Navigating Life On Campus When You're On The Autism Spectrum

Nov 28, 2017
Originally published on November 29, 2017 6:55 am

When you're facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who has already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they're letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.

James Carmody never had any doubt that he would go to college. He loved learning, he worked hard and he was excited to make a positive impact on the world.

But as the end of his senior year approached and college loomed, James was a little worried. James has Asperger's syndrome — now included under the umbrella term "autism spectrum disorder." The condition means social interactions can be difficult or awkward for James, who is 18.

Sometimes he has a hard time knowing the right thing to do or say. Or, James says, he'll get hyper-focused on a particular topic or task.

He remembers one incident in high school, when he wanted to learn how to clean one of the machines at his part-time job at McDonald's. But instead of asking for help, "I just went ahead and started touching buttons, and in the end made a mess out of it," he says. "And that's a theme in how I behave."

James says he worried that Asperger's syndrome might make all the changes that accompany college — new friends, new surroundings, new classes — harder.

"I didn't want my condition of Asperger's to be an impediment to having a fulfilling college career," James says.

Elizabeth Boresow, 28, knows those challenges well. She graduated from the University of Kansas in 2013 with a bachelor's degree in music therapy. She is also on the autism spectrum.

She talked to James at the beginning of his freshman year at the State University of New York College of Environment Science and Forestry, noting that colleges have resources available for people on the autism spectrum.

For example, Elizabeth says, she had a hard time when teachers would assign group projects.

"They would just say, find a group of two or three and do the assignment," she says. "I had trouble initiating getting a group together so one of my accommodations was that a teacher would help me find a group."

The challenge, Elizabeth says, is that in college, unlike in high school, it's a student's responsibility to ask for help.

"You don't have a whole team of support that comes and gets together in the same table and says 'How are we gonna make sure James succeeds?'" she says.


Advice from Elizabeth Boresow

On making yourself available

I decided that it was more important to me to spend time with people than to get to do what I wanted. Because, if not, you spend a lot of time by yourself. So, even though I didn't always have the same idea of fun as everyone else, I spent time going and walking around stores with people, even though I think that's really boring, because it was a chance to spend time with other people.

On learning from social missteps

I have quite a few of them myself. You know, I learned from experience not to ask "Can I pet your baby?" I learned to ask "Can I rub your baby's back?" One thing I did that helped was I just told people "Hey, I don't understand," "Hey, what does it mean when you said this?" And I found in college people were pretty willing to explain it.

On strategies to overcome challenges tied to autism

There are certain things that, no matter how many times you try, I feel like, I just don't get. Like I get lost on a regular basis in places that are familiar, and so what I did was I took meticulous notes on how to enter the building, where I needed to put my badge, how to navigate to the classroom ... But there's a way around.

NPR Story Lab intern Franziska Monahan contributed to this report.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

James Carmody always knew he'd go to college. He loved learning. He worked hard. And he wanted to be an environmental engineer. But he was also worried about college. James has Asperger's syndrome. It's a form of autism spectrum disorder that can make it hard to interact with people. Sometimes James had a hard time knowing the right thing to do or say. Or he'd get really focused on a particular thing, like this time at his high school job at McDonald's.

JAMES CARMODY: I remember one time when a machine was being cleaned, I wanted to learn how to clean the machine. But I didn't ask how to get help. I just went ahead and start touching buttons and, in the end, made a mess out of it. And that's a theme in how I behave. And I didn't want my condition of Asperger's to be an impediment to having a fulfilling college career.

MCEVERS: Going to college and leaving his family, meeting a lot of new people and living on his own for the first time. And this is challenging for anybody but especially for somebody with Asperger's. James wanted to talk to someone who made it through that.

CARMODY: Hello, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH BORESOW: Hi, James.

CARMODY: How are you today?

BORESOW: I'm nervous. How are you?

CARMODY: I'm doing very well - been looking forward to this moment for months.

BORESOW: Excellent.

MCEVERS: That's Elizabeth Boresow. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in music therapy from the University of Kansas in 2013. And she's also on the autism spectrum. We connected her with James for our series Been There. And when they talked, James had just arrived for his freshman year at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.

CARMODY: I'm really having all my time in college so far. I've made a few social blunders already - nothing catastrophic. I just sometimes antagonize people for no good reason. I try to do what I want to do instead of what I've agreed to do. And as a result, I'll end up looking like a joke.

BORESOW: Well, one thing I like to do is - I decided that it was more important to me to spend time with people than they get to do what I wanted. Because if not, you spend a lot of time by yourself. So even though I didn't always have the same idea of fun as everyone else, I spent time going and walking around stores with people, even though I think that's really boring.

CARMODY: Yeah, it sounds like you really made himself as available as possible.

BORESOW: Yeah. You know, you talked about social blunders. I have quite a few of them myself. You know, I learned from experience not to ask, can I pet your baby? I learned to ask, can I rub your baby's back?

CARMODY: Yeah.

BORESOW: So how are you doing this semester?

CARMODY: I'm doing all right. I haven't done as well as I hoped to. That's mainly because I didn't prepare myself as well as I could have.

BORESOW: Yeah. When I was in college, I had to talk to my teachers about accommodations. Have you had to do that?

CARMODY: I considered it. I've never really needed accommodations in high school. I'm going to see how I deal with this first semester and see if college really is so demanding that I'll need more support.

BORESOW: You definitely have to remember that the style of teaching changes a lot. And also, it's more your responsibility. You don't have a whole team of support that comes and gets together around the same table and says, how are we going to make sure James succeeds, you know?

Even if you don't need as much accommodations, I enjoyed knowing that I had them in place. And it wasn't that I needed necessarily help with the coursework as much. I had teachers help me when they assigned a group project because they would just say, find a group of two or three and do the assignment. I had trouble initiating getting a group together. So one of my accommodations was that a teacher would help me find a group. There's lots of accommodations that you can use if you figure out how to talk about your disability or challenges.

CARMODY: I know, but I want to push myself...

BORESOW: You're determined. I hear you. That's awesome.

CARMODY: Yeah. I read the textbook. And I pursue knowledge on my own.

BORESOW: So I think what you just got to do is give yourself permission to ask, you know? There's nothing wrong from learning from your professors. And there's really nothing wrong from learning from other people at your work or that you live with. Like, I just don't get stuff sometimes, and I have to ask. And I can learn from other people telling me. And I think it's OK for you to figure things out by asking.

CARMODY: It can help. But a lot of things in life I've wanted an explanation to do. Take laundry. I am terrible at folding my laundry. It just never clicks in my mind how to do it, no matter how often I explained or shown to me.

BORESOW: You know, that's a good point. There are certain things that no matter how many times you try I feel like I just don't get. Like, I get lost on a regular basis in places that are familiar. And so what I did was I took meticulous notes on how to enter the building, where I needed to my badge, how to navigate to the classroom. So maybe if being shown how to fold clothes isn't enough, maybe if it's pictures or maybe it's just a work-around solution of folding clothes is hard, so I'm going to hang them up instead.

CARMODY: Yeah.

BORESOW: But there's a way around.

MCEVERS: That was Elizabeth Boresow who graduated college in 2013 talking to college freshman James Carmody. They're both on the autism spectrum. And they got together for our series Been There. If you want advice about a big change in your life, email us at nprcrowdsource@npr.org and put Been There in the subject line. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.