This is the third and final of three posts I will be writing about my experiences at university as an autistic undergraduate student. These experiences are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of other autistic students. I study mathematics in Scotland, other courses & countries would vary greatly. You can read the first post about academic structure here and the second about noisy student culture here.
Regardless of your preferred language to describe it; obsessions, special interests, or intense fixations are something that many autistic people have. Many autistic people have the ability to focus very intently on a subject for extended periods of time. These interests can last for anything from a few weeks to a lifetime. In the recent documentary Aspergers & Me, Chris Packham demonstrates a lifelong intense interest in animals.
And how lucky he is, I think to myself as I sit in the university library studying for a degree in a subject my interest in faded long ago. I do not have a single lifelong interest. My obsessions are far more fleeting. I have little passion left for mathematics, my interests have long since moved on to Star Trek and politics and autism. If I had to choose a degree subject now? Probably psychology, maybe ecology, but certainly not mathematics.
My special interests generally last for a month, and become intense and all-consuming before they fade only to quickly be replaced by another. In reverse order from now to back in primary school, I can list politics, autism, Star Trek, Doctor Who, politics again, a book series called Gallagher Girls, vampires, the Titanic, feminism, writing fiction. I have missed some things off the list, so it’s not too long. Politics is the only thing on the list that has recurred.
So what does this have to do with university? For those who have a lifelong interest, it’s a very positive situation. They can do a degree in that subject, follow a career path related to it, and become very successful due to their intense focus on their subject. Provided, of course, that it’s something ‘useful’ in a capitalist society like zoology or mathematics, and not something like Star Trek.
For those whose interests are fleeting and temporary? A recipe for disaster. I will talk about my own experience as someone who has fluid special interests and is studying a degree I lost interest in a long time ago.
When I chose which subject I wished to study at university, I was 17. It was 2013, a year before the Scottish independence referendum, and I was naturally very interested in it. For the first half of 2013, I wanted to study politics and French at university, the latter because I wanted to learn a lot of languages, and I had the top mark in my year in 2012 in the subject. That summer, I attended a summer school at Oxford University for state school pupils, to study French for a week. I didn’t like it. It was so hard, it was much more like English with the analysis of texts and very little language learning. I decided that academically speaking, languages were not for me.
The reason I decided against politics was more complicated. I cannot trust my own memory as I have a tendency to lie to myself, however I will explain to the best of my ability my reasoning. My experiences at Oxford told me one thing: a subject at university will be nothing like at school. I decided that I didn’t particularly want to read the large books my mother, who did study politics, told me I’d have to, and that studying it at university would probably put me off the subject entirely as I’d have to write academic essays on the areas of politics that didn’t interest me. I believe this was accurate, I do not regret my decision to not study politics – it is very likely that doing a degree in it would have put me off the subject entirely.
So I chose mathematics. If I remember correctly, my reasoning for this was that I was very good at it in school, it is a subject with clear cut right and wrong answers, and little ambiguity. I also wouldn’t have to write essays – while I enjoy writing in my own time, usually the minute it became compulsory I no longer wished to do it. And it is a subject with good career prospects, much more than politics. You will notice that mathematics does not appear on the list of interests above. It’s absence is accurate – it was never on the list. My reasons for choosing it are solely those listed above. There was no passion.
I have looked back over my personal statement from my application to university, and while it’s much better written than I remember, I detect little truth in there beyond the factual statements of what I’ve done. I exaggerated my passion, but while most of it is slightly inaccurate there is only one outright lie:
“Overall, my interest in mathematics has existed throughout my school career, however as I have had more and more opportunities to use mathematics outside of the classroom, my fascination with numbers and logic has only grown.”
There wasn’t any growth of passion. Perhaps I convinced myself there was, after all I was a young seventeen year old being told I needed to decide what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I convinced myself I wanted to do mathematics. It’s a coping mechanism I probably still use, though it’s only recognisable in hindsight.
As for it existing throughout my school career? I guess my 17 year old self had a penchant for editing history. I can prove that is not true – in a diary entry from 2011 I distinctly state that I hate maths. I decided to study a subject I had no passion for. It was always going to end badly.
I, like many other autistic people, do have the ability to intensely focus on one topic for extended periods of time. I do not, however, possess the ability to choose the topic. Obsessions choose me, they creep up unexpectedly and overthrow their predecessor and then they’re just there. I watched 700 hours of Star Trek in a little over a year. I campaigned on people’s doorsteps for a Yes vote in a referendum – making eye contact all the time, long before I have the confidence I do now – because that’s what my interest was at the time. I cannot create or destroy obsessions any more than I could energy.
I think that’s where I went wrong at university. I chose my degree subject, I did not let an interest find me. In my defence, I was pressured into choosing before I was ready. My parents would never have let me take a gap year, and my teachers didn’t want me to deviate from the path they had laid out for me. I had little choice but to follow, but now I’ve left them behind, I’m lost, and I have no way back.
My advice for any autistic people (or people of any neurology, really) considering going to university – choose your subject wisely. If you do not have the requisite passion, you won’t do well, and you won’t enjoy it. If you have a special interest in something other than your degree subject, it will consume time and prevent studying from taking place. If you know what you want to do, really know, then I wish you best of luck and I’m sure you’ll do brilliantly. But if you are in any way uncertain, please, please take the time to think about it.
It is better to wait, and delay the future for a year or two, than to set off on a life path you will come to regret. I don’t believe in certainty, the future isn’t fully in anyone’s control and the unexpected can happen. But if someone asks you how certain you are that you want to study a certain subject, if your answer is anything under 90% please stop and think. Your future self may well thank you one day.
Special interests can be hugely helpful in the academic and career choices of autistic people. If an autistic person can study their interest, or get a job related to it then that is a wonderful thing and will help them to thrive. We should be encouraging people to use their interests, especially as it’s probably more likely to make one happy than doing something they have no passion for. On the contrary, making choices to do something one has no passion for can be detrimental to one’s happiness and success.
We need to stop putting pressure on young people to make life decisions to a deadline. If I had waited a year before attending university, I would be much happier now and likely more successful. The pressure young people are put under to follow a certain path can be very damaging. We need to start accepting there are alternative pathways, and not everything needs to be done exactly by the book. Only then can we have a society where everyone lives up to their potential.