Surviving a Cambridge Residential – Tips for managing autism and anxiety.

Recently I had the privilege of going on a two day, overnight residential visit to Trinity Hall College at Cambridge University, organised by my sixth form. When I received the letter informing me that I had a chance to go, I was both excited and nervous. On one hand, it was undeniably a great opportunity – a chance to go to one of the most famous universities, potentially somewhere I might apply to in future. On the other hand, it was an overnight stay in an unfamiliar place 4 hours away from home with unfamiliar people. In other words, an anxiety-inducing nightmare of a prospect, especially with me being autistic.

And yet, here I am. I survived! So here’s some of the strategies which I used to manage my autism on this trip, which helped me, and which will also hopefully help you, to not only survive the trip (or similar situations), but to come out the other side feeling so much more confident and capable in taking on new opportunities going forward. I’ll also be giving a run down of what happened on my trip, for any of those interested in what university residentials are like.

I learned about the Cambridge trip’s existence on quite a short notice (barely a week ahead of time) and although this meant I was a bit stressed – being autistic, I don’t like surprise changes to my routine – I’m also inclined to believe that it was partly a good thing because it meant that once I’d sent off my consent form, I didn’t have time to reconsider and back out. This is something worth considering if you are an anxious person like me – while it can be comforting to know about an experience a long time in advance, so you can prepare, hearing about it later may reduce the time you spend worrying about it. Figure out a balance which works for you for, and minimise unproductive anxiety.

In anticipation of the trip, I asked around, and something daunting quickly became apparent: although there were a few others from my school who I was acquainted with that were going, none of my friends were going on the trip. So, in preparation over the next few days, I set about just gradually getting to know some of the others who were coming on the trip, so I would have someone to talk to.

Tip 1: if you are worried about being alone, see if you can get to know others coming with you beforehand – it’ll give you someone to talk to, and hey, you might make a new friend!

Before the trip, I did a lot of information gathering about Cambridge. Normally, when I am going to go somewhere new, I will travel to the place with my family and we will ‘scout out’ the area, so that when I go there again I feel more comfortable. This was not possible for Cambridge, so instead I looked at google maps, getting a rough idea of the city and where we would be staying. I did some research about Trinity Hall, and I read and re-read the information that came with the letter to parents about the trip. From this, I knew that one of the things which I might have trouble with was sharing a bathroom, while staying in the dorms, so I spoke to my parents and we decided to send an email to the organisers of the trip asking if I could have a room that had an en suite bathroom. We also asked if my room could be close to the room of one of the people who I knew from my school. The organisers were very accommodating, and although I wasn’t able to get a bathroom, I would be close to one.

Tip 2: Make the most of the information you have about the trip, and do your own research to help you feel more comfortable. Email to ask questions and request accommodations beforehand that you feel could be helpful; remember to plan ahead, and think about what you might need.

When I got to the coach, I tried to look for people I knew, but couldn’t spot anyone immediately (the bus was about half-full). I sat down on my own in an available seat, next to the window, and put my bag on the seat next to me, so I kept the space free (the bus wasn’t full so there was space for this). Having that space made me feel a lot more comfortable, as I could stretch out a bit if I needed to.

Tip 3: If possible, and if you aren’t sitting near a friend, get space to yourself, especially if you are inclined to stimming or fidgeting. Having space also reduces some of the stimulation.

It was a four-and-a-half-hour coach journey on the way there. Predictably, the coach was quite loud, but I was prepared: I had my noise-cancelling headphones (which allow me to play music), with a spare charger in my bag just in case. I wore the headphones the whole way down, and didn’t really chat to anybody but that was fine by me.  

Tip 4: Bring whatever tools you would normally have with you, including backups. This could be stim toys, notepads etc. For me, this was noise-cancelling headphones, with backup earbud headphones and a portable charger.

