Personal Accounts of Being a University Student with HFA/AS

Diane, diagnosed with autism:


I am a high-functioning autistic female who was a classic "Kanner-type" autistic at the age of 3 and was diagnosed, but was kept in the regular public school system without any special education and managed to do just fine (at least academically) after 4th grade. I also wasn't told of my autism as a child and didn't get a diagnosis until the age of 37, after I had been working 12 years and 4 years after getting my master's degree. So until that age, I was always wondering why I had such trouble socially and just attributed it to a bad childhood.

Below is a summary of my experiences at college. I will write the most on my experiences in the university, but will also write something at the other places I attended school after high school as well as the decision process to go to the university.

Deciding What I Was Going To Do After High School

During high school, I never had any idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I differed from everyone else I knew in this respect because it seemed that everyone else had goals and knew what they wanted to do after they graduated from high school. An aunt in Toronto asked my dad if I could come live with her after I graduated and attend a secretarial school and my dad asked me and I said "Yes" because I had never been to Toronto before and it sounded like an adventure living in a new place. Besides I had never lived in a place where it snowed before and I wanted to experience that.

Since everyone in my family is college educated, I did sense an expectation that I would also eventually go to college. However, at that age, I had no idea of what I would do in a university. I agreed to go to the secretarial school just because it was something to do, and I looked forward to the idea of living in a new place. Also I had taken typing and shorthand in high school and had done very well at those.

Shaw College, a Secretarial School in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
>From Sept. 1978 to Dec., 1979

Here, I took additional typing and shorthand classes and also took an accounting class. I also took a Psychology class (the teacher of that class had a very good sense of humor) and a Personal Development class, where you learned about makeup, how to dress, etiquette, and similar things. I did very well in all my classes (getting over 90%, classes were graded on a 0-100% scale). I remember a certain teacher I had (although I don't remember the name of the class he taught) who always got off the subject of what he was supposed to be teaching, but when he did what he talked about was interesting. This teacher was also into computers and had a Commodore Pet computer that you programmed by typing in Basic and running it. One day, he had each person in the class write a simple program. I remember how difficult programming was for the first time, but I was able to figure out how to write the program. I can't remember if I actually ran the program on his computer, but I do remember writing it. I do know I saw the teacher type in a program and run it on the computer. It was the first Pet computer made by Commodore and had large green text on its monitor. (Incidentally, this computer was not part of the official class curriculum but another one of the teacher's diversions, but I think it was a good exposure to computers for the class members, considering how widely used computers are today).

At Shaw College, there were a couple of girls I ate lunch with regularly. I remember eating lunch with one Asian girl every single day, and I remember making a very big effort to keep a conversation going, and actually must have been successful because she continued having lunch with me. However, I never really enjoyed it, and it never got any easier keeping a conversation going, yet I didn't want to eat alone so I kept eating with her. Sometimes I would ride home with her on the subway as well, since she went in the same direction I did. I also remember being invited to eat out a few times with another girl and for a while we ate lunch out every Friday. The girls at that college treated me well, and no-one teased me (unlike high school where I was teased a lot and no-one would hang out with me). However, I wasn't able to feel a real deep attachment with anyone. Still, I think those experiences of eating with those girls, and also socializing with other girls there was positive.

I finished the Secretarial program after 9 months and took the summer off. In Sept., 1979, I went back to Shaw College, and took classes towards a Business degree. I only had to attend classes one more quarter to qualify for a Business degree, so I completed the Business degree that quarter.

During the time I lived in Toronto, my aunt made most of my decisions for me, such as what I would take at the college. She had planned on having me attend another community college in that area to take computer programming, because she thought I would be good at it, however, from what she told me, the Canadian immigration said that I had to leave, so I moved to live with my aunt in Ventura, California.

I must say that I loved the city of Toronto. I loved the subway, all the shopping centers, the "Mac's Milk" stores where I would often stop to buy gumballs for 5 cents, etc. My aunt would send me out shopping on Saturdays to buy clothes for myself, and I would be free to look around the shopping center while I bought my clothes. I remember my aunt pretty told me what to do each day, but she allowed me to do enough fun things that I did have a good time.

Ventura College, a community college
>From Jan., 1980 to June, 1982

I moved here to live with another aunt who lived across the street from a community college. The town, Ventura, was about 30 miles away from the town where I grew up, so it was not unfamiliar to me. I remember that I started out taking general-education courses, so that I could use them towards a university degree later. However, I still had no clear idea of what I wanted to do. After I had been attending classes there for about a year (I think, I don't know exactly how long), I just decided that I wanted to go into computers. This decision was mostly intellectual, and a big reason I made it was that I had been hearing that computers were a good career choice since more and more things were being computerized (no-one was telling this directly to me, but I guess I heard this stuff in the media and from people talking to each other). In retrospect, it was just about the best choice I could have made because I have done pretty well in the computer field considering I'm autistic, and I would be a lot less financially secure today if I had not gotten an engineering degree of some sort.

