Today’s post will be breaking an unintended post drought as I am currently recovering from a burnout during my term at university and I’d like to talk about it in the hope that people will understand it a bit more. The following is written from the perspective of an autistic/ADHD student in the British university education system.
Firstly, I am going to give a brief summary of the UK university education system for the benefit of international readers. This system gives a lot of power to the student. For example, attendance isn’t monitored as strictly as lower down the education ladder. There are also less deadlines overall however the tasks are usually large and contribute larger percentages to your overall grade (ie. x2 2000 word assignment that are 25% of your total grade each, alongside an end of year exam). Exams are also longer and larger than lower down in the education system. Attendance and classroom participation generally is not factored into the overall mark towards modules whereas it is in other countries. In other words, it’s a very laissez-faire style of teaching.
Secondly, for those that don’t know, executive functioning is the ability for somebody to adequately function as a human, mainly revolving around organisation. From an autistic perspective, this mainly involves masking as a neurotypical which is very demanding for those on the spectrum. University is very demanding on executive functioning hence it can be quite difficult for autistic people. An autistic burnout is when this process fails and the autistic person starts regressing on their social skills and overall functioning as a person. This can be shown through tiredness, becoming disconnected from their surroundings and avoiding social interaction (even if it’s important). Other aspects include the deprioritisation of health & hygiene, social life, sleep, time for hobbies/passions or even the degree itself. Burnout also increases the chances of failing and having to drop out of university altogether. This is something that is not uncommon for autistic university students with the workload often overwhelming to the point where they have to drop out for the sake of their health.
In my case, it takes me forever to do my work. My attention span is all over the place as I am essentially learning to work by myself and concentrate which is something that is not often taught lower down in the education system. This especially applies if you go to sixth form rather than college. Social life being deprioritised is a double edged sword. On the bright side, this is a valid reason to avoid potentially overwhelming environments (parties). However, having to pass on attending society activities may mean missed opportunities to make memories/friends. Most of my fresher’s year was spent adjusting to doing assignments and not actually making many friends. This is only compounded by the other difficulties that occur by being autistic. Social skills can be built on in university as well as opens the potential for friendships with other autistic/neurodivergent students as well as international students or even future romantic partners (if interested!).
University is also a very important building block for learning independence skills. Learning to cook, wash, manage money etc. are all important and are also things that aren’t properly taught in school or even by parents/carers. Learning these skills are also demanding on executive functioning and may be more or less demanding than the academic side. There are possible solutions to help with this though – they include living at home and commuting to university daily as well as having preparation at home prior to going to university (even if that means delaying going to university in the first place!). Of course, this depends on the person. Others may wish to not go to uni at all and move straight into work or do something else.
Of course, this hasn’t doesn’t factor in support from universities. This varies widely around the country and the world. Things like mentoring and additional support from university services can literally make the difference between the student succeeding and failing. Mentoring can help with working out how to approach assignments or social situations. Getting the right accommodation for exams is also important which can include carrying them over from GCSE/A-levels. While I didn’t run into many issues, university services can and should aim to do better as not everyone will have a positive experience.
To conclude, burnout in autistic university students is something that exists and should not be underestimated. If you’re at university and you see an autistic student struggling with their degree then this is a possible reason why. This especially applies in the later years when the workload gets more demanding and they have to learn to adjust to this. In my experience I’ve managed to adapt as time has gone by but it is a constant battle. I have a couple of friends and am overall enjoying university.
That’s all for today. I hope to be back on a regular posting schedule soon.