Kieran Barrett-Snyder was a star student at his high school on Long Island in New York. He had a gift for mathematics and science, and was accepted into all seven of the colleges he applied to. He decided on New York University, both because it has a strong engineering program and because it is close to his home.
During Barrett-Snyder’s first semester in 2014, he did well in all his classes, except for labs that required written reports—a task that felt overwhelming to him. He became so anxious about his workload that at one point he started to feel his heart pounding hard in his chest. “It hurt to lay down,” he recalls.
Barrett-Snyder has autism, and he has felt anxiety for much of his life. But this was more intense than usual. His symptoms persisted for several days, until his mother took him to the emergency room, where he learned he had been having an extended panic attack. He hadn’t taken any psychiatric medications since his most disruptive behaviors had tapered off at around age 9. After the panic attack, though, he started taking pills for anxiety and depression. He also decreased his workload and got on track over the rest of the year.
Then, in his second year at the university, he ended up in a dormitory with two neurotypical students he didn’t connect with, and started avoiding the common area when they were around. One of the suite mates had his girlfriend over all the time, which made Barrett-Snyder even more uncomfortable. He stayed in his room for long stretches, stopped showering, and survived on Oreo cookies. It was a vicious cycle: The longer he was in his room, the more self-conscious he felt. “I just felt disgusting most of the time, so I didn’t want to be seen,” he says.