By Ron Sandison
The worst years of my life were attending middle school. I experienced severe bullying and had few friends due to my sensory issues. During my college years I was able to make friends and also excel academically. I will share eight tips that will help individuals with autism have a positive college experience.
#1 Choose your undergrad studies in a major you can be gainfully employed
Choose an undergraduate degree in a field you can make income after graduation and your Master’s degree in the field you are passionate about. As Denzel Washington said, “Do what you have to do, to do what you want to do.” Don’t choose a college or a degree where you will owe lots of money in student loans and may have a lack of financial means to repay those loans.
#2 Complete your general education credits at a local college before transferring to a university
You can save money by doing all your general classes at a community college. This will also help you to be prepared for college life and not be overwhelmed by a large university. One of the keys to my success in college was attending Michigan Christian College (MCC) now Rochester College for a year on an athletic scholarship for track and cross country before transferring to Oral Roberts University (ORU). MCC only had 300 students compared to ORU with 5,500. My GPA in high school was only 2.5. By attending MCC I was able to get my GPA up to 3.9 which qualified me for an academic scholarship to ORU. ORU had a set-tuition so my tuition never rose. I was able to complete seven years of college and obtain a Master’s degree and only owe $5,700.
#3 Before attending classes become familiar with the college campus and acquainted with the professors and students
For a young adult with anxiety issues a large university can be intimidating. I was scared to death to travel 950 miles away from home to go to college in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My dad helped make the transition smoother by traveling with me to ORU during the college weekend to meet the students and faculty. My first semester at ORU my parents helped me get my room setup, class schedule, find my classes, and connect with the Student Resource Center.
#4 If you live on campus choose a dorm that is an environment you feel comfortable to study and live in
Most college students can handle loud bass and music and students staying up all night long. I am not at all neurologically wired like that. My sophomore year at ORU I lived in the academic dorm. It was perfect; no loud noise, no pranks and great proofreaders and study partners. My junior and senior year, I lived on Remnant, a dorm known for its funny pranks, like catching a squirrel and letting it go in another dorm or putting superglue on toilet sets.
One night at about 3 am, I was awakened to the sounds of 2 Live Crew as my walls shaked from the blaring bass. My sensory issues began to go haywire. I ran down three flights of stairs to where the music was coming from wearing only my tight white underwear. In my pre-meltdown condition, I screamed at the 6 foot 4 college basketball player, “You must be lost this is ORU! The ghetto—T.U. is about 30 minutes due east!” The basketball player came aggressively towards me. Lucky for me a resident advisor was there to break up the skirmish.
My favorite sensory dorm incident occurred during college weekend. On a Friday night, I went to bed early at 10 pm so I could go for a run in the morning. Suddenly I heard a college weekend guest praying in tongues like a machine gun while banging on the walls. I came out of my room and said, “I am trying to sleep, can you please go and pray in the stairway or outside rather than near my room.” The college weekend guest glared at me and said, “Don’t let the devil use you like that to keep me from praying!” This college student didn’t know anything about autism or who he was dealing with. My honey-badger instincts took over. I screamed at him, “You don’t let the devil use you to keep me up or I’ll give you a holy fear of God that you will never forget.” Needless to say I did not hear another, “I want a Honda, Honda,” out of him.
#5 Take advantage of every available resource
My sophomore year of college, Michigan Rehabilitation Services donated money for me to purchase a $1,500 computer. I also received $1,200 a semester from them for tuition. When I was in Greek class I took advantage of unlimited testing time. Taking the test without time restraints enabled me to experience less anxiety and helped my mind to be able to process the information easier. (Editor’s Note: those with disabilities can often request accommodations when testing).
#6 Search for a roommate who is understanding of your autism quirks and sensory issues
My first year of my Master’s degree program I was still living in the dorms and we had big 6-foot-3 250-pound Dave Harden on our floor, a football player from Texas. He would not knock on our door but just burst it open and walk on in. I posted a sign on my door “Proverbs 25:17 Seldom set foot in your neighbor’s house too much of you, and they will hate you.”
Over a two-year period of time, Dave and I became best friends. In 2002, Dave’s American Heroes organization flew me to Washington, D.C. for an event celebrating the lives of the September 11 victims. During the event I met Muhammad Ali. Even though we were best friends I could never have Dave as a roommate. He drives me nuts!
During my six years of college while living in the dorms, I had had four roommates: James, Joel, Doug and Wes. I lucked out as I always had good roommates. James and I were roommates for three years. He was a quiet roommate and also focused on academics. Joel was a body builder and covered our walls with pictures of The Rock, Dwayne Johnson. When Joel was wrestler, he won the Body for Life contest. Doug and Wes were both from Michigan and quiet.
My friend Jonathon Garcia, unlike me, had the worst roommates in ORU’s history. His first roommate was nicknamed Computer Man. This freshman was like an owl awake all hours of the night playing video games and eating potato chips. Second roommate was Don Juan, a blonde chick magnet from California. Every hour of the day woman were calling their room to chat and receive relationship advice. I think Jonathon did not like this roommate because he wished the girls were calling him instead. At ORU there were five girls for every one guy.
The final roommate made all the previous ones appear as saints. His nickname was Tighty Whitie Underwear Man. He had just finished four years in the Armed Forces and had a military grant to attend ORU. After he finished his classes, he would strip down to just his tightie whities and sit on his bed never leaving the room. When Jonathon invited his friends to come over and watch the Houston Astros or Rockets, there was his roommate sitting on top his bed wearing only his tightie whities. His roommate was the original Captain Underpants, only he was no super hero.
#7 Find a mentor
One of the things that empowered me to transition from college to employment was having a mentor. Oral Roberts said, “Success without a successor is failure.” A mentor can be a professor, roommate, friend, co-worker or fellow college students. Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”
A mentor does not have to be present. They can be an inspiration from afar like a famous author or person. I recommend to young adults with autism to read books on autism and Asperger’s written by authors who are on the spectrum and become an expert themselves. Temple Grandin’s books are a great resource to learn more about autism and Asperger’s. Some books I would recommend of hers include: Thinking in Pictures, Different Not Less and Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships.
#8 Enjoy the journey
The college years can be some of the best for those on the spectrum. Unlike high school, in college you can choose classes which interest you and students are more accepting of your quirks. It is easier to find other students who also like your special interests or hobbies.
I hope you share your tips with The Art of Autism in the comments below.
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is a Board Member with The Art of Autism and an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.
He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron on his website spectruminclusion.com or email Ron at Sandison456@hotmail.com.