Once I decided to get a computer science degree, I signed up for a programming course each semester (in addition to the general education classes I was taking). First, I took a beginning Cobol class, the next semester I took an advanced Cobol class, and next, I took a Fortran class. (Nowadays, those languages are hardly used at all). I did all my programming on an HP 3000 (they didn't have PC's in those days) which consisted of a mainframe computer hooked up to several terminals. I remember being very nervous about learning a computer for the first time, and needing to learn about saving files, compiling programs, and running them. One thing I remember so well was my amazement when I learned that the beeps I heard was the computer beeping at me (the computer lab manager taught me that I was making it beep). Once I discovered I could make the beeps occur, I would deliberately make it beep. That is a little detail, but it caused me great amazement.

The computer lab manager would often help me fix bugs in my program, or help me print, etc. Later on, he got fired, and I wasn't as comfortable with the person who replaced him, but I managed to still complete my assignments on my own. I started running into him at church (my aunt is a devout Catholic and I always attended church with her) and he asked me out on a date. We became boyfriend and girlfriend (this happened about a month before I moved to Santa Barbara to go to the University) and continued to see each other until I graduated from the university in 1985.

Socially, I had no friends at all at Ventura College. However, I was very active in the church's young adults group, which had prayer meetings every Wednesday and some social activity most weekends. I actually became friends with a woman in that group and often went to her house to visit with her (she was a single mother with two young children). Today I regret that I haven't kept in touch with her and will probably try to contact her some day. Some of the people in that group weren't too crazy about me, yet they would still invite me to the group's parties, and there was a group of four girls (ages ranging from 16 to 30) who were very close friends and often went out to dinner, and they would often include me. So I also saw a lot of those 4 girls (although I know one of them didn't like me at all). I wasn't really comfortable with them, since they were really feminine-type girls who liked to dress nicely and do their hair, but looking back I do appreciate that they included me, and realize today what a nice gesture that was. I realize now that I was really lucky to have that group in my life (even though I did have my conflicts with some of the members), and that if it wasn't for them I would have had no friends.

UC Santa Barbara, part of the University of California
>From Sept., 1982 to June, 1985
Got my BS in Computer Science

1982-1983, my first year
In Sept., 1982, I moved from my aunt's place in Ventura to the UCSB dorm in Santa Barbara. This was the first time I lived completely on my own. My dad was still paying my way through college, but I was still living on my own, away from any of my relatives. I had a roommate, which was a very scary experience for me since I had never had any girls as friends before and didn't know any very well. I remember my first days there, I was very anxious, and I don't think my roommate and I talked very much. I remember my roommate was a girl from a close-knit family and was an only child. She was very close to her mother and was what you might call a "goody-two-shoes" type, but I don't mean that in a negative way (or I might say the type of girl who remains a virgin until she married and doesn't do drugs). She was majoring in English, but her main goal in life was to get married and raise a family. She tended to be quiet but she was nice to me and we ate breakfast and dinner together. However, I never felt I had much in common with her because we came from such different types of families and I had no interest in having children and couldn't understand why someone would want them.

I really enjoyed living in the dorms, because they prepared your food for you and I liked the food. You got breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and could walk to all your classes. (When I graduated from college and had to move out of the dorms and prepare my own food, that was a hard adjustment for me).

I found the first few months of college exciting. Even though I didn't really make friends, I enjoyed the college atmosphere and I enjoyed people playing music loud because I often liked the songs they played (I liked rock'n'roll). I also liked having lots of people around, it made me feel less lonely, although it was kind of stressful having someone in my room all the time. I was still friendly with a few people in my classes (mostly guys, although none of them asked me out).

During my first year of college, I spent a lot of time with my "boyfriend", the man I started seeing in Ventura just before I moved up to Santa Barbara. He was ten years older than me and not handsome. I wasn't that attracted to him but continued to see him my whole time in college because that was the only way to have a guaranteed social life (I realize today that wasn't a nice thing to do, but he did meet my needs at the time). Also, looking back, it was a good thing I just stuck with him at college rather than possibly dating guys, because the emotional upsets that come so often with dating (such as waiting for the guy to call, breakups, etc.) would have had a bad effect on my studies. Since he lived in Ventura, we went down there most weekends, and some weekends he would come up to my dorm and sleep on the floor in our room (my roommate didn't mind). We would often go out to fast food together, which I enjoyed, and we also ate a lot of sweets. I never had sex with him the whole time I was seeing him, but sometimes we would engage in heavy petting, but always with our clothes on.

