Showcase: ASD Society Warwick
This month brought with it Autism Awareness Week. We wanted to showcase the societies which create spaces for autistic students to feel comfortable, and socialise. Warwick’s ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) society, were lovely enough to sit down with us to talk about why it was important to set up a society dedicated to autistic students.
Hype: Could you briefly introduce yourselves?
Sophie: I’m a second year at Warwick studying Global Sustainable Development, I’m 20 and I’m the president of the ASD society at Warwick.
Toby: I study Physics, I’m the Communications Officer for our society and I’m 19.
Hype: Tell us a bit about your society: when was it set up and what was its main intended purpose?
Toby: Sophie started the whole thing. Sophie posted on a group chat for Warwick uni that if anyone wanted to join a chat for autistic people, they should like her comments. People started asking if there was an autism society, and we were all surprised to find out that there wasn’t one. Sophie then started figuring out the processes of setting up a society within the students’ union. After getting together a list of signatures, we presented it to the university and held an election! That’s when I joined, we’ve been going since then to create a safe space for autistic students to socialise and be themselves.
Sophie: We’re moving into campaigning and trying to improve the university experience for autistic students as well now. We’re trying to get people within the uni to get on board with this, too.
The reaction to our society has been very positive from the uni. Everyone’s pleased that there is finally a society dedicated to autistic students and the uni services have been very ready to engage with us. Even in the pandemic, we’ve managed to grow quite successfully.
Hype: What kind of events have you managed to run during the pandemic?
Sophie and Toby: Obviously as most things have been online, we’ve managed to set up some relaxed online socials. We also organised a panel event, where we gathered staff members and autistic students together, asking and answering questions about the student experience etc. We managed to get nearly 50 people to come, which is great.
We also produced a guide called ‘What we wish you knew’, which was taking insights on how to talk to/about autistic students and autism in general. We’ve also been invited on some panels from the uni to talk.
Hype: What do you think the biggest challenges are for autistic students at uni?
Toby: There’s a lot. I’d probably just say the general adjustment to how everything works. It’s very chaotic at first trying to figure out where you have to go and what you need to do. Also, getting used to the social life, the early period where you don’t know anyone, is terrifying to many autistic person, because social anxiety is such a huge part of it.
Sophie: Everyone experiences it differently, there’s no blanket form of autism that everyone has, but what I tend to hear is that some staff members are great, but overall there’s a lack of understanding from staff. People just don’t quite get it, and that makes life harder.
Additionally, coming to university where nobody knows you and how you are is extremely hard. Sensory issues relating to seminars can be quite difficult. Campuses are big spaces, and there aren’t enough quiet places to go to come to terms with all of that.
Hype: Do you think that autistic students have benefitted from having university moved online during the pandemic?
Sophie: I think it’s a mixed bag. Not having to go anywhere has been good, and being taken away from the stress of having to organise yourself to get to a destination and be there for a length of time. But also, organisations and executive functioning is a very big issue for a lot of people, so when you’re given free reign on when you complete your lectures, it can be really hard to find that motivation to get it done. The structure is just gone.
Hype: Why do you think it’s important to have societies like yours on campus?
Toby: I think there’s two important reasons. When I came to uni, I was lucky to meet people who were understanding of my situation, but I didn’t really get the chance to meet other autistic students. So I missed out on that shared experience. What we can give people is a space to meet others and create shared moments. Also, just to have friends who ‘get it’ and can support you through unique difficulties with things is good.
Sophie: Even when you have supportive neuro-typical friends, you always have to explain a lot about yourself. If you’re in a community of autistic students, you don’t have to make that extra step of explaining every detail of why you behave or feel how you do. It’s also great to be able to provide that advocacy and outreach within the university and beyond.
Hype: Do you think there are any big/small changes that uni’s can make to support autistic students?
Toby: There’s definitely a lot that could be done. The big one we’ve always said is that currently, if you’re disabled in any way, the onus is on you to reach out and ask for the support that you need. We wish uni staff did the opposite and reached out instead and asking ‘what can we be doing better for you?’. If you assume everything is fine, it’s probably not.
The amount you have to prove yourself is also very annoying. I have a diagnosis, but to even get just the disabled students’ allowance, I have to ‘prove’ myself. It’s almost as if the assumption is that you’re faking.
Sophie: To add to that, I think uni’s should be more flexible in trying to support everyone. Autistic women and AFAB people tend to find it incredibly hard to get a diagnosis, so just making the help more accessible, without all this ‘proof’, would be very beneficial.
Also, I think more training should be done for staff, even on the basic level so that there’s some understanding of where you’re coming from, rather than having a lucky dip of whether you get a supportive staff member or not.
Hype: Is there anything you want to say about autism that you want to say to students?
Sophie: To start with, ‘you don’t look autistic’ is well meant, but really isn’t the one. Oh and the classic ‘oh but you’re high functioning’, please don’t say that. Functioning labels just dismiss the difficulties people who seem to be able to cope better in society still experience, and ignore the talents of those deemed ‘low-functioning’.
Toby: It all stems from ‘disease’ view of autism that’s embedded in the culture. People try and be all sympathetic, when that isn’t really what we want. To them, the nice thing is to make you feel autistic, but that’s not it. It’s not a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a difference, and we have strengths and weaknesses like anyone else. Because society is built around neuro-typical people, our weaknesses tend to be more prevalent because they’re not accommodated for.