Personal Accounts of Being a University Student with HFA/AS

Lotte (diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome)

My name is Lotte. I am studying German and Spanish at Manchester University; I'm 22; I support Everton FC; I like British comedy, all kinds of 'alternative' music (especially the Pogues, Hole, Tori Amos and System Of A Down), going to gigs, playing my guitar, anime and going to Jilly's Rockworld with mates; and I have Asperger's Syndrome. Here is my story. (It's a long one, soz.)

I was first diagnosed with Asperger's aged 10. I'd always been introverted, hypersensitive and didn't like playing with other kids, but when my father died back in 1993 when I was nine, I behaved in an odd way. I'd sit on the floor scratching my arm, and get panicky whenever my class had a stand-in teacher. I went to a child psychologist and was diagnosed. The signs had been there; I hated changes in my routine (such as my mum's annoying habit of rearranging furniture) and loud noises; I was always hiding in my room with a book; I didn't like parties; I had an incredible memory and could remember tracklistings of my parents' CDs; I was fascinated with things like Laura Ashley wallpaper; and I was very set in my ways. I did not, however, display some kind of prodigal aptitude for maths; music, languages and history were always my best subjects.

My dad's death aside, primary school wasn't too bad, as I had an extremely close friend, Helen (who I'm still in contact with to this day) who I spent a lot of time with. True, I did get picked on, but not that much. Then my mum moved up to Chester after meeting a guy who lived up there (and who would later become my stepdad), and I had to leave the town I loved (Brighton) and my friends behind. The change was very hard to deal with, and the next five years of high school were hell. I was bullied constantly about my looks, my weight, my clothes, my accent...I was the 'weird girl' in my year. I found making friends difficult, as I didn't know what to say or how to act, I was markedly different from the other kids as I didn't have a boyfriend and didn't like the stuff they did, and this resulted in me getting screwed over a fair few times by people I thought were my friends. In Year 8, I moved forms because I couldn't stand most of the kids in my class, and although I liked being on the other half of the year, the bullying didn't stop. In Year 9, I was suicidal and constantly thought of ways to kill myself (although I never acted on them); in year 10, I began to self-harm. To this day, I still do. I do it as a punishment, because I hate the way I am and am frustrated and angry with myself for not being 'normal'.

Because of the bullying and my low self-image, I also developed a violent temper. Me and my brother would often have physical fights where I'd scratch and slap him. I was constantly jealous of him because he was 'normal' and had loads of friends, whereas I had practically none. In Year 11, I was working on the school newspaper, and one day a load of kids from the year below came into the room and started yelling abuse at me because I got drunk at a party. I went a bit crazy and stabbed one of them with a pair of scissors. They left me alone after that.

Things got a little better in Sixth Form, except that I tried to become a part of the in crowd, and I had no idea just how I could become accepted. I'd dance with them in Love's (the only rock club in Chester, now closed down) and wonder why they all ignored me. I'd sit with them in the common room and feel alienated and sad because I just could not find the words. Eventually, one of them came up to me in the club and told me no-one liked me. I slapped him, ran out of the club crying and had to be calmed down by one of my friends. If my mum hadn't heard me crying and come downstairs when I got home, I would have gone straight into the kitchen and taken an overdose. I was also starting to come to terms with my sexuality; I lost my virginity to a random stranger in a club toilet, because everyone else in my year seemed to be having sex and I hated being left out. Looking back, I wish I hadn't been so stupid. I was also extremely jealous of my brother because he had a long-term girlfriend who, in my opinion, was being treated like a part of the family, and I couldn't deal with the fact that he was growing up faster than me. I'm not proud to admit I caused an awful lot of trouble for him at first. I was in a casual relationship with a close friend for a while, but he eventually had enough and it took me ages to get over it. I went through a phase of actively seeking (albeit not getting) sex in clubs, as I desperately wanted to be like my peers. I thought people saw me as this goody two shoes freak girl who spent all her time reading and never drank or did drugs or had sex, and I wanted to get rid of that image.

Probably the biggest challenge of my life has been going to university. I did all the things a new student is supposed to do, like join various societies - many of which have been great fun, particularly the LGBT, which helped me come to terms with my bisexuality - and my first year flatmates were lovely, although one of them kept making sarcastic remarks at me, which of course I didn't get. However, in my first year, I developed a major obsessive sort of crush on M, a Jewish man I'd met through the rock music society. I have had these obsessive feelings before, where I cannot stop thinking about the person, I want to be with them, I want to sleep with them, and I feel this incredible sort of ambivalence. Anyway, he and I ended up on a lot of the same committees in my second year, and we saw a lot of each other.

The second year of university was one of the worst years of my life. My obsessive feelings towards M were getting out of control; I wasn't getting on with my housemates, as we were all very stressed and I found them hard to deal with; my maternal gran was seriously ill; and my course, coupled with the amount of extracurricular stuff I was doing, began to stress me out. I was constantly self-harming. In January 2005, I tried to overdose on Syndol tablets, and called the counselling service. My counsellor told me to go on anti-depressants; I was diagnosed with depression and put on Lustral, which turned me into a shell of a person. A month later, my gran died, and after a quarrel with my housemates, I took an overdose. Subsequently, I had a breakdown and had to drop out of uni. I also started to have panic attacks, triggered by things like crowds and nasty atmospheres at uni. One day I walked into the Student Union, where a Middle East-related general meeting was taking place, and I ended up trying to asphyxiate myself with my bag strap. M comforted me; but a month later, I discovered he no longer wanted anything to do with me. Moreover, my housemates pretty much stopped speaking to me. It felt like things were never going to get better. I moved out of the house, for my own sanity, and decided to repeat the year.

So far, the year's been difficult. I've had anxiety attacks, I still self-harm - albeit not as regularly - and often wonder at times if there really is any point carrying on with my life. However, I am back at uni, and having cognitive behavioural therapy. Another thing that has really helped me is my conversion to Reform Judaism. Although I am ethnically Jewish, according to Jewish law (because of my mum's background), I need the education, and the Jackson's Row synagogue and my faith in G-d have given me a new sense of purpose and identity.

Various people have helped and supported me through my life, and I would like to thank Rob Taylor, Helen Burrow, Chloe Emmott, Gina Allnatt, Louise Sutcliffe, Elise Goodman, Sarah Khan, Paul Tacon, Amelia Lee, Sheryl Grant, Kat Dudley, Clare Quinn, Justine Hall, Jennie Bailey, my boyfriend Jon Martin and countless others, and especially my mum Claire for being there and putting up with my angstiness and erratic behaviour for all these years, and for helping me deal with the complications of university life. Bryan Coleman from the Disability Office, Maxine Powell from the German department and Jo Cooper from the counselling services were all helpful too, and without the help of them and others, I would have really struggled through my course.

To all of you who are reading this, DO NOT SUFFER IN SILENCE if you are having problems. It took me ages to admit that I was finding uni difficult. More and more people are being diagnosed with Aspergers these days, and you will be taken seriously. (I can honestly say that if you're at Manchester like me, you're lucky, as the disability department here are so helpful.) Do not let people try to define or shape you or make you conform to society's norms; you are an individual. Asperger's might not be curable, but there are ways of living with it, and ways to help you cope. If you want to email me or anything, my email is

Lotte Holmes

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