Reflections from an Autistic Young Professional on High School to College Transition Mistakes

Senior year of high school is often the beginning of the transition between high school and college. People make plans for college, for apprenticeships, for management. My senior year was spent working part time and being done with school at 1:20pm. One of my classes was Physics AP. Physics was my love, and my senior year was my second year of physics and in that year I settled on wanting to be a scientist. This is not a story about how I became a scientist, but a chronicling of my college mistakes, and how they have affected me even ten years down the road.

I graduated from high school making minimum wage, but I didn’t let that deter me from independence from my family. The thought of being free to do as I pleased without feedback made me very happy. Had I had an autism diagnosis at the time, I probably wouldn’t have been so gung-ho about moving out, but nevertheless, I was glad to pay to be left alone, without constantly feeling depressed or having my decisions questioned.

Mistake Number One: Moving in with Friends

I moved in with a couple of friends about six months after I graduated. I was struggling financially for the first couple of months. My brother encouraged me to get a “grown up job,” and I started working as tech support for a call center. Although I was a good employee and the pay abled me afford my rent, I hated it. I was only working there for a few months before my roommates ultimately left me with a two-bedroom, two-bath duplex in the middle of the lease. This is apparently something that happens frequently. Don’t move in with your friends, kids. You don’t want to be sharing take-out with your dog because you ran out of dog food and your fridge is broken.

I decided to get out of that job I hated because I don’t like talking to people on the phone, and working at a call center wore me out day after day for forty hours a week. Since it had been driven into me that education would pave my way to more money, I started researching my school options.

Mistake Number Two: Not Understanding My Schooling Options

I learned about the years of graduate degrees required to be a scientist. A regular physics Bachelor’s degree probably wouldn’t get me anywhere in the science field, unless I wanted to be a teacher (which I didn’t). At that point in my life, I was working for $11/hour, and I realized that attending school fulltime would inhibit me from living independently or working, which were very important to me. I thought jobs were about money, not passion. I decided I needed a degree that could get me out of call center jobs, but I also needed to be able to work while I pursued that degree. I chose to study IT since it was a fast growing industry and I was already working tech support.

Then I fell for the predatory for-profit school advertising schemes for ITT Tech.

I continued on my school path for two years, one year at ITT Tech and another year at University of Phoenix Online. I didn’t feel like I was learning enough at either school to succeed in my career choice (IT Security). There was always something fishy going on during my classes at ITT Tech. Teachers were frequently late to class or didn’t care if you understood the material, and there were a few times that our teacher changed over the course of the class. Grading wasn’t taken that seriously, and I was getting ticked that I was spending so much money and not getting a quality education. University of Phoenix Online wasn’t any better because I can Google so well, and grading was done based on participation in forums. I wouldn’t know what to add that hadn’t already been typed up, and that proved more stress than it was worth. Two different times I made the tough decision to leave.

Mistake Number Three: Not Understanding How Expensive College is (and What Happens When You Quit)

Quitting school because I wasn’t learning was one of my lowest points. I understood that I was on the hook for thousands ($24,000, to be exact) and had nothing to show for it. I wish I had known the long-term burden of owing so much in student loans. I would’ve chosen to go to community college instead, since my credits aren’t transferrable anywhere. Plus I wasn’t really interested in IT Security and that was probably a factor in my struggles learning about it.

College itself isn’t scary, and a huge part of unsuccessful transitions from high school to college are because of the breakdown of routine and the sudden weight of responsibility. There are a lot of nuanced decisions involved with choosing to go to college, what to study, or when/if it’s time to quit (temporarily or not). It’s important to utilize as many resources as you can, including listening to people who can help with housing assistance, financial aid forms, work-study, etc. Always make sure you THOROUGHLY understand ALL of your options, as they will affect you for the rest of your life. Most importantly though, choose to study something you’re passionate about. I still remember basic equations and read about advances in science related to Physics. If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.

As for me, I’ve been out of school for six years, and I’m doing pretty well for myself. About two years ago, I found myself at a mental dead end, unable to progress in my job and not knowing what was stopping me. I went to a therapist and then a psychiatrist who diagnosed me as autistic, and I realized that my actions and way of speaking gave others a different understanding of me than I thought. I’ve always had a knack for writing, I became obsessed with educating myself about autism, and in turn, educating others about me. I’m a writer and editor now, and while I don’t have a lab coat or spend my days dreaming about the cosmos, I do something that I love.

Do you have a similar experience to share? How did you turn a hard time into something better? Let us know in the comments.

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Arianne Garcia is a Hispanic writer, activist, artist, and autism advocate. She was diagnosed at 25 with ADHD and autism. Unsatisfied with just educating herself, Arianne set up her own website to help others navigate the tricky communication bridge between autistic and neurotypical thinking and speaking. Arianne has written on numerous autism topics, such as Hispanics and autism diagnosis rates, hiring autistic people, suicidal ideation in autistic adults, amongst other things. Arianne‘s stress therapy includes sensory aides, music, and playing with Legos. Interested in her work? Visit her website: www.arianneswork.com

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