Misadventures in Understanding Autism

By: Morgan Harper

April is an awesome month-the sun has finally come out, the days are shorter, and we’re getting so close to summer that we can practically smell the Australian Gold and chlorine in the air. It’s a special time of year for everyone, but especially for people involved with the autism spectrum disorder community.

In 2007, April was declared the official Autism Awareness Month. Since then, people and organizations around the globe have taken action to raise awareness and advocate for individuals affected by autism spectrum disorder-myself included. As an Alpha Xi Delta member and an Autism Speaks philanthropist, I’ve acquired a ton of information over the last three years about autism-what it is, its prevalence, how much it costs the average family, etc. These sound bytes make up the bulk of what we use to get people’s attention and interest, especially during Autism Awareness Week at my college campus, which happened April 4-8 this year. During the week, I heard my AXiD sisters regurgitate these facts with an unmatched passion, quickly informing our donors about the work their funds helped further. And while I’m always proud of my sisters for having so much knowledge and passion for our philanthropy and its cause, I kept hearing a phrase in all these conversations that caught my attention. The all happened to end in: “… for children with autism.”

As the week was wrapping up, my urge to intervene and add, "AND ADULTS!" to the end of their sentence grew larger. From a distance, that detail may seem small and insignificant, but I've realized that it’s actually an integral facet of understanding autism and its pertinence to modern society. I had always assumed that autism only affects children, because it’s primarily diagnosed in children. In the early 2000s, 1 in 150 children were estimated to have autism. Fast-forward 15 years, and those same 1 in 150 children who were diagnosed with autism are now adults, who also aspire to enter college and earner degrees of higher education. As a student who’s spent her entire college career in an organization so tightly interwoven with the autism community, I thought I'd gathered just about every bit of information there was to know about autism. But after talking to some professors and students about how autism is treated in higher education facilities, I quickly found that I was wrong.

I decided to consult with several university professionals and find out some more information. For one thing, both professors I spoke with could attest to an evident increase in students on the autism spectrum in their classes in recent years.

"It's hard to say exactly how many students I've had on the spectrum,” remarks psychology professor Dr. Chanda Murphy. “Technically, we're not supposed to know unless they tell us first. But it has definitely become more frequent now in the last couple of years."

Whatever the reasons are for this rapid increase in autism cases is an unsettled debate that I won't get into right now. What is certain, however, is that the number of students on the spectrum is growing at an alarming rate, and college professors are left to try and discover new tactics to help accommodate these students' needs. But these attempted methods also vary from teacher to teacher, and should be tailored to what works best for each individual.

"I think it would be beneficial to some students if they were provided with an environment where they are understood,” proposed English professor Christie Harper of LeMoyne Owen College. “I'm not saying that these kids don't deserve the right to be in the classroom with everyone else-they do. But they also deserve the opportunity to be surrounded by people who are going to take time to really care about and fully grasp their individual needs."

Professor Harper went on to say that students on the autism spectrum shouldn't be separated into classes labeled as for "disabled people;" instead, university institutions should have optional programs for gifted students, because these kids are "extraordinary." While Professor Harper and many other university faculty deem this to be the best approach for giving college students on the spectrum equal education opportunities, professors like Dr. Murphy disagree. 

"I think the biggest thing here is to treat everybody equally. Giving someone a ton of extra attention and treating them differently than other students could cause what we call 'learned helplessness.'"

Broadly speaking, this means that if a student is treated like they can't do things themselves, they might develop an unnecessary interdependence on this kind of special treatment.

Unfortunately, I learned during my interview with Professor Harper that some university faculty are not quite as sensitive to students on the autism spectrum as I had originally expected. She can recall a colleague at a previous college who exemplified this insensitivity firsthand. “At one point I remember her saying something like, 'I'm not going to change my curriculum to better suit their needs. They're the ones who wanted to be in regular classes with the rest of them.' I think I may have even teared up on the spot with that one because it was so crude and unsettling."

I was absolutely dumbfounded. I could not believe that people working in college environments could be so ignorant. When I told Dr. Murphy about Professor Harper’s experience, I suddenly remembered how lucky I am to have spent my college years at CBU.

