Autistic students say college life caused mental trauma: what the few autistic students have to say about college

By Brandon Ayoung-Chee

Contributor

bayoungc@unca.edu

Photo by Brandon Ayoung-Chee
Justin Greenbaum reveals he hates school with a passion.

Justin Greenbaum said he always hated school with a passion, but admired the aspects of learning and building rapport with his teachers. 

“I was in special education because other teachers couldn’t handle me, but I felt I didn’t need remedial support. I felt beaten down because of it. By the time I enrolled into college, I was so done with school as a concept,” Greenbaum admitted. 

As a 24-year-old autistic student at UNC Asheville, Greenbaum said he’s complacent with college, even if he doesn’t like attending classes. 

“I feel like I’m doing well, but I hate college. It’s not a place for me. The only reason I’m able to get through college is being a part-time student and working a job that’s more worthwhile to me,” he said. 

Greenbaum did not discover his autism until he was diagnosed two years ago. He called himself a strange case with assumed ADHD.

“No one knew what to do with me as a kid and I was shuffled from doctor to doctor. I didn’t really discover why I was unable to interact with other kids until I was 22 and found out I had autism,” Greenbaum said. 

When the discovery happened, Greenbaum said he did not regret many of the events that transpired prior to discovering his autism. He said it allowed him to receive an answer for his neurotypical behavior. 

“It made me push my boundaries of being normal. Once I realized that I was autisic, I thought that was awesome and I can figure out how my mind works. Also, it helped me realize how to function in society,” Greenbaum said.

According to the Drexel University Institute of Autism Research, 36% of rising autistic adults make it to postsecondary school, prompting Asheville Regional Director of the Autism Society Michael LaPage to say people on the spectrum don’t discover they have autism until years from their adolescence. 

“We’re seeing more and more people getting diagnosed in their 40s, 50s. And because it’s a wide spectrum, they usually need care throughout their whole life,” LaPage said.

Despite being the oldest of his siblings, Greenbaum said he was the trouble kid of the family. His siblings surveyed him by request of his parents to make sure he did his work.

“I received a lot of punishments as a kid for not doing work. I didn’t have any resentment toward not having been diagnosed with autism earlier, so my parents would have tried a different approach because it helped me a lot, but I got in trouble a lot for not studying. My parents would punish me for staying up by taking the power. My dad would take the knob to my door until I finished my homework and my siblings would occasionally look into my room to make sure I was working,” Greenbaum said. 

He said he attributed masking social situations in college by creating a facade. He fabricated a confident persona and often copied what he saw to survive socializing. 

“The problem was college was the first time I had friends. It was the first time In my life that I reinvented myself. Because by that time, I discovered I had autism. I essentially spent middle school and high school observing how people socialized. Essentially, I learned all of them and created this persona in college. I made this confident, overly confident persona and it worked for a time. The problem is, it wasn’t me. It wasn’t goofy and true me. I spent all my time masking and making sure everything I did was socially appropriate,” Greenbaum said. 

He said he stays in college because the real world demands you need a degree. He finds his current employment more worthwhile than attending college. 

“I realize I have to stay in college to get a degree, or else an employer won’t give me a second glance. I still hate college, but I don’t mind learning. I’m staying at UNCA because I’m at a point where I know my true self, and I have great friends and live in a great place surrounded by mountains,” Greenbaum said. 

Similarly, 27-year-old Katherine Patrick, a UNCA drop-out with autism, said the weight of college was too much to bear. One day, she called her parents and said she couldn’t handle any more of the stress.

“I was on my way to therapy sessions at Mission Hospital once I dropped out. I had fears I would hurt myself afterward. My father was out on a business trip at the time and called me. I tearfully confessed how I went from a high school GPA of 3.5 to 2.0 at UNCA. I expected him to get angry, but thankfully, he was sympathetic and talked it through with me to calm me down,” Patrick said. 

She said her difficulties in college stemmed from being away from home, managing everything by herself and being afraid to ask for help. 

“I didn’t know how to ask for extensions. I was worried about the fallout of asking for help. I just felt like from high school, where I was the bright child in the family, I wasn’t prepared for anything in college,” the 27-year-old said. 

Patrick said she didn’t know she was autistic until weeks after leaving UNCA. The discovery brought her relief at the very least. There was an answer for why she acted differently compared to other kids. 

“I didn’t know I was autistic at the time. I barely knew I was burned out and I didn’t know how to explain most of the events in my life. I was stunned, but also relieved to discover that I had autism because it provided answers for me,” Patrick said. 

She attends A.B. Tech, but chose to take a break from school. Patrick wants to be a veterinarian and worked intensely with a program that trains veterinarians. 

“Right now I’m taking a break due to burnout. It was a program that I was really connected to when I met all the prerequisites. That all changed when my boss pulled me aside and said I wouldn’t survive based on what she has seen. It was a lot to deal with when you hear that kind of thing and I’m just focusing on working full-time as a pet groomer,” she said. 

LaPage said the change between high school and postsecondary education can leave a huge impact on a person as well. He said most students on the autism spectrum received assistance throughout high school to walk them through a schedule more comfortable for them. Once they come of age and graduate, they become adults and must pilot their own futures in college, which often deters them, according to the regional director. 

“One of the big challenges is the phase of preparation. I think in a lot of ways, it’s a hard thing to prepare, even if you have autism or don’t. We condition people from pre-school and on what this academic system is like. You got pre-school, middle school and so on. When you live off that structure, you’re left to ask yourself what’s next if not college after high school. There’s no real diagram to prepare you for it. It requires a plan and to think through it because there’s a lot of ambiguity before leaping off that cliff into college,” LePage said. 

LePage said the first year can be rough waters for autistic students. Many freshmen do experience this, but in most cases, autistic students find themselves lost without assistance. Deprived of their usual schedule and sent into a new environment, it’s a repeat process of adjusting to a new learning environment as they did for high school and before. 

“When you actually get to college, there’s all these unwritten rules. Without assistance from friends and family to network you through these, you wonder how do I get books? How do I get to classes? How do I get a meal plan? There’s no clear indicator on this stuff and it’s all unwritten rules from that point on. There are so many questions and we need a better system to inform people what to do when they get to college,” LePage said. 

Although autism diagnoses are becoming more recognized and more programs exist to help those with autism, LePage said we still have a ways to go for helping people on the spectrum. 

“I think we’re doing better in a lot of ways, but we’re not there yet. We need to have an environment that allows people to transition into postsecondary education that informs in clear detail what’s to be expected of them. We are sadly not at the point where everyone can be successful at what they do and understand their career path. For many autistic people, there are so many social dynamics that’s daunting and prevent them from thriving in a college, even job environment, ” LePage said. 

LePage said he sees improvement with society identifying an autistic person’s deft skills for hands-on work. When failing with writing or cognitive skills, an autistic person can pick up tools and become quite handy working their way around them. 

“Trade schools are giving more neurotypical people the experience to learn for jobs on a practical level. They allow them to learn solely by hands-on experience. People learn in different ways and use their skills accordingly and it’s nice to see it’s being used for their own learning style. I think people on the spectrum are receiving more jobs than usual due to this rise. I think it’s cool to see people embracing multiple ways to take information and data that isn’t conventional, ” LaPage said. 

LaPage said he sees a lack of people on the spectrum asking questions. Because they fear social situations, they often let things lie and suffer a lack of knowledge in consequence. 

“To prepare yourself, you need to ask questions. It may be scary, especially when talking to strangers, but if you need help then it won’t come to you unless you ask. We weren’t born with a microchip that tells us how to fill out financial aid, use Canvas or do any of those things,” LePage said.