Around the middle of my first year of college, I started to have a hard time being around my roommate (I had always been jealous of her because of her good relationship with her mother and also her nice hair. She was really pretty). One night, I told her things like "What if I cut off your hair in the middle of the night" and things like that (I never actually intended to do that, though). She got really scared and spent the night in another girl's room, and the next morning asked if I would switch rooms with this girl (her friend lived in a single room). I reluctantly agreed, although I would have preferred that I stay in the room and have her switch with her friend. However, it was a good thing I moved to the single room, because, looking back, having a roommate and always having to interact with her was too much for me. Looking back now, I understand why my roommate was scared and understand that, for all she knew, I was going to do physical harm to her. Although at the time I couldn't understand why she was scared (the realization has come years later).

Around the time I split up with my roommate, an adult friend of hers that we both knew recommended a therapist for me and I asked my dad if I could see him and he said "Yes". I had sought counseling at the university counseling center but the counselor didn't ever tell my anything helpful. This friend of hers told me that my problems ran very deep due to my bad relationship with my mother, and that is why the school counselor couldn't help me, and the therapist she was recommending specialized in helping people work through severe childhood issues like mine. So this is when I started seeing the therapist that I continued to see for the next 10 years. He also agreed that my childhood was causing my problems and agreed that I had a bad relationship with my mother (the fact that I was autistic never occurred to him). However, having someone to talk to and expressing my feelings about my family and about other problems in my life did help me at the time and I did feel a lot better. As I continued to see him, I was much better able to handle my feelings. (Interesting that he was able to help me, even though he didn't realize the root cause of my problems. However, I continued to see him long past the point that he could help me, because I thought if I continued to work on my childhood issues I would be able to learn to make friends).

As far as my schoolwork went, some of it was pretty challenging, but I got mostly A's. I took two programming courses in Pascal, and the programs they had us write were much bigger and did much more than the programs I wrote at the community college, but I caught on quickly. The first programming class increased the size of each programming assignment, so I didn't get overwhelmed. I also had to take math classes (calculus and linear algebra-type math). I often found math frustrating, and if I couldn't solve a math problem I would often bite myself (I had bit myself when I was frustrated from as early as I could remember). However, I still managed to get A's in my math classes, although I would often get frustrated doing the homework.

I took only 12 units (3 classes) a quarter, whereas most students in my major (computer science) took 16 units, and some took 20 units (12 units was the minimum that the school considered a full-time load). I also never worked, whereas many of the other students had part-time jobs as well. I now realize that it was probably related to my autism that I had to take such a light load, relative to other students, and still not work, because I really needed to focus on the classes I was taking.

When the summer came, I was able to find a full-time job doing typing for the summer. This allowed me to continue to see my therapist (and pay for him out of my earnings) and stay in Santa Barbara for the summer. I was able to rent a room in an apartment for really cheap because a lot of students who leased apartments would sublet their rooms when they moved out in the summer. I was able to get my own room in an apartment that I shared with a couple of other girls. This went really well, and I actually got along pretty well with one of the girls. She was pretty nice to me. I don't remember much about the other girl who stayed in that apartment. I think she was gone a lot.

1983-1984, my second year
This year I lived in the junior/senior dorm. I started out sharing a suite with 3 other girls (the dorm had suites that consisted of two bedrooms and a living room). The 3 other girls I ended up with were already really good friends the previous year and had asked to be put together again. This arrangement went very badly from the start. The girl who I shared a room with was very quiet and never talked with me at all. Only one of the girls in the other room would ever talk with me (we got along alright at first, but even that relationship was strained soon). After about a month I asked to be put into a single room, and they were able to get me one (I guess they found a girl in a single room who was willing to trade places with me). Once again, being in a single room worked out very well for me since I didn't have the continuous stress of having to interact with people. However, I never got to know any of the other girls who were living in the single-room area.

Class-wise, this year was very much like the last year, with challenging classes, yet I still got mostly A's. I continued to take 12 units a quarter. This is the year I learned C and started taking upper division computer-science courses where all coding had to be done in C. Around the spring of this year, I somehow made the decision that I wasn't going to bite myself anymore and I actually was able to stick with that decision, for the most part, to this day. When I got frustrated, I would refuse to bite myself, although I didn't really do anything else to take its place.

I started group therapy this year (my therapist was starting a therapy group). This group therapy didn't go badly (I don't know how much I got out of it), but I probably got some benefit from it since I had to chance to discuss my problems with people in the group and get feedback. Two very positive things came out of group therapy: 1) There was a dentist in the group who I started to see, and continued to see him until I left Santa Barbara in 1993 (he was an excellent dentist, probably the best in town) and 2) I met a man who was working at Delco Electronics, one of the largest companies in Santa Barbara and a couple miles from the university, and he got me an interview for a programming summer job. I actually got the job! I was lucky to have met the man who very lucky to have met him because it was hard even for the non-autistic computer-science students to get programming summer jobs, and without him I surely wouldn't have found a summer job.

