First transitions

The Person Inside

The first semester at a vast university such as UC Berkeley is hard for most students. We all fear the unknown, which brings about its own set of anxious thoughts. When you factor in my type of autism challenges, the process is even more nerve-racking.

We autistics fundamentally have difficulty with handling transitions. A transition is like a doorway: The other side is full of potential unknowns, and our unpredictable autism bodies may not cooperate with us even if we have crossed this doorway before. It’s the idea of change itself in addition to the actual change that comprises transition. The doorway latches on to our anxiety.

As a child, I really did have a problem entering a building or a classroom. Even now, I rush through physical doorways. The metaphorical doorways for me now are the transitions that occur in everyday life, at college, at home and especially during travel. Interactions with people, trying new food, navigating the campus walkways and buildings all involve crossing a doorway.

Last fall, a day before Golden Bear Orientation, or GBO, the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, had thoughtfully organized its own all-day event at Zellerbach Auditorium. But within half an hour of the program, I was completely overwhelmed at the thought of all the transitions I would potentially have to face. I rushed out and sat in the lobby for almost two hours before attempting to go back in.

GBO was a hectic eight-day program with events and discussions that often started at 9 a.m. and ended at 11 p.m. I was surprised that I was able to handle most of them as well as I did. I think what helped was that I was able to return to Zellerbach Auditorium that first day, even if I had to miss two hours, rather than give up and go home — that gave me confidence.

I had to stand in line outside Memorial Stadium for more than three hours on the first day of GBO, but I still went in. The incoming class was breaking the Guinness World Record for the largest human letter C. The systematic immersion at GBO helped prepare me for the semester.

Then came the first day of classes. I was in Psychology C19: “Drugs and the Brain,” which is a popular class — there must have been about 800 students in Wheeler Auditorium that day. I was a nervous lone figure right at the back, very close to the exit, ready to bolt anytime. But at the same time, part of me was absolutely thrilled to be there.

There is really no other way of handling transitions than systematic desensitization — repeatedly walking through the doorway and thinking through the steps before going in to reduce that unknown factor.

I sat in the same seat at the back of Wheeler Auditorium for nearly half the semester before moving up row by row. I made it all the way to the fourth row by the end of the semester.

I also realized that a large class offered lots of anonymity, which was a perfect cover for my offbeat autism mannerisms. There was enough ambient sound to cover any noise I was making. I actually ended up really liking Wheeler Auditorium. It is also quite thrilling to be learning in a classroom that held a Nobel Prize Ceremony.

The first semester of college was tough, with its innumerable transitions, and it took a lot of kickstarts to get me going. I had introduced myself to my professors via email but it took me more than half the semester before I physically made it to their office hours just to say “Hi.”

Taking anticipatory steps when possible really helped me. For instance, I worried about how a nonverbal individual like me would participate in a debate during one of my discussion sections. But I finally took on the role of delivering the opening statement for my team — that way, I could prepare ahead of time and let the text-speech app on my iPad be my voice.

My exams are at a different testing site and in a room that was unfamiliar to me. DSP Proctoring took note of my concern and let me preview the exact room at Moffitt Library a few days prior to my first midterm. They also made sure that I was given that same room for all my exams last semester.

Life is going to be full of transitions for us autistics. The only way to move forward is to proactively seek transitions. This semester, I have sought new doorways — writing this opinion column for The Daily Californian, for example, also entails attending staff meetings and editing sessions. I hope I can continue to attempt more doorways and become more at ease in stepping outside my comfort zone.

Hari Srinivasan writes the Thursday column on his experience as a nonspeaking autistic student. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @HariSri108.