When we talk about acceptance, you might imagine a warm embrace saying you’re welcomed here, or we will include and support you. However, the process of self-acceptance, for me at least, was not always warm and loving, but difficult and at times painful.
Going away to college, I was very much aware I was different, even though I only had a partial diagnosis. I was aware I would need housing, academic, and environmental accommodations and received them. The college I was attending was near the mountains. Many students enjoyed hiking and skiing. I hoped this would result in being able to make more friends who shared my interests.
After attending a camp for incoming college students, I wrote in my journal, “I think I am going to need a lot more support in college than I originally thought.” Unfortunately, I ended up being correct. Throughout my freshman year, the gap between my peers and I increasingly widened. Academically I earned excellent grades. Sensory-wise, the large campus, city, and classes took a toll. My body was in a fight or flight mode and I did not sleep well for most of the year.
I was made aware when a class discussed consent that I was alone in feeling uncomfortable even thinking of the idea, while most of my peers at least seemed to have some experience or knowledge in that department. I went hiking during every football game; I couldn’t imagine trying to tolerate the stadium full of people after a week of class. Socially, I struggled to join group conversations. I felt younger than my age in some areas, but luckily made a few great friends. I was so excited to have a mountain to ski on, but the drive to the ski area with traffic was so mentally exhausting, that by the time I arrived I did not have much energy to enjoy it. My living skills, which were rocky to begin with, fell apart.
Wanting to get my diagnosis updated, in the middle of the year, I had a re-evaluation, (my first diagnosis was from preschool). Not only am I autistic, I also have dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, and am gifted. It was a lot to take in but not too surprising. Throughout the remainder of the year, my sensory system was on overload. I struggled to self-regulate. Although I have had many years of occupational therapy and was aware of my sensory needs and strategies to help, things still deteriorated.
I remember sitting in class and the professor was discussing the importance of doing an internship. I thought, how could I do an internship in the summer? I need the summer to rest and recover from my year. I was taking a full-time course load, living on my own at a large university. I made it through the year with all A grades. However my health, living skills, and sensory system deteriorated. I was beyond exhausted, became very sick and as a result, I could not go back to college the next fall.
With the updated evaluation, my year of college, and life experience up to that point, I was very aware of my strengths and challenges. For the first six months of my year off I had one goal only: to go back to my same college for school. My mindset began to shift from one of awareness of data, diagnoses, strengths, challenges, and possible supports to acceptance of what that would mean for me moving forward.
Some parts were easy to accept, such as discovering I could benefit from a service dog. Already a dog lover, this idea thrilled and excited me. Thankfully my parents were on board and currently, I have a service dog in training. Others were difficult. I was aware that if I wanted to try to live independently at college again, this would involve more support, such as a life skills coach. Although I was thankful these supports existed, it was difficult to envision my college experience needing more support than I thought I would. I knew going forward, I would also have to take fewer courses than what I imagined each term. I could take a couple in the summer to even it out if I wanted to. I also learned that to preserve my health, I might need to work less than full-time once I graduate. That was also difficult to accept.
Going into college I remember telling myself, “You’re smart so it will be OK, you will figure it out.” For the majority of the population, this may be true. However, because of unusually large discrepancies between areas of my IQ, I am almost always compensating in an area in order to perform at the level I am capable of. Compensation uses extra energy and time and takes a toll. Acceptance for me means understanding where I am at this moment in terms of my abilities, strengths, challenges, what I need, and learning to be OK with it, not compare my journey to others.
Acceptance does not mean I give up and say “oh well, at least I tried,” then proceed to hide in my parents’ basement for the rest of my life. It means I am striving to improve and do as much as I can while still preserving my health. It means I have to accept that in order to be able to do things I want and be healthy, I need support and accommodations. It also means realizing that at times I need to slow down and do things at the pace that is right for me. In college, I remember seeing my peers had part-time jobs — many on top of class — and were involved in clubs, in a sorority or fraternity and went to parties. I remember thinking all I did was a club and class and I got so exhausted, it wasn’t fair. It is not fair but it’s reality.
Part of acceptance was painful. I grieved some aspects of the life I had imagined or hoped to have while celebrating all I have accomplished. I had to stop comparing myself and accept I am neurodiverse, that there are things I can do they probably sometimes wish came as easily too. For me, self-acceptance meant no longer hiding behind my academic ability to dismiss the real challenges I face. It meant finding an environment, a program, a school that minimized environmental challenges, and had the support I needed. It also means beginning to learn to advocate for myself and explain what I need to others. It means learning to be OK with who I am and not to be embarrassed by my challenges, but proud of my strengths and the lessons I have learned, and my determination.
Although part of me wanted to go back to the same college, I was worried. There was not enough support for my challenges, the school is large, and many activities (except the outdoors) that are popular are anything but the ideal environment for me. Too much stress and my immune system could weaken again, causing me to become sick and possibly leading to more time off. After discovering a college support program, I realized that option would be the better choice moving forward. I will have the support I need to thrive in college and learn the skills I struggle with.
Awareness is very helpful, but without accepting where I was at and the support I needed, I could not have made this decision. I realize I am lucky to be able to have these options and am very excited to attend. Self-acceptance is not easy, it is a difficult process that I imagine will continue gradually throughout my life for different things. With any luck, the result will allow for me to live a life I desire, one where I utilize my strengths and preserve my health.