The summer, I spent at the summer job at Delco Electronics that I had gotten that spring. This job paid twice as much as the previous summer's typing job. Of course, the work wasn't that interesting (my job was to update and correct the comments in source code and type in source code changes for engineers), but a lot of summer jobs aren't that interesting, and it was still good experience. I sublet another room in a duplex where about 6 girls were living. I shared a room with an Asian girl who had been adopted as an infant by American parents. This girl was very nice to me and actually wanted to do things with me. She asked if I wanted to see a movie with her. Yet, I turned her down (to this day, I regret turning her down, I should have agreed to do things with her. I now realize how rare it is to have a person seek out your company like that). I had no problems sharing the room with her, but I did feel uncomfortable that there were 4 other girls living in the house and I never felt comfortable with those other girls.

1984-1985, my third year
This year I started out in a single room in the upper-division dorm I stayed in last year. I was friendly with a couple of the other girls in the single room hall this year (one of the girls actually showed me how to put on makeup for one of my interviews).

This year, I was seeing very little of my "boyfriend". I was starting to lose interest in seeing him and was wanting to just do things on my own. He had also been unemployed most of the time I was at the university, and had real trouble holding a job (I now think he also had Asperger's syndrome).

This was the year I had to find a permanent job, so a lot of my energies were spent preparing for interviews. The one company I really wanted to work at was Hewlett-Packard because they had such a good reputation as being a good company, and I had done a lot of reading on them and really wanted to work there. Another company I would have liked to work at was Tandem Computers (I had read about it in "100 Best Companies To Work For In America" and it sounded like a wonderful place to work). I attended the seminars put on by both Hewlett-Packard and Tandem Computers so I could learn about what these companies were looking for. When I interviewed on campus with Tandem Computers, the interview went extremely badly (I seemed to stumble on everything I tried to say, and the lady who interviewed me also wasn't very nice). I got a rejection letter from them soon afterwards. However, when I interviewed on campus with HP, the guy who interviewed with me was very nice and I felt very comfortable with him. He asked me a couple of technical questions that I found easy and was able to answer. He also asked me some general interview questions.

I must have done pretty well because I got invited to interview on-site in Palo Alto! For this interview, I flew up to Palo Alto (at HP's expense) early that morning, rented a car, and drove to the site. I was extremely nervous during the whole interview and wasn't at all comfortable. The main reason I was so nervous was that I really wanted to work at HP and I knew that was my only chance and I didn't want to blow it. Five different people interviewed me. I was able to answer all the technical questions they gave me, but I must have appeared nervous to them, because the Monday following the interview, they called me and told me I didn't get the job, due to my poor interpersonal skills. They told me I did well technically, but they couldn't hire me because I didn't communicate well. I was very upset and cried for a while.

I also did site interviews at AT&T in Denver and Burroughs in Santa Barbara, and didn't get job offers for either of those jobs.

The only job offer I was able to get was with Delco Electronics, where I had worked the previous summer (most of the other computer science students got around 5 job offers). If I hadn't gotten the summer job with that company the previous summer and gotten my foot in the door, with my poor social skills and interviewing skills, it would probably have taken me months to find a job.

Graduation day was pretty disappointing for me. Everyone I knew was having huge celebrations and having lots of friends to celebrate with. They were also exchanging phone numbers and addresses with each other. However for me, I only had my father and his wife, my brother, and my aunt in Ventura and the aunt who raised me attend, and we had a small party at my aunt's house in Ventura afterwards. It was very anti-climactic. I was also sad, because I had loved the university life-style. I loved setting my own schedule to do studying (I was often able to arrange my classes so that I would be all done with classes by the early afternoon), so I felt I had a lot of freedom. I also loved living in the dorms and having all my food prepared for me. I knew I would have to start a full-time job soon where I would be expected to work from 7:30 to 4 every day. When I studied, I would take very frequent breaks and often would walk to a favorite liquor store to buy peanuts and a Coke to enjoy while I studied (that store also had a very fat cat that I would pet and pick up every time I visited. This cat frequently hid underneath the soda refrigerator and I would often see just a piece of the cat sticking out from under it). Working full time would mean giving all that up, getting a room in a house (apartments are very expensive in Santa Barbara), and preparing all my own food and doing all my grocery shopping and working 8 hours a day, 40 days a week. (However, on the bright side, I would have weekends free, and wouldn't have to study for tests).

Diane's master's degree

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