Oct 16, 2022

Do I Look Like I’m Enjoying the ‘College Experience’?

A retrospective look at my first year in Trinity as a neurodivergent woman.

Emma FitzpatrickAssistant Magazine Editor

I remember walking through the freshers’ fair stalls on my first-ever ‘real’ day on campus as a Trinity student. The freshers’ fair is a rampant success and highly important part of a student’s first week, including my own, but it is absorbed differently by all who attend.

To some, freshers’ week simply doesn’t end: it never truly gets blown out, even when people start catching the flu or when wet autumn leaves start coating the cobblestones. It had been about two hours since I had met my friends and started wandering across the campus, and my socialising limit had definitely been reached at this point. These two hours encapsulated my entire experience of freshers’ week, and I had reached my breaking point. 

Surrounded by a flurry of shoulders brushing across me and bumping into me, and hearing multiple conversations overlapping at different volumes, I was holding my breath and blinking so rapidly I could barely breathe or see.


Almost at the Campanile, nearly ready to make a beeline to the main gates, I was stopped by a society member from a stall. I still feel bad for this boy and what he had to interact with. He tried to pitch the idea of auditioning to me and my friends, and right then and there I began to feel like I was swelling up from the inside.

He was committed to his performance, staring into my tear-filled eyes while I stared back like he was sentencing me to death. Looking back, I admire his passion for whatever society it was, but it was evident that I wasn’t about to be giving anyone an audition in that present moment, unless they wanted a dead body for a role.

After a solid “no” and multiple head shakes, I walked away from him during the third verse of his parliamentary speech and began running towards the gates, out onto the equally busy College Green, wondering why I was such a joke of a student. 

It took two close friends, a nap and an entire year of experience to reflect on this time in university and realise that it was okay to experience these things differently to others. I would, however, still encourage people not to ask crying first years if they’d like to audition for something. I can almost guarantee they’ll say no.

Being a student is an absurd experience in general. Bad food, bad workloads and expensive drinks in Workman’s won’t always give you amazing memories, but everyone still leaves campus with experiences they are fond of – these just differ for everyone. A lot of my first year was spent in my room, calming down after the day I had experienced.

Having only recently been diagnosed with autism, among other things, my life was churning along chunkily, and my way of navigating this new portion of my life was different from many of my friends.

With my first semester partially online, having never lived alone before (let alone in Dublin) and everybody around me moving forward to new lives, the struggle to see the ground, beyond even thinking of landing on it, was overwhelming. I see things in an offbeat form. Yet, this isn’t some kind of restriction. My interactions with the world have taught me how to take care of myself, physically and mentally. 

Coming to Trinity, I was immediately offered support from the Trinity Disability Service to guide me and help me settle in. I was aware that I could receive some form of help, but had no definite idea what that looked like.

In environments like university, school or even the workplace, I sometimes feel the pressure to ‘audition’ my struggles in order to receive resources or even be believed. “But you don’t look ___!” – society often categorises who someone with a ‘disability’ must look like, otherwise assuming that they are lying or ‘faking it’.

When I explained to the friends I had made in first year what I experienced in my life as a neurodivergent woman, and as I slowly opened up more to those whom I now know to be some of my truest friends, it dug a little pool of information and education of valuable things for us all. However, I know I can’t take this for granted as something that happens in every interaction one may experience. Even before I could confidently say I had autism, I was challenged by many others who held a fixed idea of what this disability looked like in their minds. 

It’s infuriating – people can’t move beyond a stereotype to show empathy, dismissing my experience without any compassion or notion of belief. My experience is often knocked off the shelf as a possibility, and it’s either buried or drugged with an anti-anxiety medication.

However hard we try, there always seems to be something standing in the way of clear, direct communication and a relief of stress experienced.  This being said, Trinity Disability Service is a landline between students and staff when communication and evidence seems to fail everyone. 

A LENS report is something you can draw up with your disability officer through the Trinity Disability Service. It details what you wish to be described in relevance to your disability: dyslexia, mental health issues, ADHD, autism and so on. Your LENS report is attached to your student profile and must be viewed by your lecturers, tutors and teaching assistants. (However, it is hidden on Blackboard – other people won’t be able to access it through there.)

Even though LENS reports are technically accessible to staff members, the system is faulty and often does not flag the profiles for lecturers, defeating all the work done by the Disability Service and the student’s needs. Often, then, staff have to proactively check if there are students with extra needs in their modules, something that doesn’t always happen.

I reached out to one of the current disability officers, Clare Malone, to get a further feel for the type of work that goes on behind the scenes. Malone began working as a disability officer in 2017 after studying occupational therapy at Trinity. Working in occupational therapy, as Clare describes it, “is about understanding how disability can impact all aspects of student life, from academic to self-care to social and leisure activities”.

Malone points out that the job isn’t just about addressing specific challenges students may have, but it is also about encouraging students to use their strengths and explaining how this will impact them through college and beyond. The service forms a support network across Trinity, including academic departments, tutors and other services.

They can thus have a significant, long-term impact on a student’s college experience. Clare makes it clear that these supports are available to anyone who thinks they may need them, and that it is not a category of limitations.

In my experience as a Disability Officer, I have worked with students to assist with managing time off-books from college, advising on connecting with other types of supports or services, and creating platforms for students to connect as a disability community, to name a few examples”, she added.

Another enlightening aspect Malone discussed was the integration of students with disabilities into the College community. “What stands out most to me after five years of working as a Disability Officer is the impact that the college environment can have on a student’s experience, not only the physical spaces on campus but also the social, cultural and institutional environments that students interact with as part of daily college life”.

Neurodivergent students can often feel isolated and distant from campus or College activities. As Malone says, neurodivergence can feel like a “barrier in student’s faces”. 

In relation to the funding of the disability services, Malone assures me, saying, “we never use this as a basis for making decisions on the person’s needs.

Funding is provided from several sources: college, government being the main providers of funds to pay for these supports”. A dedicated team works to make sure each student is equipped with the skills and resources needed for college and their further educational path. 

While it can be daunting to reach out for help, Trinity does genuinely have a network of support systems within the College to ensure every student is doing as well as they can.

Having come through into second year with this network behind me, I know my first year would have been very different without their advice and support. While I still haven’t fully forgotten (or forgiven) the infamous freshers’ fair pitch, university has been something I can fully integrate into and enjoy without trying to become someone I am not.

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