When we stopped at the first service station after about two hours, everyone else got off the bus, but I decided to stay in my seat. The bus was quiet without anyone else on it, and I took my headphones off and read my book for twenty minutes while everyone else was in the services. A teacher noticed me as everyone else was getting off, and made sure I was alright, but thankfully she didn’t object to me staying on the coach, and I was left on my own for a bit. This was a good recovery time, to give my ears a rest as well. I didn’t need to use the services, and preferred the quiet time over stretching my legs, so I was quite happy.

Tip 5: You don’t always have to go along with everyone else. If there is something particular that you feel would benefit you, just check with a teacher.

When we got off the coach at Cambridge, I finally spotted the group from my school, walked with them to Trinity Hall, following the teacher, who pointed out the buildings and different colleges. Finally we settled in the lecture hall, which was to act as a base of operations, of sorts. I made sure to sit with my group, and for the whole of the first day I kept my headphones around my neck with my phone in my pocket in case I needed them. Throughout the day I also had my rucksack with me most of the time, and this was good because I knew that I had all the things that I might need, including food, so there was no anxiety associated with dealing with any needs in that respect. 

Tip 6: Have all your necessary things with you so you don’t have to worry about going back to get it. Feeling self-sufficient can ease anxiety about meeting your needs.

They gave us several maps detailing different aspects of Cambridge and of Trinity Hall specifically, and then we went for a proper tour of the college and parts of Cambridge. This really drove in how big the place was – Trinity Hall itself was almost the size of my secondary school, and it was just one of many colleges dotted all over the place. Luckily for us, it was a beautiful day, and Cambridge is a beautiful city. There were punts on the river Cam (although we’d all been thoroughly warned that we weren’t allowed to go on them), and we walked over several bridges. Cambridge looked to me like something out of a Pinterest board – almost fantastical in the grandiosity of its architecture, evocative of Hogwarts. All of the gardens were incredibly pretty too – neat lawns, and roses and wisteria climbing every wall.

Tip 7: Keep hold of your map

A sandwich lunch was provided in brown paper bags set out on a long table. I took mine, and went to sit outside with everyone else. Looking around, I saw some people I knew, sitting on the steps with a new girl who I didn’t know, and so I went over and sat near them. They included me in conversation, and they became my new group for the rest of the trip.

Tip 8: Don’t be afraid to just go and sit near people – chances are they will be happy to include you in conversation. 

Finally we got to check out our rooms. I found that I was in a downstairs room which was clearly designed for accessibility. The first thing I noticed was of course the automatic door, which acted as though possessed and which would not let you close it – it had to be allowed to close itself or it would resist shutting. This minor inconvenience was certainly worth the room though. My room, being the accessibility room, was pretty spacious (it was larger than most other people’s rooms) and had two sinks, and a kitchen unit with a fridge, microwave and kettle. There were shelves, a wardrobe, two mirrors, a single bed with storage underneath, and a desk in the corner. I had a large bay window with long curtains, though my view just looked out onto the courtyard where the music gallery stood. I was very pleased, and felt much more calm now that the big mystery of what our rooms would be like was solved.

By the time evening rolled around, I was starting to get stimming impulses – and I would consciously resist them. Being in a new place, surrounded by loads of new people, the masking instinct had overruled the stimming urge for most of the day, but as I felt myself getting more tired and overstimmed, there would just be this little nagging feeling to click my fingers – nothing distressing at that point, but just there.

Tip 9: don’t panic when you feel overstim starting to come on. Just be aware of how you are feeling, and know your limits.

After all the tours and talks were done, we were allowed to go out for the evening and explore Cambridge – no adult supervision. Myself and my new group of friends went out to Pizza Express for dinner, and some of my hand stims began, but they weren’t too noticeable, just hand-twisting and finger flexing. Nobody commented or seemed to notice, which was fine by me. It was very quiet at first, but when more people came into the restaurant, it got a lot noisier (the acoustics of the room also made it very echoey) and so the stims became a bit more prominent. But then we finished and left, and once it was quieter the stims calmed down.

