Healthy living | Autism Toolkit
Additional support and disability advice
When you start university, you will encounter many new experiences. Some you will enjoy, others you may not. Adapting to a new environment can be challenging to some students. This article focuses on how to build the foundations of emotional balance and mental wellbeing. It will guide you through making a plan to make small changes that can increase your emotional resilience (ability to adapt to stressful situations) and mental wellbeing.
How could this affect me?
You may be looking forward to living away from home and building your independence or it may feel like a very daunting task, or a mix of both. These are all normal and understandable. It may be that you are looking forward to learning in depth about your chosen subject and hoping that you may find some like-minded people at University.
Whatever it is that has brought you to University, those early weeks are likely to bring up many different emotions, both positive and negative. Common challenges can include:
- Uncertainty about what will happen or what is expected of you
- Feeling under pressure to socialise
- Not knowing what to say to people or how to start a conversation
- Anxiety around forming new friendships
- Learning to live with other people
- Other people’s noise, tidiness, hygiene
- Possible environmental triggers to sensory overload – halls of residence, lecture theatres, cafeteria
- Feeling overwhelmed by reading lists or workload
- All the new experiences and information that you are taking in can be exhausting
- Learning to look after yourself including your physical and mental health
- Making appointments
- Being responsible for your finances
- Using public transport
- Disruption of previous daily routines and the development of new university routines
- Learning your way around a new city or campus
- Uncertainty about timetabling and where you are meant to be
- Managing deadlines
- Working in groups
What to do next?Register with your local GP surgery as soon as possible.
To meet the challenges we face in life, we need to keep our bodies and minds healthy. A simple model for this, based on Marsha Linehan's research, is the PlEASE model: treat Physical illness, balance Eating, use Alcohol responsibly, balance Sleep, and get Exercise.
When we are ill, it becomes harder for us to think clearly and we may find ourselves getting upset or angry. It is important that you see a GP straight away if you feel ill. However, it can be daunting to phone the GP surgery and talk to the receptionist.
There are a few things you can do to make GP appointments work better for you:
- You could visit the GP surgery before you are ill so that you are familiar with the layout. If you feel you could do with some extra support, take a family member or friend with you.
- Find out if you can book appointments online.
- Write down what you need to say to the receptionist or GP before you go.
- Complete a hospital passport, which explains how you like to be communicated with, how you express pain and what people can do to reduce your distress. This can be useful for both the GP and hospital staff.
It may be possible to ask for the following reasonable adjustments:
- Early/late or longer appointments.
- Somewhere quiet to wait, or waiting outside and being called in from there.
- Seeing the same clinician if at all possible (recognising that in an emergency this may not be possible).
- Accessible information in a format you understand about how and when appointments are available and how to get prescriptions or access services like cancer-screening tests.
Our energy levels and emotions are directly affected by the food we eat and what we drink. When you start university, it is likely to be the first time you have had to look after yourself and many students can find that they turn to fast food, chocolate and crisps as these foods are often cheap and easy to get hold of. These types of food can also initially provide some comfort of their own. However, if they are our main food source, they can lead to us feel run down and exhausted.
It is a good idea to plan ahead for how you will ensure you have a balanced diet while you are at university. Learn about what nutrients you need to keep your energy levels up, so that you can make the most of your learning and university experience. Practise cooking some of the meals that you know you enjoy. Below, we provide some useful links to easy recipes.
Responsible alcohol use
Many people can use alcohol to try and reduce the feelings of anxiety, especially when socialising. In the short term, alcohol can appear to reduce the anxiety/distress, which is why some people use it. However, in the longer term it creates increased distress and anxiety.
Before you start university, plan for how you are going to manage uncomfortable situations in which you may feel tempted or pressured to drink. Think about how much you are comfortable drinking and learn the signs that you need to stop drinking. It can also help to think about what you enjoy and what helps you to feel calm and relaxed.
Autism can make getting a good night’s sleep more difficult. Research has shown that many different factors contribute to this, including irregular sleep-wake cycles (circadian rhythms), physical health issues such as gastrointestinal problems and epilepsy, or anxiety and depression (which affect sleep because the brain is constantly trying to sort through the day's events or other worries).
All of these factors can mean that it takes longer to fall asleep, it is harder to stay asleep and the depth and quality of sleep is lower than average. Being constantly tired can, of course, make your daily activities much more difficult.
