Telling people about your autism | Autism Toolkit
Additional support and disability advice
In the past, your parents, teachers or other people who helped you might have done most of the talking – they knew all about you and could help explain to other people how an autistic spectrum condition affected you socially and educationally. At university, you will need to tell others about yourself. This includes telling the university support teams but also your tutors and peers, if you wish to do so.
What do other people want to/need to know? Different people need to know different things about your autism at different times – just telling them you have the condition doesn’t give them enough information. They need to understand how it affects you personally.
Your friends don’t need to know about the definition of autism, but you will make more sense to them if they know why you are anxious around social events, react in certain ways, experience sensory stuff differently or have certain things you need to do in order to feel comfortable - and it means you don’t have to pretend to be someone else around them.
How could this affect me?
At university, while you can ask for support from the disability office and other people, and some paperwork can be passed on to your department, it is your responsibility to tell people about your diagnosis and to explain to them what that means for you.
Even if somebody knows about autism and Asperger Syndrome, it doesn’t mean they know how it will affect you or that they are aware that there are positives as well as negatives to the condition.
90% of parents in our Autism&Uni survey said they had to advocate for their children so they could receive the support they need at school. Students in the surveys said they find it difficult to explain difficulties related to their autism, which might partly be because before university other people were on hand to do it for them.
“I’m always afraid of being turned away or not being able to explain myself well, or being misunderstood and having that change the way I’m treated.” (Autism&Uni survey response)
So it’s really important to think about not just who you tell or how, but what you tell people who can help you and how comfortable you feel with explaining your needs. You may find the following points useful when telling others about your personal needs:
- State the problem clearly and unemotionally (for example: "I find it difficult to sit in rooms with fluorescent lightning”)
- Explain without getting angry what the consequences were for you (for example: “If there is fluorescent lighting in a lecture theatre my eyes hurt and I cannot concentrate on what the lecturer is saying”)
- Tell the person you’re complaining to exactly what you’d like them to do about it without being rude (for example: could they record the lecture or provide the information in a different way?)
- Be clear when you need it doing by (for example: Could this be arranged in the next two weeks? 48 hours? month?)
Then it’s easy for the person responding to understand what the issue is and what needs to be done. But it’s hard not to get emotional or angry when people don’t seem to get it. It’s your life, not just a sandwich! Sometimes it helps to do it in writing as it gives you time to think about the best way of getting the information across.
What to do next?Talk about your autism with people you can trust.
Being open about your autism means that the stigma some people feel around autism is more likely to go away. Start with people you can trust and specific issues you think they might notice anyway.
A student told us about her experience of telling her friends:
“Because they are aware I feel slightly more like I can be myself instead of trying to fit in although I also think it helps them accept slight differences. For social stuff it helps as they are aware they can’t just text me and see if I’m free then but should give me several days’ notice – which is nothing personal towards them, it’s just I can’t just be social instantly. It also helps that if we meet up to do something they know I can’t cope with loud noises, crowds, lights etc. and will ‘switch off’ in these occasions."
If academic staff know how autism affects your learning and what might make you less anxious, especially if you tell them in plenty of time, they’re more likely to be able to help you. You need to be specific, and your Specialist Mentor can help you come up with strategies you can share.
Several students have said that if friends know the individual things they are anxious about, like finding new places or understanding assignment questions, they can get a lot of support from them.
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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.