Advice from an Autistic Student: Living With People in College

College is a radical departure from everything that came before. Perhaps this is obvious, but it bears repeating all the same, as it is true in ways both expected and unexpected. One of those aspects is the fact that you will probably live with another person in your room and other people in your hall.

My advice here rests on one important concept: when you go to college, the other students don’t know who you are. This doesn’t mean you are trapped in obscurity; it gives you a fresh start with all things social. I grew up in the same town and school system my entire childhood. When I was young (early elementary school), I was very “obviously” autistic. I talked about astronomy and all the latest discoveries almost every day, and had at least a few very public meltdowns over little schedule changes. That stopped by 5th grade, but socially, it didn’t matter. I already had the reputation as the smart, creepy kid (and to be clear, there were other students smarter than me), and that stuck with me through high school graduation. But at college? They would only know me based on who I was starting then and there. I got a second chance.

To start off, you are probably going to have a roommate. My most important advice? If your college offers a roommate survey, use it! Most colleges send these out to incoming freshmen. The college’s Office of Residential Life (or equivalent) then uses these results to make roommate pairings that match each other as closely as possible. These surveys ask about a lot of things, including when you prefer to go to sleep and wake up, where you like to study, interest in partying (in the dorm and elsewhere), music preferences, general interests, and more.

Why is this important? You’re going to be spending a lot of time with your roommate, more than anyone else at college. After all, your shared room is where you sleep and keep all your stuff. Having a roommate you get along with makes a huge difference in your college enjoyment. Having a compatible roommate can decrease potential conflicts, and help you get your first friend in a new environment.

The difficulty of making new friends is a big one, and it’s something I haven’t even come close to mastering. However, the very nature of college gives you some major advantages, especially as a freshman. You are not alone; almost everyone else entering college is in a similar situation to you. They’re moving to a new place, away from where they’ve grown up, where they don’t know anyone.

Most friendships form over commonalities of some kind. Usually, that’s an interest or hobby. For college, it can be the shared experience of living in the same place (i.e. the same room or hall). Think of it as a free socialization boost. You’ll also share the experiences of transitioning to college and adapting to the environment.

At lunch one time in junior year, fellow students came and sat at my table. We ended up having a really nice conversation and became friends before they had to go. Another of my friends saw this.

“Did you know them?” he asked me.
“No, they were just really nice and started a conversation,” I said.
“Ah, so they were freshmen,” he (correctly) responded.

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and introduce yourself to new people. You don’t have to be gregarious and a full-on extrovert, but letting new people know you’re interested in getting to know them will go a long way.

People in college, I’ve found, are generally nicer than people in high school. Which brings me to my next topic: partying. I generally do not party because it’s not fun for me, and I have no interest in drinking alcohol. Most people don’t feel the same way, and honestly that’s ok. It doesn’t really affect you so long as they’re safe. The one time where it did affect me was when other people’s partying became too loud. Even in that case, when the students in the next room were probably drunk and playing their music painfully loud and I was trying to go to bed, I could politely ask them to be a little less loud. It was a win-win situation: I wanted less sensory stimulation, and they wanted to continue having fun. In four years of college, I’ve only had this not work twice.

College is an exciting new time. You’ll learn new things in and out of classrooms. You’ll have new experiences and grow as a result. And, just maybe, you’ll find that people are a little better and a lot more mature than high school lets on.

I want to end with one of the key verses from the musical Hamilton: “In New York you can be a new man.” Make the most of it; do not throw away your shot!

What are you looking forward to in college? What are you nervous about? What are your experiences?

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Justin Robbins is currently interning with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation in Florida, where he works in the Wildlife and Habitat Management Program. He is a recent graduate of Tufts University, having double majored in biology and history. In addition to being an advocate for other autistic people, he enjoys modern board games, great worldbuilding, and truly awful puns.

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