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Tips for Autistic Students: Navigating College Breaks

Tips for navigating college breaks for students who have autism. In college, holiday and semester breaks usually come at the end of intense activity, such as studying for midterms or finals. They’re an important time to take a well-deserved breather and to recharge. Plus, breaks often include plenty of opportunities to catch up with family and friends. For some of you, breaks also mean a significant disruption to the routines you’ve established. Sometimes, the uncertainty around such transitions can cause stress or anxiety. This post can help you plan for the unexpected and fully enjoy your downtime.

You may have just begun to feel settled in your new college habitat or routine. Whether you’re living in a new place or attending from home, semester and holiday breaks mean you’re about to embark on a month-long stint away from your routine. This can feel overwhelming. You may be wondering how to navigate your thoughts and feelings related to this transition, how to keep in touch with new friends, and how to handle any anxiety or negative feelings that may occur. Maybe you’re not going home for the holiday or college break, and you plan to spend the time in your new environment. Or, perhaps you already live at home but you’ll be altering your routine to make more time for other plans. That can be stressful, too. Thankfully, there are many tips that can help you ease into your college break and let go of some transitional stress.

Ease into your holiday break and let go of some transitional stress.

One thing to keep in mind no matter where you end up—be it a friend’s house, your family home, or a relative’s place—is that if you begin to feel overwhelmed by the new environment or sudden transition, you should look for a quiet place to gather your thoughts. Don’t worry about exiting a stressful situation and seeking a solitary spot to calm yourself. Find an empty bedroom, go outside, take a walk. It may also be a good idea, if you’ll be in a completely unfamiliar environment, to create an “exit plan” for yourself. Ask your friend or relative in advance if there is a quiet place you can go if you begin to feel overwhelmed or upset. Just knowing you have options to exit a potentially uncomfortable or distressing situation can relieve tension.

If you’re opting to stay on campus or you’re living at home during the holidays, it’s still a good idea to follow a daily routine. This could mean setting consistent wake-up and bed times. Or it could mean ensuring you’re eating each meal at a scheduled time every day. Following a routine will not only alleviate stress associated with uncertainty, but will also help you transition back to your regular school routine.

Schedule some social activity during this time so that you can combat any feelings of isolation or loneliness. If you’re planning to stay on campus, schedule a video chat with family or friends. If you’re living at home, it will probably be easier to socialize. You’ll already be among family and friends, but it’s still important to remember to schedule social activities into your day. This way, you can control the amount and duration.

Remember that the holidays and semester breaks are a busy time. While they’re often full of planned fun and excitement, those plans can change. If you feel triggered by a sudden change of plans, it’s important to develop a “coping plan” that can help you mitigate some of that stress. This can be anything from taking some deep breaths, to finding a quiet place to lie down, to going for a short walk. Be prepared for any changes by packing items such as snacks, entertainment, and medications, as well as items that are a part of your everyday routine. For dining, it’s a good idea to bring along some food you know you enjoy. That way, you can alleviate any stress associated with trying new things. For your “coping plan,” it might be helpful to make a list of all the things you need on a daily basis so you don’t accidentally forget anything.

What are some ways you’ve successfully dealt with college breaks or holidays in the past? Join the conversation.

If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, read our page on Mental, Physical, and Emotional Well-being. We also have a Discussion Section for Mental, Physical, and Emotional Well-being, where you can interact with members of our community. If you are or someone you know is in immediate danger, please contact a trusted family member, friend, or advisor right away. Or, reach out to a suicide prevention hotline. You can also text intervention and suicide prevention hotlines.

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Chelsea Harris
Chelsea Harris has appeared in The Portland Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The Fem, Minola Review and Grimoire, among others. She co-runs a zine and reading series in Bellingham, WA called Wallpaper Magazine. Chelsea received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago. You can find her work here: chelseamarieharris.tumblr.com/writing

1 Comment

  1. Love this post. I rent from my family and commute to university (and lately with being in the dissertation writing and ethics stage I’ve been working a lot out of my home office this semester/to change in the new year when I collect data). Some things I find help for me with the holidays are:

    -Spread events out and not have a whole bunch of days of social activities together and allow days just for ‘zoning out” and catching up on rest.

    -Limit number of people at holiday gatherings and have 2-3 smaller gatherings spaced apart

    -Visit long distance friends online via Facebook, Skype and Second Life and stay in touch

    -Limit time at events to 3-4 hours or less and advocate to be able to go off on my own when tired (I sometimes start to lose my verbal skills after several hours of socialization and signs I notice are using wrong words, struggling to make choices or answer questions, and slowing of speech/movement in an unnatural way)

    -Choose gifts for friends and family based on picking something personal rather than it having to be something crazy expensive. Put messages on cards of memories of the year and capture photos and videos of everyone having fun and sometimes make experiences gifts (e.g. a cookie bake, a shared game for a family, a trip to a theme park in the new year)

    In this case I love the holidays but I’m also even more excited about January as I get to begin collecting data sometime in the new year. I tend to function really well and thrive in academic environments and I find my autism more of a challenge in casual social situations and conversations but I do appreciate a break.

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