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What I Really Learned at College as Someone on the Autism Spectrum

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When many people think of a college education, they tend to think about getting a degree in a specific major. They may think about late nights studying (or maybe partying instead), and the many papers to write. I used to think of the same things. As a graduate of Delaware County Community College, I finally realize it means something different.

The education means understanding how to overcome the different obstacles I face, such as the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) I have from my past school experiences due to my late diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum. I learned coping techniques to get me through each day, such as bringing a small item with me for comfort or stepping out for a moment to focus on my breathing. Eventually, many of my PTSD symptoms began to dissipate, and I only dealt with an occasional flashback.

Another thing I learned about was how to manage different situations in life. In the middle of one semester, my grandpa passed away. Overcome with grief, I had to write an email to my professor about the trip I had to take for the funeral. And during that trip, I had to do my best to keep up with the coursework. It was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced. Yet, there was also the moment when I became an aunt for the first time. I was so excited, and couldn’t wait to share the news with my friends and professors!

College helped me to gain experience in social areas, with both my peers as well as authority figures. I learned I could be proud of my success, but should share my knowledge with my classmates. At the same time, I realized some of my classmates had insight on topics I could benefit from. I learned my professors were there to support me, but it was my job to stay on top of my work.

I had to get used to asking for help when I needed it. In the beginning, I’d always worry about what point I should ask for the support. If I was struggling, I needed to reach out so I wouldn’t fall too far behind. By the end of college, I came to recognize that there were times I might be struggling, but would be just fine figuring things out on my own.

There were many instances where others encouraged me to push myself. At first I was resistant to all of them, because I thought I knew my limitations. I was often told to try taking two classes instead of only one. I was confident this would be too much for me. However, some people also suggested taking an accelerated class. While I was anxious, I realized I could push myself a little bit to take the course I needed.

It’s hard not to compare myself to others. I started out wondering if my grade was the best in the class. After a while, I began to realize I didn’t have time or energy to worry about how my work ranked with the people around me. Instead, I wondered what I was personally doing well on, versus what I needed to study more. This taught me how to focus on myself.

I’m certainly a perfectionist at heart. Going through college had me taking perfectionism to the extreme! I didn’t want to make any mistakes and worried constantly. Over time, I began to realize I could learn a lot from those mistakes. Instead of getting upset, I’d take a deep breath and remember that lesson for the future. I realized I didn’t have to be completely perfect.

When I started out attending college, I was often confused. How do am I supposed to remember so much information? How do I apply that information to every day life? How exactly do I learn? I struggled at times. Was I understanding things correctly? As the classes continued, at some point I began to get it. I earned decent grades on the assignments, I passed the tests, and I realized I could learn the material. I finally learned how to learn.

I used to think that a college education was about the field I chose to major in. I thought the degree was about the knowledge in that major, and getting the highest grades in the class. Now I understand it’s so much more than the grades. It’s about the life experience. And along the way, I just so happened to have earned a degree as well. This has reminded me to never give up, which is the most important lesson for me out of them all.

Getty image by Lipik1

Originally published: October 21, 2019
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