I hid the fact that I was autistic for the first few weeks at UCLA. I was forced to go home because I got socially tired.

Ryan Neal is a student at UCLA.Ryan Neal

  • During my first few weeks at UCLA, I attended parties and burned out academically.

  • Five weeks into my first year I had to come home because I got mono and was exhausted.

  • I realized that in order to succeed at UCLA, I needed to live authentically as a person with autism.

I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when I was 18 months old, but didn’t find out until I was 13. My parents grew up in an era when autism was less understood, and they worried that the label would define me negatively.

When I learned about my diagnosis, I hid it from most people and tried to blend in with my peers. But when I got accepted to my dream school, UCLA, and struggled through my first few months, I realized that I needed to live my life as an authentic autistic person.

I’m sorry I thought there was something wrong with me when I found out about my diagnosis

Growing up, it was a challenge to keep up with the complexities of social dynamics. Eventually I reached a breaking point. When I got into an argument with my friend after missing a social cue, my mom knew it was time to tell me the truth: I’m autistic.

I grew up with the media’s portrayal 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 was a bad thing.

I hid my autism diagnosis from my teachers and peers in hopes that they wouldn’t think of me as “weird.” I focused on my social life, burning myself out with sports and extracurricular activities.

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 somewhere in there. I predicted that if I tried to live authentically as an autistic person, I would succeed in college – but if I continued to mask myself and try to prove myself as “normal”, I would crash and burn.

When I got to UCLA I ignored my own advice – I crashed and burned 5 weeks into my freshman year

My first few weeks at UCLA felt like being shot out of a cannon. I was talking to something like a thousand people a day. I replaced sleep and self-care with going out and partying – mostly because I felt I had to. It wasn’t even that fun because I had to spend half my energy reading everyone’s non-verbal cues at 2 in the morning.

Because of my autism, I qualified for accommodations such as testing in a private room, access to a transcription tool, and breaks during class. I didn’t use them. Every time he let me get special treatment in class made me feel like a failure.

I chose to burn myself out socially and academically instead of engaging the world authentically.

And then the bill is due. A few weeks into my freshman year I came down with a bad case of mono. I couldn’t handle it, so I had to drop out of UCLA and come back home.

My worst fear, that my autism would lead to social isolation, has come true

For two months, I watched the relationships I had sacrificed so much of myself for continue without me. It was unbearable scrolling through social media and seeing my new college friends go to sports games and parties while I was isolated at home.

The worst part was that it was all the result of my own choice. Getting sick was a message from the universe that what I was doing wasn’t working. Even worse, my actions were damaging my body. I realized that it didn’t happen because I’m autistic; it happened because I pretended I wasn’t.

I realized that I had to choose between sticking to the image of success I had cultivated or being successful at this school.

When I returned to UCLA the following quarter, I admitted to myself that I needed an academic accommodation. I also disclosed to my technicians and professors about my diagnosis. I secured extensions on several key tasks and hired an accessibility assistant 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 3.8 cumulative GPA and was accepted into UCLA’s honors program this year.

I also made it my mission to take better care of myself. I made sure I got at least seven hours of sleep. I went out less and focused on my close friends. I did this mostly for my health, but ultimately it allowed me to engage with the world more authentically—and more autistically.

As I finish my freshman year, I know that my journey to self-acceptance continues

I still have a voice that insists I should act more like my peers by focusing more and going out more – even though I know it’s not working for me. But I’m proud of developing the discipline to go against that voice, and I’m proud of sacrificing 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 spent much of my adolescence trying my best not to be. But as my college experience began to unfold, I began to accept that I was autistic—not weird. And my life is all the better for it.

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