Everyday, when I wake up, I unconsciously prepare myself for a day of award-winning acting. Though I’m not an actor, I partake in the art with deft calculation at every turn of my daily routine. First, I eat my breakfast alone and anonymously, comfortably filling my time with Vertex, my favorite New York Times game. After I finish my eggs, my sole respite from the day’s socializing, I make my way to my class. In the lecture hall, I keep my head down and dutifully take notes while ignoring the chatter of students a few seats away from me. The professor goes on about … I don’t know; two students in front of me start a conversation over the homework, and I’ve lost what she said, the noise of the students fighting with the professor for limited sensory input. The professor’s mouth moves — I know what words are being formed, but I’m hearing too much at once.
After a day of classes, I retreat to my dorm. Before escaping to my single room (a much-welcome change from freshman year), I make my way to the dining hall for dinner. Other students tell me that East Quad is one of the best dining halls on campus, but, for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. I’m hoping to eat a good dinner after a breakfast of flavorless eggs and a lunch of something equally forgettable. I grab food from one station, then another plate from the next. I ask for double of a different bowl and grab some dessert. After only a few minutes, I sit down with a cup of grape juice and a verifiable feast in front of me. I take a bite from the chicken; it’s dry and flavorless. The pink center tells me eating it is probably not worth the trouble. I move to the next dish, a bowl of rice and stir-fry, which leaves me with only the peculiar taste of something feeling off. I abandon that too and move to my last hope, a dining hall cheeseburger. I can feel my emotions rising, a cocktail of anger, disappointment, anxiety and discomfort. My breakfast was fine. My lunch failed me. Two-thirds of my dinner has failed me. I take a bite of the cheeseburger: flavorless. With only a bite taken from each piece of food on each plate, I throw everything away and leave the dining hall. I can’t speak. I can’t interact with anyone right now. I avoid the eye contact of a friend in the hallway. In my room, I lay silently on my bed in subdued anger.
When I try to describe my autism, officially diagnosed as Asperger’s Syndrome, I’m met with genuine, but at times invalidating, questions. I describe my intense sense of introversion only to be told I’m just an introvert. Why pathologize not preferring intense social interactions? A neurotypical person doesn’t become unable to function in social environments where they feel uncomfortable. Other times, I’ll try to explain my experience by describing how I need to plan and organize my week, such as planning to have a specific milkshake while watching one specific movie, only to be met with the comment, “Everyone does that.” A neurotypical person doesn’t find themselves unable to deviate even slightly from the daily plan they organized. I’ve told a friend, with whom I share my closest bond at the University of Michigan, that I can’t handle eating dining hall food because of the lack of control and sensory problems. She responded that she feels the same. Despite having witnessed a meltdown over dining hall food which devolved into an hours-long spiral, she still can’t understand what I feel. I tell her I cannot have anyone in the kitchen when I’m cooking my own food, stemming from needing control over my environment. Still, she can’t relate so the conversation ends, not with a breakthrough, but with a wider chasm between our two modes of thinking.
On one hand, a neurotypical way of thinking can accept nuance or change and understands the subtle tone-indicators of someone’s voice or body language. When someone tells a joke, or when something comes up to necessitate changing plans, my friends will catch on and make the necessary adjustments. A neurodiverse way of thinking lacks nuance. It accepts a joke as it is, views choices as a 50/50 split between something good and something bad and ignores those near-hidden changes to someone’s tone. This way of thinking, thinking in black and white, is how I see the world, and the sheer difference in this perception of the day-to-day from that of others often hinders me from accurately sharing my experience with them.
I don’t claim to, or try to, speak for all autistic people. There are millions of us, and each of our experiences lie on a diverse spectrum. While I can occasionally get along fine with sensory overload, others find auditory and visual stimulation to be their biggest battle. While I find myself severely struggling in many social situations, other people with autism are proud extroverts.
The issue most autistic students face when interacting with the world usually stems from a neurotypical society’s ignorance about autism itself. According to the Center for Disease Control, “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. People with ASD often have problems with social communication and interaction, and restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. People with ASD may also have different ways of learning, moving, or paying attention.” Even within this definition, I find inaccuracies. For one, the classification as a “developmental disability” tends to paint autistic individuals as children and toddlers, not fully developed and independent adults.
Interested in learning more about other neurodiverse perspectives on campus, I arranged a conversation with LSA senior Lane Brodzik, president of the University’s Society for Disabled and Neurodiverse Students. Sitting in the Diag, with the occasional student recovering from a night of football and partying passing by, we discussed Brodzik’s personal experiences as an autistic student on campus and misconceptions about autism that lead to real conflicts between autistic and neurotypical students.
“If you’re not doing well (in class), it’s because you’re autistic, and (then you’re) looked down upon,” Brodzik said. “(There’s) a very large lack of understanding of what autism is and what autistic people are. Especially autistic adults. (People use) that ‘you don’t act like my five year old nephew’ comment… Because that’s a five year old, and I’m a 27 year old,” Brodzik said.
