As a part of the College Autism Network since its early days, I have constantly been inspired by the stories I have heard and the comments I have read from students with autism. This fascination prompted me to seek out an internship with the student disability office at my university. In this role I sought out ways to offer support for students on the spectrum; however, once I was in the office, I realized the many challenges that this goal posed.
The disability office has a stigma, one that is not easily overlooked.
Students who entered kept their heads low in their books as they crammed tests, and then stepped into the exam lab within the center. This is an accommodation, one that provides a reduced distraction environment and extended time. And for most students, that is the extent to which they utilized the disability service office. While some had in-class note takers in the form of peers who sought community service hours, most students came and went from the disability center without any more support than exam accommodations.
However, with my background through the College Autism Network, I saw the potential for further support. Students with disabilities, and specifically with autism, may benefit from social or emotional support, as college often brings with it an independence that students are experiencing for the first time. Many of these students had faced factors that inhibited development of social relationships with their peers, and the studies I read through CAN suggested they could benefit from mentors and support groups. So I tried to make that happen.
While I tried to put wheels in action to make supports such as this a reality, it was difficult to build momentum, as office staff were weighed down by both the high number of students they helped and the lack of funding for any additional resources. I quickly realized that my semester long commitment would be not enough time to tackle larger projects, so I set out to be a mentor myself to students on the spectrum.
At my university, only 1.5% of students registered at the disability resource office reported being on the autism spectrum.
I presume that the total number of students who have autism at the university is higher but, perhaps because of associated stigmas, some students chose not to disclose their autism diagnosis (or, perhaps, didn’t have a formal autism diagnosis) but instead sought accommodations for another disability. Of all the students with autism I emailed offering additional support, only a handful responded. But I made it my mission to help those who asked for it.
I met one-on-one with multiple students at the disability resource center, with some desiring weekly check-ins and others only when their lives were hectic. Throughout my personal mentorship project, I met students who recounted the social isolation they felt on the campus, the inability to connect with the dynamic environment around them, and the difficulties of sustaining new friendships. My conversations with these students included academics, social pressures, and even the dynamics of romantic relationships.
From these interactions I gained small insights into the world of students with autism which further validated for me what research had already suggested. Some students were easily overstimulated and feared an environment where they could not have sensory control. Others had issues with professors who did not understand their differences in behavior. As my relationship with these students developed across the course of a semester, students increasingly revealed to me the loneliness they felt being away from family members who understood them and, in contrast, being surrounded by strangers who they believed never would.
Several of the students recounted that before I reached out to them, they had very few outlets for support. Together we were able to talk through real life issues, address academic concerns, and brainstorm ideas for overcoming any challenges that arise while in college.
But I was just one person, an undergraduate social work student completing a one semester internship before graduating and leaving the university. I hope my engagement with these students was of some benefit to them, and their comments to me suggest that may be true. I now worry that the lack of sustained institutional support thereafter may undermine whatever good my efforts may have done.
At my institution, and across the country, colleges and universities bear some responsibility to establish, extend, and sustain strong support systems for students on the autism spectrum. Yes, there are financial limitations and cultural stigmas that must be overcome. But with the help of organizations like the College Autism Network, institutions of higher education can foster an atmosphere of understanding and acceptance where students on the autism spectrum feel the institutional support they need to effectively direct their personal strengths toward completion of a college degree.
Abigail (Abby) Wolz
Abby Wolz is a disability advocate who embodies the values of servant leadership. She recently graduated with a degree in social work and is currently pursuing a mater’s of health administration. This summer, Abby is the executive intern at the Georgia chapter of Make-A-Wish. She hopes to combine her passion for nonprofit work and serving her community in her professional career.
You can contact Abby at email@example.com