Autistics can change the world

Image of woman sitting on a rock looking out at mountains.  This is a stock image with actors.

Image of woman sitting on a rock looking out at mountains. This is a stock image with actors.

Alex* thinks universities would be far more welcoming spaces for everyone if there was an autistic lens applied over all of them. 

The 45-year-old wants to continue her psychology studies but is prepared to put her master’s off if 70-80 per cent of the course must be in person. 

It is something her lecturers are insistent would be better for her, but Alex (not her real name) knows otherwise. 

The mother-of-two was diagnosed with autism five years ago, something of a relief given she thought for more than 30 years that she had an intellectual disability. 

She started university in 2020 picking up one paper originally and then more as her A grades showed she was anything but stupid, which is what teachers at high school told her she was. 

In those early university days, before Covid restrictions kicked in, Alex attended on campus classes. 

“I could hear the lights sounding like they were screaming at me; those fluorescent lights and I could see them flickering.  

“For me that was a massive challenge in the beginning and then a lot of people flicking their pages, clicking their pens, and kicking the back of the seat and I couldn’t even concentrate. 

“Even the air conditioning would go cold and then hot. I would find myself so focused on the sensory input it was very difficult to even hear what they were saying in real life.” 

If she could avoid going in, she did and then lockdowns came. 

“Luckily, I could do it online and that became very easy for me. I didn’t have to deal with people. It takes the anxiety completely away.” 

Alex can adjust her own lights, get herself a cup of tea, check if she is warm enough and then put her full focus into her studies. 

“It makes a massive difference. 

“They pushed it at the beginning that you have to come to the lectures. I asked whether I would be penalised and even when I say that I’m autistic, they are still insistent it would be better for me. But it’s more for their own sake.” 

Alex wants universities and tertiary institutions to consider the needs of hypersensitive people like her and to introduce compulsory seminars for lecturers and teachers about autism and neurodiversities. 

“Where the problem is with the individuals – the lecturers etc are just not educated at all. The lecturers think they know it all and when it comes to considering other ways, they might be set in their ways.” 

Alex makes a point of letting lecturers know she is autistic but for most it makes very little difference. 

“I think people relax a bit and then they just think you’re weird.” 

Student services were outstanding. “When I needed more time on tests, they helped me navigate that, told me how to get extended times etc.” 

She likes to be given course notes as pdfs and then she has an app which converts them into audio and she can listen. Student services put her onto how to access other people’s notes to do that. 

“The lean towards making education more accessible to everybody is good but the problem is with the individual lecturers.” 

Alex believes there is a gross misunderstanding in tertiary institutions around autism and the abilities of autistics.  

“There is incredibly still quite an ignorance – even when I was 13 and in school, they thought I was intellectually disabled. I’m quite traumatised by what happened in school.  

“Even now in psychology I get that same feeling that’s what they are thinking.” 

That is why online studies are so good for her; she has the space to operate and focus. 

“When I can use those autistic traits I have – if I can use those traits, my work is easier, I do it faster and I get better grades.” 

Alex says when she finishes her studies, she wants to improve the lives of autistics, make people understand what it is like for all sorts of people outside the mainstream. 

“I want to harness the good things about autism. What I’ve found out now through studying psychology is that autistics would like to change the world. And we can,” she says. 


*Alex is not her real name. 


Check out Supporting Autistic Tertiary Learners guides that offer information and strategies under six themes: