- In my first few weeks at UCLA, I attended parties and burned myself out academically.
- Five weeks into my freshman year, I had to return home because I got mono and exhausted myself.
- I realized that to succeed at UCLA, I need to live authentically as an autistic person.
I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when I was 18 months old, but I didn’t find out until I was 13. My parents grew up in an era when autism was less understood, and they worried the label would negatively define me.
When I learned about my diagnosis, I hid it from most people and tried my best to blend in with my peers. But when I got accepted to my dream school, UCLA, and struggled during my first few months, I realized I have to live my life as an authentic autistic person.
I regret thinking there was something wrong with me when I found out about my diagnosis
When I was growing up, it was challenging to keep up with the complexity of social dynamics. I eventually hit a breaking point. When I got into a fight with my friend after I missed a social cue, my mom knew it was time to tell me the truth: I’m autistic.
I grew up with media portrayals of autistic people as socially inept geniuses. When I found out I was autistic, I had to live in the shadow of that image. I internalized the idea that my autism is a bad thing.
I hid my autism diagnosis from my teachers and peers in hopes of not being viewed as “weird.” I leaned into my social life, burning myself out with sports and extracurriculars.
When I was writing my college essay for UCLA, I was able to analyze the reality of my diagnosis for the first time. The roots of self-acceptance were in there somewhere. I predicted that if I tried to live authentically as an autistic person, I’d succeed in college — but if I continued masking and trying to prove myself as “normal,” I’d crash and burn.
When I got to UCLA, I ignored my own advice — I crashed and burned 5 weeks into my first year
My first few weeks at UCLA felt like I’d been shot out of a cannon. I was talking to what felt like a thousand people a day. I exchanged sleep and self-care for going out and partying — mostly because I felt like I should. It wasn’t even that fun because I had to spend half of my energy reading everyone’s nonverbal cues at 2 in the morning.
Because of my autism, I qualified for accommodations, like testing in a private room, access to a transcription tool, and breaks during class. I didn’t use them. Any route that allowed me to receive special treatment in classes made me feel like a failure.
I opted to burn myself out socially and academically rather than engage the world authentically.
And then the bill came due. I got a severe case of mono a few weeks into my freshman year. I couldn’t keep up, so I had to leave UCLA and return home.
My greatest fear that my autism would lead to social isolation came true
For two months I watched as the relationships I’d sacrificed so much of myself for continued without me. It was unbearable to scroll through social media and witness my new college friends go to sports games and parties while I was isolated at home.
The worst part was that all of this was a result of my own choices. Getting sick was a message from the universe that what I was doing was not working. Even worse, my actions were damaging my body. I realized this didn’t happen because I’m autistic; it happened because I pretended I was not.
I realized I had to choose between holding on to the image of success I’d cultivated or being successful at this school.
When I returned to UCLA the following quarter, I admitted to myself that I needed academic accommodations. I also opened up to my TAs and professors about my diagnosis. I procured extensions on a few key assignments and hired an accessibility aide to help manage my schedule. I used a productivity technique known as body doubling, working alongside an accountability partner.
With the help of all these services, I maintained a cumulative 3.8 GPA and was accepted into the UCLA honors program this year.
I also made it my mission to take better care of myself. I made sure to get at least seven hours of sleep. I went out less and focused on my close friends. I did this primarily for my health, but it ended up allowing me to engage with the world more authentically — and more autistically.
As I finish up my freshman year, I know my journey to self-acceptance is ongoing
I still have a voice insisting I should act more like my peers by focusing harder and going out more — even though I know that doesn’t work for me. But I’m proud that I’m developing the discipline to resist that voice, and I’m proud to sacrifice the image of normality for a healthier lifestyle.
When I learned I was autistic, I thought that meant I was weird, and weird meant “wrong.” I dedicated much of my adolescence to trying my hardest not to be. But as my college experience began to unfold, I started to accept that I am autistic — not weird. And my life is all the better for it.