At times, I find myself relating to Brodzik’s point, although I believe it stems from an internalization of the neurotypical view of autism. I’ve always excelled in school, and haven’t faced much academic struggle in college compared to some of my peers. I have a small but strong circle of friends and acquaintances, and I don’t act like a 5 year old having a meltdown! This leads to personal questions about my own validity as someone with autism, and whether I can, in good conscience, tell people it’s a disability, even though it technically is.
Interested in other perspectives, I also sat down for a Zoom interview with Juan Rodriguez, a senior at Albion College and opinion editor for the Albion Pleiad. When I asked him what he thought the biggest misconception about autistic people was, he told me he thinks that it’s “the notion that we’re all just shut-in and introverted.” Rodriguez reflected, “That’s a part of who I am — I do enjoy my time to myself. But at the same time, I’ve started to realize that there’s something to be found outside of these walls. It helps to have that friend group to drag me out of my depressive spirals at times.”
The irony of hearing this idea while sitting in my room was not lost on me. Like Rodriguez and many other autistic people, I enjoy time to myself. Years of being an introvert have taught me to find comfort in my own company and seek out solitary environments. At the same time, this can prove to be self-destructive. Entering my room can be like losing my mask, letting the entire day’s exhaustion and anxieties hit me like a truck until I’m dissociating in my bed, doom-scrolling through Instagram. I found a similar sentiment from Rodriguez.
“There’s moments where I’m doubting myself, I’m thinking, ‘Oh man, my friends don’t like me, my friends hate me, why would they even choose me? I’m just such a mess,’ ” Rodriguez said. “Then I talk with my friends, and at that moment, I realize, ‘Oh, I’m just exaggerating. I’ve spent so much time cooped up with myself that I’ve driven myself kind of insane.”
Rodriguez has been fortunate enough to find a group of friends who support him and understand the multi-faceted idea of his nature. Others are not so lucky. Autistic people experience loneliness more profoundly than neurotypical people for a variety of reasons. We struggle to fit into social situations, catch on to social cues or simply be interested in the conversation at hand. We can’t do “small talk,” and struggle to tell the difference between jokes and serious statements. Like Rodriguez, I drive myself insane by over-analyzing my friends’ behaviors towards me. One joke leads to a short-lived but fervent belief in their unexpressed annoyance at my presence. Perhaps this is why I happen to find Rodriguez’s outlined misconception to be, by contrast, most applicable to me. When I do find myself socializing with others, I retreat to the back of the conversation. I can’t connect to what they have to say and fail to see why I should say anything if I have nothing to contribute. At a party with 50 friends, I’d still feel lonely.
These challenges are especially pronounced in college, when most people leave the familiarity of high school behind. I left the small group of about 100 people who I had become familiar with over the course of four years and was thrust into not only a new social environment, but a place where I had to look after myself and manage my own time. In that whirlwind of new people, club activities and class schedules, moments of happiness became rare.
Back on the Diag with Brodzik, perhaps reflecting on my own experience last year, I felt compelled to ask about their opinion on the importance of a space for autistic and neurodivergent students on campus.
“I think it’s important for disabled people and autistic people to be able to come together into a space and create a community, because we’re another group of marginalized people that need to be able to have a community together,” Brodzik voiced. “Without that, it’s hard to advocate for our rights and advocate for better treatment on campus and more inclusion and equity.”
While I haven’t joined the Society of Disabled and Neurodiverse Students on campus, stemming from a personal aversion to larger social situations, it is very important to have community and representation. Autistic people collectively face invalidation and marginalization from certain segments of society. Autistic adults are rarely presented in the media, and when they are, it’s usually as extraordinary savants. These presentations, as much as they may depict autistic people at their best achievement-wise, all too frequently become memes for the neurotypical and neurodivergent alike.
Curious about Rodriguez’s opinion, I asked him if he ever joined a neurodivergent student association. Despite Rodriguez facing little hardship while finding friends and a community on campus, he did voice the importance of representation.
“(Not joining an autistic student organization) is probably the one thing I do regret.” Rodriguez reflected, “More than anything, I’m a very introverted person … I know very much what I’m about. I’m a writer, I enjoy spending lots of time on my own (and) I could definitely navigate a social environment. But an association where you have a bunch of neurodivergent folk — it’s interesting. It’s a bunch of people who are more or less similar to me.”
A space for neurodivergent students is important for more than just finding friends. The University of Michigan, as an institution, consistently fails to uphold standards of accessibility and inclusion of autistic and neurodivergent students on campus. In the University’s DEI 1.0 initiative, a five year Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan from 2016-2021, autism is not mentioned in any report. An analysis of the effects of this initiative, found in the final 2021 campus climate survey, finds that disabled students are 291% more likely than non-disabled students to report being discriminated against, a stark increase from before the implementation of DEI 1.0 in 2016, when disabled students were 287% more likely to report being discriminated against. The experience of autistic students on campus is, like other disabled students, one of marginalization.