Tip 10: Most people don’t notice stims if they are relatively subtle – don’t worry about being judged. I recommend bringing stim toys if you feel uncomfortable.

After dinner, we wanted to see the Airman’s bar which our teacher had told us about. We found the Eagle pub, and then loitered outside for a bit trying to figure out where exactly we had to go, peeking in through the open front door. In the end, we just walked in and went straight to the back, where we were promptly discovered by our teacher, who explained the story of the RAF bar. It was worth seeing – the scrawled names of the soldiers on the ceiling, noticeably so much older than the rest of the room. It was cramped and loud, but we were only in there briefly, and then we went out and bought ice cream (I had chocolate gelato – the best ice cream ever) Afterwards, one of my group suggested that we go to the park, so we did, and sat around chatting as it got dark.

We started heading back to Trinity Hall about twenty minutes before our curfew (9pm) – it was a ten minute walk or so. 

Then disaster struck. Just a few minutes away from the park, I felt my back pocket, and realised I didn’t have my room key. I stopped in the middle of the street, and got my group’s attention. I actually wasn’t freaking out too much – I was just frozen with indecision about what to do, and sort of couldn’t believe it was actually gone. One of my group made the decision for us, starting a sprint back to the park, but in the darkness, even with the aid of phone torches, we couldn’t find the keycard. I was frustrated, mostly irritated at myself for having lost it. There wasn’t time to check the whole of the park or retrace our steps, and it was night-time anyway. So we walked briskly (and I mean briskly) back to campus. My biggest worry was about getting into my room – all of my things were in there. What if they didn’t have a spare key card? I felt guilty as well – annoyed at my own carelessness in having lost it.

Tip 11: If things go wrong, don’t panic!

Our return to the front entrance coincided with that of our teacher. Shame-faced, I told her what had happened. She told me, not unkindly, that I would have to tell the porters. So we went into the porter’s lodge and awkwardly I explained what had happened, throwing in apologies at every chance I got. The porter was very decent about it, and after much rummaging through folders, conjured me a new one. Abashedly I walked back to the lecture theatre with my teacher, who was actually very sympathetic and reassuring. I was immensely grateful to her, and also to my friends for their attempts in helping me find it, and managed to mention it as we all walked back to our rooms after the briefing on tomorrow’s itinerary. They were all very good about it. 

Going to bed was interesting. Being near the staircase, I could hear everything that went on in the rooms and hallways next to and above me. Every time a door shut, you would hear it slam, and every time anyone used their keycard, the ‘beep-beep’ would be heard. The taps were audible and the hand-dryers were frequently set off in the bathrooms. Fortunately, most of the noise settled down by about 11pm, and it didn’t actually bother me too much. I thought to myself, it was the sort of thing that you could probably get used to. I listened to some more music, then plugged everything in to charge for the morning and went to sleep.

Tip 12: Take some time to unwind / down-stim if you need it. Make the most of alone times to down-stim and recharge.

The next day, we got to attend a taster lecture of our choosing. I chose to go to a law lecture, where I had a fantastic time with a really engaging teacher. It was genuinely fascinating, learning a new topic I hadn’t had a chance to before. Afterwards, me and a few other students continued a conversation with the teacher for almost half an hour, debating different legal situations. It was incredibly rewarding.

Tip 13: Ask questions! This one isn’t related to autism, but is generally just a great way of making the most out of experiences. Remember, you are there to learn, so ask all of the questions you can.

Overall, I hugely enjoyed this trip, and found it very helpful. And having the memory of this experience has made me feel a lot more confident in myself and my ability to handle new situations. After all, if I can handle going to Cambridge, I can handle going to the other places. I hope this will be helpful to others on the spectrum, and if you are interested in hearing more about my experiences and the advice that I would give for managing aspergers, please remember to like this post, and follow my blog to see upcoming posts.

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