Many students find meeting new people and making friends amongst the most exciting but also most difficult aspects of starting university. Naturalist and University of Lincoln visiting professor Chris Packham shares his own experience of attending university with Aspergers Syndrome.
“I expected to be able to easily get involved in societies, and found myself hiding in my room out of fear of meeting new people. From the moment I got here I wanted to be in the Labour Club. I turned up to one meeting, and despite meeting very friendly and chatty people, I spent the entire time judging myself, wondering if I was doing it right, questioning whether I was convincing people I was ‘normal.” (Chris, former student)
Making friends can be tricky for anyone and at any time, but the first semester at university is a big period of change and adaptation and the social and routine-based aspects of autism can make things a little bit harder. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but as with so many things, it can just take a bit more work for autistic people and it’s easy to avoid getting on with it. Knowing how to meet new people is a great way to start.
“The first thing to remember about making friends during your first term at University is that you are not alone. We were all once at the stage where we felt that we were the only people struggling to make friends. This was particularly the case for me as I have Asperger Syndrome, which is a form of autism. This basically means that I have problems with socialising and making friends. Despite the challenges this presented me with, I now have a good number of friends.” (James, former student)
How could this affect me?
“Most leisure time is spent drinking. Whilst this is not high school, I am no longer able to stand out from the crowd by doing work. There is a constant rush and stress. Finding friends is difficult – in addition to having my difficulties in social situations, people don’t want to chat – I do not know if I’m in the right field.” (current student)
While students in the Autism&Uni survey told us that talking to friends really helped them when they were stressed, a lot of people also found that socialising was one of their biggest worries at uni and their parents and teachers agreed. It’s never going to be easy – there’s no step-by-step foolproof guide to making people like you – but we’ve got some practical tips to share. It can be tempting to avoid doing anything outside the course, and that’s the route some autistic students take, but getting on with people (even if they aren’t your best friends) and taking part in activities outside your degree will help make university into a positive experience. There are also benefits for your grades – students who discuss their modules with others tend to get better marks. Not because they’re copying each other! But two (or more) heads are better than one at solving problems and finding new ways of understanding topics.
What to do next?
Choose one or more of the practical tips and talk to someone new
We asked people how they made friends at university. They told us:
- “I joined clubs, then got invited to hang out because I was such an interesting weirdo (that’s what I was told anyway)”
- “Through accommodation, then friends of friends”
- “Work (worked in the library), friends of friends (few people from school went to same uni), labs”
- “I went to the creative writing society & met some creative writing nerds”
- “Drinking” (this was a popular answer – interest in and tolerance for alcohol may vary…)
- “Most successfully, eventually finding group of ‘like-minded people’ (enviro activist group) – not that I liked all of them, but found people I clicked with in that group and it led to loads of other connections”
- “Went to Freshers Fair and joined about a million groups. Then realised it wasn’t feasible and stuck with rugby – mates for life!”
- “Was in Halls of Residence so was forced to hang out with strangers in shared areas. TBH, didn’t ever really make real friends” (it’s OK not to make real friends if you have friends outside of uni, but as long as you can get on with people and find people to do things with, it will be a less lonely experience)
- “I still know people from breakfast on day 1, also still very close with friends from re-enactment group i joined in Orientation week”
- “Being brave and talking to people in the endless queues. How I met my closest friend of now nearly 18 years”
- “After initial shallow talk-to-everyone-in-Freshers-week, neighbours in hall and shared interests (joined games, film clubs). Further friends-of-friends became my friends too. Longest lasting (30 years now) uni friendships came from shared interests/hobbies”
- “Lucked out with a few nice people in halls (well, 3) who introduced me to other nice people”
- “Lived in halls; approached nerdy-looking coursemates; met people from internet forums”
- “Course, Classoc, Gilbert & Sullivan, uni mag, uni radio, Jsoc. Halls were not my friend!”
- “Moved to halls of residence, kept door open, talked to people, got scared of all the middle class folk, found second year students. I took effort and will to do all that – was very shy and not very confident. In second year I stayed in halls and made friends more easily – then came out and made much larger new set by hanging round cafe”
You can see from that list that a lot of people made friends through joining groups related to their interests and several through their accommodation.
Try leaving your door open if you live in halls and chat to people in the communal areas.
Join groups, societies and clubs, either at university or in the area where you live.
“I met people through doing plays, through RAG, through rowing, through feminism, through LGBTQ campaigning.” (Chris, former student)
Introduce the people you meet to each other, and they will do the same with their new friends.
“Friends of friends” is also a common answer – you may not start with many friends, but they all know people too.
Be brave, and be real.
“Being brave” is a good point – you need to start conversations as well as wait for it to happen to you, and it helps if you start to feel comfortable about being yourself around others – situations like queues really are a good place to start talking to new people. Lots of students have social anxiety, not just those on the autistic spectrum – the last student in that list found making friends easier when they came out as LGBT+ and were able to be their authentic self.
“Feel confident and be yourself. The thought of approaching someone new to talk to can feel scary but once you find something in common you will feel a lot better. Approach the person and introduce yourself “Hi, my name is Joe” or “It would be great to get to know each other, my name is…” and the person should respond back. When you get to know them better, in a few months maybe you can exchange numbers or add each other on social media to stay in touch. But don’t send messages everyday as it can be off putting for the other person. Send one message and see if they will send you one back. This will show that you are being a good friend but not putting too much pressure on them. Text or phone a friend to set a date, if you do not get an answer the first time, they might be busy but don’t worry. Leave a message and wait a few days to see if they get back to you otherwise it could seem you are harassing them. If they don’t get back, you can send them another message to chase it up. If still not successful, then leave it and see if they will get in touch.” (Louise, former student)
Share treats – put the kettle on, make a cake, bring a biro…
“One of the methods that I used involved walking around with a bag of sweets that I could share with other students. This gave me so many opportunities to talk to loads of different people, some of whom are now my friends.” (James, former student)
Students don’t have much money and love a freebie. A round of drinks, a cup of tea, a slice of pizza, a plate of biscuits, a homemade meal…they all go down well and eating and drinking can be very social activities. Even having spare pens and paper with you can make you very popular in lectures.
Form or join a study group
Even if you wouldn’t hang out with people on your course at home, it can be really useful to discuss coursework with them, as you can all check your understanding and gain new perspectives on your work. Try speaking to the people around you at the end of a lecture or seminar and ask if they’d like to join a study group. It’s all about the work, not who likes who, and so there’s a good chance they’ll say yes. Equally, if you are asked – go! Even if you don’t know anyone.
Find friends online
You can even start getting to know people before you go to uni – some courses and universities set up Facebook groups for new students, and forums like The Student Room have subforums for every UK university, with threads about applying to that uni, Freshers, what courses are really like and so on. You can always ask in existing interest groups on forums and social media if anyone is going to your university or one in the same town.
Questions to think about
- Does your university or town have a club, group or society related to your interests? (If not, your student union or adviser may be able to help you to start one)
- If you live away from home, can you leave your door open when you’re in so people can see you’re happy to talk to them?
- What treats could you share to start a conversation with your coursemates or people in your accommodation?