In the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’s final DEI 1.0 summary, accommodations for autistic and neurodivergent students are omitted. Solutions to improve campus life for disabled students include physical accessibility, digital accessibility and changes to how accommodations are obtained. In diving deeper into the student IDEA board report, I found that most of the solutions do little to address real issues facing autistic students on campus, such as reducing sensory overload and even obtaining accommodations in the first place.
While Brodzik is a senior, they previously attended the University of Houston and the College of Fine Arts in Detroit. Comparing their current experience to their previous one at Houston, where they were directly offered accommodations by the school, Brodzik said they faced much greater pushback from the University of Michigan when trying to obtain accommodations for autism.
“I was trying to get accommodations and I had to fight with a certain person (in Services for Students with Disabilities) — she was not being helpful,” Brodzik said. “I didn’t have accommodations for the beginning of the semester, so the whole beginning of the semester, I was just fighting with them, trying to get them.”
Although they received accommodations after two appeals, Brodzik explained that the process proved to be more like an interrogation of their disability status than an effort to make the University accessible to them.
“When I met with the advisor at (The University of Houston), she was like ‘here’s some accommodations other autistic people have, would this be helpful for you?’ ” Brodzik said. “Here it was like, ‘Do you know what you want,’ and then it felt like an interrogation (during) the first meeting. I was supposed to provide all this information about why I needed them, and I was not told that ahead of time, so I was not prepared. It was not a good process in my opinion.”
Although Brodzik identifies themself as non-visibly physically disabled, they said there seems to be a disconnect between the University’s treatment of visible disabilities and non-visible disabilities, such as autism. “Some people I’ve spoken to (who qualify for paratransit) were like ‘yeah, I had no problem getting accommodations for that or anything,’” Brodzik said. “It was a very different experience from what I had.”
A central problem for Brodzik was the University’s emphasis on seeing an official diagnosis before granting accommodations. Many autistic teenagers and adults are now turning to self-diagnosis to rectify the disconnect they feel with neurotypical peers. While not foolproof, this process circumvents the obstacles in diagnosing autism in teenagers and adults, such as the diagnostic criterion requiring symptoms to be present in early childhood, which makes it difficult for adults to recall prior experiences. For people who may not have access to a formal diagnosis, self-diagnosis can help confirm or pave the way for one. Rodriguez, who was diagnosed with autism as a teenager, still identifies as self-diagnosed because of his own extensive effort to confirm his doctor’s diagnosis in the absence of a second opinion. For students who struggle with autism, the University’s insistence on physical documentation of a diagnosis leaves them without essential accommodations.
While I was formally diagnosed with autism in first grade, after much suspicion on behalf of my Pre-K and kindergarten teachers, I wasn’t told about my diagnosis until just last year. Because my official diagnosis occurred nearly 14 years ago, I have no physical documentation of it, despite being given a test and diagnosis by a licensed medical doctor. I haven’t reached out to the University for accommodations. But if I did, I’d probably fail to obtain them. Plus, most disability scholarships require a relationship with the disability office, which most students — if not just myself — do not possess.
In the absence of these accommodations, autistic students suffer from anxiety and depression at far higher rates than their neurotypical peers. A study published by the National Library of Medicine confirms that autistic students, even when academically outperforming neurotypical peers, are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Another study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders confirms that autistic students report higher levels of harassment and bullying than neurotypical peers. In a world of sensory overload, we spend our days struggling to keep up with unfamiliar social situations, oppressive noises, crowds and the demands of self-regulating.
In order to cope with these struggles, I — along with many other neurodivergent students — actively use masking. The term denotes behaviors used by people with autism to suppress or hide the signature characteristics of the disorder. To me, this consists of developing scripts for social situations, suppressing my reactions to sensory overload, and even silencing my meltdowns. I refuse to vocalize or present my frustrations because I know that non-autistic peers would probably just see an immature reaction to mundane non-issues. Hence my acting-filled days, where I suppress any hints of my autism to fit in amongst an unknowing crowd.
I don’t want to leave the impression that autistic students are destined to seclusion, depression and loneliness for the rest of their lives. Plenty of autistic people lead successful careers and professional lives. Others find fame and fortune, like notable figure, Anthony Hopkins. But these successful individuals don’t do it alone. Autistic people, as much as anyone else, require support and assistance with everyday obstacles and problems. The fact that autistic students need accommodations from the University or understanding from their friends isn’t an overwhelming burden on neurotypical society, it’s asking for the same amount of leeway non-autistic people get with innumerable issues.
Despite my own social struggles, I push myself to pursue a student career which prioritizes social interactions. All this for the ultimate goal of entering a real career built on working with local communities. Everyday, I fight to see the world as anything other than black or white. My brain processes things as one thing or the other, with little room for interpretation and nuance. One problem denotes a failed day. One bad grade leads to failing a class. Being on time rather than 20 minutes early equals being late. But, maybe, with effort and support, I can find shades of gray. Perhaps a large step is writing this piece — sharing my experiences with others and advocating for the support I know I deserve.
Statement Part-Time Writer Joshua Nicholson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.