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Living with autism at uni: Holly's story

Living with autism as a university student comes with its challenges - and its rewards. We chat to student Holly about her experience.

Name: Holly McKenna Smith
Age: 20
Course: third year Graphic Design, De Montfort University
Qualifications: Extended Diploma in Art and Design, University of the Arts London.  


What's the average day in your life at university?

On my course we don't have lectures - we work all day in the studio on our projects. I can be working on one or four projects at once and so I have to manage my workload.

Everyone's study-brief varies, depending on what subjects they have taken. We all gravitate to the seats we have become accustomed to sitting in and get on with our work until the end of the day.


Why did you go to university?

Because I could! At school I was predicted U grades and received a lot of negativity. Most teachers were convinced I wouldn't achieve anything.

However, my parents and some good tutors encouraged me and I exceeded everyone's expectations.

I only applied to one university, convinced that university wouldn't be possible for me. I received an unconditional offer!


What challenges do you face?

Autism can bring additional challenges but everyone's autism is different and so are their challenges.

For me, I need to know details. This means I have studied maps of the university campus in full, so that I know where to go – I know rooms in the university I don't even need to know about. But I know, just in case.

Yet a friend who is also autistic doesn't need or want to know anything. They prefer things to be done their way.

I’ve struggled with living on my own for the first time and can experience anxiety and panic attacks.

I find walking home especially hard, as my route involves passing Leicester City's football stadium. So I've studied and planned alternative routes that I can take if I face large crowds.

I also struggle with time management, ensuring I meet all of my deadlines.

I need to remind myself to get the balance between work and play right - I can swing between working too much and never seeing friends, or neglecting work and just going out with friends.

I'll probably struggle with this all of my life, so going through university is helping to develop these skills.

Watch now: How I met my best mate at uni


How does your university support you?

In lots of ways. If I have an issue, I can always talk to someone within the university disability team.

My disability officer gave me access to an app called Brain in Hand, which reminds me to take my medication, get to class on time and plan out my daily life.

I also receive help from a Freedomlink tutor who helps me to plan and structure any writing that I may have during my course at university.

I have been given a dictaphone that allows me to record all my lectures, which I can convert into a transcript and then refer back to easily. Specialist programmes on my computer help with this, such as Dragon Read & Write Gold.


What's the best part of uni?

To be able to say that I actually got into university! Realising that I had the potential to do more with my life than what I had previously thought.


What's the hardest part of university?

Letting down your guard. To realise that sometimes I have to push the boundaries, try my best but be prepared to fail in order to eventually succeed. In my first year I struggled a lot, but I learned from this. You're never done with learning!


What are you most proud of?

Being here. It's an incredible experience and I refuse to take it for granted.


What would you say to others?

To look at going to university, even if you don't think university is for you. My mum encouraged me to look and I'm so glad she did. Even if you don't end up going, or realise it's not for you, you can't say you didn't consider it.

If you do get the opportunity to go to university, you should do it.


What's next for you?

After I graduate I'm going to return to Canada where my parents live. I'm going to do a top-up course in web design to add to my skill set, then I'll start my career.

I already have a number of companies in mind that I'd love to work for. My qualifications and experience will help me achieve my goals.


More from our autism and university series:


About the authors

This article was created in partnership with Carol Povey, Director of the Centre for Autism, at The National Autistic Society, Tina Sharpe, Head of Disability at DeMontfort University and Heather Cook, Client Director at Brain in Hand.

All contributors have an extensive knowledge of supporting students with SEND using a combination of best practice and technology.


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