shouldn’t care about my label? But nevertheless I don’t feel I should be forced into disclosing that I’m autistic. I believe that, especially on a social work course, other students should be mindful of hidden as well as visible disabilities.
I struggle with group work, and peer reviewed presentations are really hard for me, especially when the feedback states “lack of eye contact”. Not everyone is comfortable with eye contact, so I don’t understand why it is seen as negative in assessments.
I remember walking into a room that had three different groups all chatting about their own presentation. I began to overload with the lighting and the noise of all the groups’ different conversations.
I said to one of our group members that I didn’t feel comfortable practising our presentation with the other groups in there. I didn’t expect the student to respond in the way they did, but they couldn’t accept that I didn’t feel comfortable and stormed off. At that point I could have disclosed my autism, but since we’d had a skills day only a few weeks earlier, I felt the student should have been more mindful.
Strategies for coping
Strategies that the enabling centre have put in to place for my sensory overload include having a note taker for lectures, although students assume it’s for other reasons and not because I’m autistic.
I wouldn’t be able to listen to a recorded lecture as I would pick up every single detail. It’s especially hard dealing with the noise in a classroom: when someone is eating I can hear it from across the room. Clicking pens and whispering between students drown out the lecturer at times. My brain can’t filter the noise like other students can and it’s very tiring trying.
It’s extremely tiring in general trying to fit into a neuro-typical world. I’ve found that mindfulness and meditation help me to deal with some of the hypersensitivity I experience, as concentrating on my breathing allows me to shift my attention from the emotion I’m feeling.
My experiences as an autistic social work student have made me reflect on why service users are involved in other skills days but not in the autism skills day. An autistic person is likely to be better equipped to talk about how to communicate with them during a meltdown than someone who’s never experienced it.
Embarking on a social work career, I think students should be mindful of autism. After all, if they can’t be mindful of their fellow student, how will they deal with an autistic service user?