Friday, September 16, 2016

Autistic students and college supports

From an informal survey and a discussion with Julia Bascom, executive director at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Kit Mead, writing for “The Establishment,” has determined that “many autistic students find themselves pushed out of student housing due to a lack of accessibility and support.”

According to Mead, “These issues can be rooted in people not understanding autism, or in not identifying students as autistic, due to misdiagnosis, a lack of diagnosis, or the student not disclosing.”

Mead offers suggestions that include raising awareness among residence supervisors, providing access to events and study locations that are scent-free, have low noise levels and non-fluorescent lighting, and helping students on the spectrum approach other people and find activities that interest them.

The impression I take from reading Mead’s article is that, with the exception of having accessibility built into a planned event, accommodation at college seems entirely to depend on a gatekeeping authority “legitimizing” a person’s autistic status. Using my college experience as an example, I want promote discussion of how the absence of diagnosis affects someone seeking assistance.

When I originally worked toward a degree in English from Sonoma State University, I did not know I was autistic. Not knowing this myself, I was not in a position to communicate this to my professors.

I lived off-campus, so did not have to navigate the difficulties Mead describes in the article, but other awkward experiences might’ve gone much easier if I had known I was on the spectrum.

During brief student-employment doing book repair in Sonoma State University Library, I enthusiastically showed my supervisor a more efficient way of performing a task she’d just shown to me.

(I guess I thought she’d love to learn what I had to show her; I was completely surprised when she didn’t react the way I expected her to.)

If my supervisor and I had known I was autistic, I might’ve learned that this could manifest in an enthusiasm to share my knowledge and abilities, but that my enthusiasm would need to be tempered by double-checking with myself if this action seemed appropriate or if it could be misconstrued.

My supervisor in turn could have viewed my behavior through the lens of autism and realize no offense was meant.

As for supports that might have benefited me when I was attending school, not knowing or understanding if I needed any help, or what kind of help I needed, would make it difficult to ask for and obtain.

I believe that I was much more successful taking distance-ed courses through the Cuesta College Library/Information Technology Program. This time around, I knew I was on the spectrum and I notified my instructors “just in case.”

Distance-ed gave me the ability to completely shape my environment and, in the end, no supports were needed.

This was fortunate because Cuesta College’s Disabled Student Programs and Services was not prepared to assist me. When I contacted the office (again “just in case”), the person who responded to me, disputed the legitimacy of a diagnostic screening that “conferred” my autistic status.

From my experience, I think we need to seriously ask: Why is it that, even with greater understanding of the “social” model of disability, there is still so much emphasis upon “proving” yourself disabled, before society will consent to remove the barriers that impede your full participation?

(Why should society remove these barriers without an “official” diagnosis? I believe the answer is summed up in the “Curb Cut Effect.” Writing at “Thing of Things,” Ozymandias explains why universal design practices intended to benefit people with disabilities, in-fact make things better for everyone.)

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