"We're so open-minded here and so accepting of everyone," Dr. Murphy said. "And not just faculty-I am appalled to hear that would even be said in a university setting-but the students here are so understanding and helpful to anyone they see is struggling."

With that in mind, I decided to reach out to the student body and get a feel for how they actually interact with the autism community on campus. My first instinct was to talk to Michelle Pleasant, a psychology major who helped found Students Tackling Autism Related Syndromes Club; more commonly referred to as "STARS." Throughout the last year, Michelle has worked hard to create the most optimal college experience available for students on all parts of the spectrum.

When I asked her what drove the psychology department to develop a club like STARS, she attributed it to the growing number of students on the autism spectrum that were entering Christian Brothers University. "We noticed that CBU had a really high percentage of students on the spectrum, more than compared to bigger schools. We created the STARS lounge so they could have a quiet, friendly place to study comfortably. We also felt like they didn't have the same social environment to depend on and make friends in. So we decided to start STARS, where people who know how to handle people on the spectrum and want to be friends with them can really get a chance to become friends with them."

I also spoke with Joseph Jameson, a student on the autism spectrum (who most students know as JJ), it seemed that STARS was succeeding in its mission to help students with spectrum disorders enjoy their experience at CBU.

He said, "The cool thing about CBU is, I get to express myself and that has allowed me to make so many new friends." It's no secret that JJ loves CBU; he’s well-known on campus and always has a smile on his face when anyone runs into him.

During my conversation with JJ, it became painfully aware that I didn't know nearly enough about how to best communicate with people on the spectrum. When I asked JJ certain questions, I didn't realize how broad and indirect my questions were, and I didn't once consider how the content of what I was looking for may have reached him differently than I intended. For example, when I asked about the greatest challenges he faces as a student on the spectrum, his answer was as plain and simple as any other college freshman: “The classes are really hard to adjust to because it's a lot harder than high school."

As a writer, I was obviously trying to collect emotionally evocative responses from JJ to help prove my point that kids on the spectrum have unique challenges. I guess what I really wanted to know was "What makes college more challenging for a person with a spectrum disorder?"

However, JJ's short and ordinary response taught me two important things about people on the spectrum. First, while JJ is a student on the spectrum, he does not appear to view his spectrum disorder as an impediment to living a “typical” college life. It looks like JJ has had a pretty normal college experience thus far: he’s an excellent student, has a large, diverse group of friends, and is actively involved on campus.

Second, I assumed that he might not have understood that the root of the question was in reference to being on the spectrum. These two points led me to think hard about the way that students experience and interpret pieces of information in a classroom setting that may inhibit those messages in the most concise, direct form.

Professor Harper comments, "The problem is, most college professors don't have any training and don't know how to help these kids. Most of us don't even know that they have a spectrum disorder, so it makes it really hard to make sure everything is being communicated effectively."

If it’s that easy for me to construct a barrier through my line of questioning during my conversation with JJ, I can't imagine how frequently these issues come up between effected students and teachers.

The autism community is growing at a fast pace right now, and with that growth comes a huge responsibility for us to continue encouraging people on the spectrum to pursue practical, rightful dreams, such as advancing their education. Places like CBU have taken measures to build a comfy community for students on the autism spectrum. As a student body, we must practice mass acceptance and patience in understanding in order to sustain an environment that successfully prepares students of all sorts for a successful life. While not every institution has the accommodations that we do, it seems, with autism cases on the rise, they will falter in the long run.

Morgan Harper is a Junior English for Corporate Communications major at Christian Brothers University and a staff writer at the Galleon. 

Posted by Josh Colfer at 9:49 AM

The Galleon is curated and managed by Christian Brothers University, a Memphis-based university founded in the Lasallian tradition (a sect within the Catholic faith). Part of our founding mission is to uphold respect for all persons-regardless of political, religious, or social beliefs. As an institution, we take no stand on political matters; to do so would undermine our commitment to intellectual inquiry and thoughtful response to events taking place in our World by members of the CBU community.

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