I am typing this sentence in my university’s library. I won’t be here much longer; I graduate in May. During my time in college, I have accomplished many things, socially and academically. As an art major and biology minor, I have a portfolio filled with creations I’m proud of, and I have worked with some amazing sea creatures.
Getting this far was definitely not easy. When I first started going to a community college near home, I took only two classes at a time because I got overwhelmed so easily. When graduation approached, I would cry for hours at least twice a week because I hate transitions and wasn’t even sure what I wanted to do next. And when I checked into the dorms at the university I currently attend, I was dismayed to find that despite a doctor’s letter recommending a quiet dorm, I had been assigned a roommate who blared the TV at all hours. Even today, my conversations with my fellow students often involve stretches of awkward silence. I have a lot in common with the students in the New York Times’ recent article, “Along the Autism Spectrum, a Path through Campus Life”—because I’m autistic too.
And I want to tell you how I feel about that article’s portrayal of people like me.
I found the article’s tone needlessly condescending. From the very first sentence, a young man is defined solely by his lack of a girlfriend and his social awkwardness. We are never told his major, his interests and passions, his hopes for the future, or anything that might remind us he is as human as any other student. If the Western Kentucky University program hopes to help autistic students to make friends and thrive in college, it is ironic that an article describing the program “others” these students with its choice of words right from the start. As an autistic student reading these words, I am told that my presence on campus is “jarring”. And that hurts.
Even the program’s staff members seem to view the students as “other”. The program manager suggests that the autistic students who don’t feel lonely are less self-aware than those who do. Her remark that she is “too scared to ask” about graduates’ social lives despite their success in their chosen fields shows me that she has low expectations for the students. Believe me, I definitely worry about what will happen to my social life when I graduate—but when a
person supposedly trained to help people like me half-jokingly calls my future scary, I worry even more. The students’ conversations in the van are dismissed as non sequiturs, implying that their words are illogical and invalid. (What conversation in a crowded van doesn’t sound disjointed? And even if the students are talking nonsense, aren’t autistic people allowed to be silly sometimes?) When they return from their Walmart outing and forget to to say goodbye, the student mentor never considers that maybe it is because their minds are still jangled from the crowded, busy store. (I can tell you for a fact that shopping can be hard. I usually do fine, but sometimes when I go alone, my social anxiety gets so bad I leave without the thing I came for.)
Some of the strategies taught in the WKU program would have been helpful to me as a new student. Rehearsing what to do about a lost ID would have saved me a lot of panic. And I benefited from a community college class that taught study skills and organization. Structured, fun social events such as a game night help me make friends, and these events are one of my favorite things about college. And I’m sure all these aspects of the program help the participants too; I think it is great that the program got a young person out of a group home and into the community. But if I had the opportunity to join the WKU program, the forced socialization and condescension from staff and mentors would be enough to repel me. Does the program have any staff who are autistic themselves? If not, it needs them. We have firsthand experience with autism that no neurotypical person has.
I am writing all this because, as I’ve mentioned before, words and attitudes matter—often as much as actions. You can offer me wonderful support, but if that support comes with the attitude that my presence is jarring, that my future social life is too scary to talk about, that my words are non sequiturs, that I am other, then I don’t want it. Respect is an essential ingredient of any autism-related support I receive.
About C.L. Bridge: C.L. is an autistic person who enjoys art, games, and aquatic animals.