Thankfully, there are many things that can help you to get a good night’s sleep. These include some of the other things on this list, like a balanced diet, and regular exercise. It also helps to have a clear daily structure, with consistent times for going to sleep and getting up. This can be difficult to establish within a typical student lifestyle, and can be affected by others in shared accommodation.
If you have started at the University of Portsmouth and you are having difficulty getting a good night's sleep, you can also contact the Student Wellbeing Service for advice and support, or to sign up to a Sleep workshop. If necessary, it may also help to talk to your GP about how to get a good night's sleep.
We all know that we should exercise regularly but sometimes it can be very hard to do, especially if you are feeling low or anxious about what others may think. It may help to remind yourself about the many benefits exercise can bring you, such as:
- using up adrenaline (produced by anxiety)
- releasing endorphins and other chemicals which are good for the body and mind
- helping the body to repair itself better, with quicker recovery from infection
- reduced anxiety and improved mood
- helping to clear the head and think more clearly
If you're unsure which exercise to do, you could try talking to a trainer at the sports centre and discuss what would best suit you.
Questions to think about
Before you get ill you may want to consider the following questions:
- Do you think you need any adjustments regarding timing of appointments?
- How you would like the GP surgery to communicate with you?
- Would you need to see the same clinician every time?
- Are you comfortable making appointments on the phone or would you rather make them online?
Once you have the answers to these questions, contact the GP surgery and ask them to make any necessary adjustments. You can ask for a key named contact person who will navigate the system for you.
A balanced diet requires planning as you need to allow time both for shopping and cooking, so you need to allow time for this in your timetable. Here are some questions you may want to think about regarding your preferences:
- Do you think it would work better for you to devote one day (e.g. Sunday) to shop and cook for the week or do you think it would be better for you to introduce cooking as a daily routine at the end of each day?
- Which vegetables and fruit do you like the most? Can you find recipes that include them? In what other ways can you include them in your diet?
- Have you considered sharing the cooking with your housemates? It can be cheaper and also a good way to share the load.
Responsible alcohol use
Think about the situations in which you may find yourself tempted to drink more than you would like to:
- Do you find it more comfortable to go out in small groups or larger groups?
- What sort of places do you find easier to go to?
- Do you like loud places or quiet places, bright lights or gentle lighting?
Once you know what makes things more comfortable for you, think about how you can explain this to housemates or new friends. It may feel hard to explain this to others, but most people want the people they are with to feel happy and have a good time.
Before you start at university, it may be helpful to think about your bedtime routine at home and what helps you to sleep well. Once you have a clear idea of what works for you, then the next stage is to think how you can replicate this at university. Are there things that you can bring with you from home to help with the transition to university?
If you're sharing with others, think about what kind of agreement you could ask for in relation to noise levels and whether you can set quiet periods during certain times overnight. You may need to compromise to find something that works for everyone.
It is sometimes hard to get into a routine to exercise regularly. Here are some things you may want to think about to get you started:
- Do you like team sports or group classes or do you prefer to exercise on your own?
- Do you enjoy exercising outdoors or prefer going to a gym?
- If you are not one for active sports, have you considered walking? Try walking to university a longer way than usual, or setting a routine to walk down to the sea front at least 3 times a week.
- Looking at your weekly timetable, are there any slots between lectures you could use to exercise, even if only for short periods?
Additional information and links
- Making the most of your visit to the GP: A guide for those on the autistic spectrum
- National Autistic Society - Hospital passport and guidance
- Information about the relationship between your diet and mental health
- There are many websites where you can find healthy and easy recipes: Brain boosting recipes, recipes for students, healthy recipes for students, cheap and easy recipes
- The NHS also has an app called Easy Meals where you can search for recipes and create shopping lists
- If you're worried about your own, or others' drinking habits, drinkaware have a list of alcohol support services that you can contact
- Advice on how to set up a good bedtime routine
- Smiling Mind is a free mindfulness meditation resource that includes a module on sleep. Once you have registered, you can use all the resources.
- Relaxing melodies is an app that plays relaxing melodies to help you sleep (for iPhone only).
- The Mental Health Foundation has an article outlining the benefits of exercise and gives some ideas about how to start it
This toolkit is an adaptation of the Autism&Uni project led by Marc Fabri from Leeds Beckett University, under license CC BY 4.0. The original Autism&Uni project was funded with support from the European Commission with partners in the UK, Finland, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain. For more information about this project please visit the Autism&Uni website.