Two current students reflect on their experience of first year

Starting at Portsmouth University

As an autistic student, I found starting university to be incredibly difficult, but it got much easier as time went on. This was for a multitude of reasons, the main one being how different it was. I hadn’t done anything like it before, even college was more structured than university which has a scattered timetable, and it being up to you to navigate the day. The first few weeks were tough, but I started to learn how to manage my time and establish a routine, which was very important to me.

During the first few weeks I found it incredibly helpful to print the following weeks timetable off on Sunday and to plan what I would do in each break that I had. I spoke with my parents and friends frequently and let them know how I was feeling, as well as any concerns I had. I also made time for things that I enjoy each day to unwind and relax, for me playing online with friends in the evening.

After a month or two, I had started to settle into a routine and get the hang of how university works. However, I still had problems with doing “too much” work in the day while on campus to try and meet deadlines ahead of time. I had the realisation that I was overworking myself to get stuff done as soon as possible, and so I started to give myself breaks. For me, this was going to a coffee shop to read non course related books. Coffee shops like Costa can be quite busy and loud, and I found that the Waterstones Café on Commercial Road to usually be quieter.

My two main pieces of advice for the first year would be to talk to your close contacts when starting, as it is a very different, and try to establish a routine as soon as you can if that is important to you. The second would be that you need to take breaks to avoid over working yourself, as it's important to rest yourself mentally during the day to avoid burn out.

Starting university and dealing with associated difficulties

Starting university is a major change in the daily life of everyone, but in my experience the difficulties that are presented with moving to a new city away from your existing support networks are especially difficult to deal with when you already struggle with social interactions. I’ve known that I was on the autism spectrum for a good 5 or 6 years before coming to university, this knowledge of being on the spectrum acted as a double-edged sword with how I dealt with going to university. I say this because for my first year I had persistent thoughts in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be good enough or would struggle with making friends.

Personally, this created a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. I became even more reclusive and didn’t form any new social connections that would have helped me deal with the problems I ran into. Looking back on it, I can largely attribute this to trying to change too much too quickly. Trying new things consumes much more of my social battery than re-experiencing past scenarios, so in hindsight I should have tried to stick to what I knew I had the energy to participate in without burning myself out. While this may seem like I’m saying not to try new things, that’s not what I mean to say. A notable part of university is that you have 3 years to explore yourself as a person and try things you wouldn’t have been able to if you were working full time. This is especially true considering that first year is the time when you have the least work academically and ergo the most freedom for hobbies.

What I would recommend therefore is to not overexert yourself when it comes to social obligations. I have a limited social battery and in first year I overused it to the point that the metaphorical charging port broke. There was weeks where I didn’t leave my room because I just didn’t have the energy to force myself into doing anything, sleeping away days like nights because I’d completely drained myself socially. A good analogy for this is that it isn’t recommended for you to deplete your phone battery from 100-0 because it damages the integrity of the battery. I think people are very similar in this respect because setting output to 100% for too long is unsustainable in the long run.

This connects lightly with my second point. If you feel like you need help with something, academically, socially or mentally, the university has support mechanisms available to help for a variety of issues you may be experiencing. In my first year I was prideful and didn’t let on to anyone that I was struggling with mental health issues from burnout. In hindsight, even just having someone to talk through my thoughts with would have made sorting through said thoughts notably easier and less intrusive. Lesson learned from this is that even if you think you can deal with any issues you’re having on your own, where’s the harm in getting outside assistance? The university is bound by law to retain anonymity in these cases similar to how a doctor’s surgery would be. So while you could work through those problems by yourself, why do that when there is professional help available, for free, that could speed up the process?

On a lighter, mostly unrelated note, food’s an interesting thing to think about. Uni’s probably the best time to learn how to cook as even if you don’t know how to, most of your peers won’t know how to either. So it not only makes a good bonding experience with flatmates/house-mates but it’s one of those skills that realistically, everyone needs to learn at some point. For me it was easier to learn during second year because I had house-mates that actually knew what they were doing when it came to cooking so I got one of them to teach me a few things.

See Get Cooking: Recipes for by far the easiest thing I learnt how to cook, Ramen.

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.