As part of Autism Awareness Month, Marshall University’s West Virginia Autism Training Center presented an educational workshop for students yesterday about autism and how to become an ally to students who may be on the spectrum.
Jackie Clark, coordinator for the College Program for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, instructed the training. She taught those in attendance about the different severity levels of autism and how autism can affect everyone differently.
“Although there are commonalities that exist for having a diagnosis of autism, not every person is going to have those same kind of challenges or strengths,” Clark said. “That means the support isn’t going to be the same for each individual. We have to get to know that particular person with autism first and understand their needs before we can provide support. The reason it’s an umbrella disorder is that it affects everybody very uniquely and very differently; it’s not the same for everybody. Not everyone you come across with autism will be very routine driven. In fact, there may be some who are the complete opposite, who needs constant reminders about when and where to be.”
Clark informed students about how they can be allies to students on the spectrum, possessing characteristics including being aware of sensory overload, showing patience with students’ processing speed when communicating and breaking stereotypes about the diagnosis.
“Part of your role as an ally today, at the end of this training is not only to learn about how you can provide a safe, accepting environment for folks with autism, but how you can spread that ally mentality across campus and then even further into the Huntington community or wherever you might be from as well,” Clark said.
Clark said one of the most important steps allies can take is disproving common myths associated with autism.
“There are a lot of myths out there about autism that we really hope to debunk as allies,” Clark said. “Things like students with autism don’t want friendships, that they’re loners. I hear that a lot. That’s not the case at all. Or that everybody with autism is in a STEM major, they’re really good at math and physics and sciences. Some are, but I have students that are majoring in history, teaching and business. That is for sure a myth.”
Philip Taylor, sophomore computer and information technology major, attended the event and said he learned valuable information.
“I think I learned a lot about how individuals who are suffering from ASD experience the world and how something as simple as walking down the street might be a difficult experience,” Taylor said. “I’ve worked with individuals who had ASD before, and I feel like I’ve failed them a bit. I think looking back at when I’ve interacted, that I didn’t understand everything that they were experiencing and couldn’t accommodate appropriately. But I think that after coming to this session that I’ll understand to be a bit more understanding to them.”
The West Virginia Autism Training Center works as a support group for students with autism in different areas, including socially and academically, and it assists those in the program living on campus. The organization’s office includes a study hall open every day of the week, and each week students can partake in social skills groups. As well as having two mental health counselors on staff, the program offers graduate assistants for students.
“We consider our offices the foundation of the program, because that’s where students can come in between classes or before or after on the weekends, and it’s a safe place for people to come and ask questions if they need things and get advice but also just to stay connected and be with people who are understanding,” Clark said. “We help students understand the social nuances of college life through a mentored environment, and have graduate assistants that serve as mentors for students and work on a one on one basis, so there’s somebody close in age who’s been through the undergrad experience and can really be that person that’s their number one line of defense for any sort of questions or any needed advice.”
Amanda Larch can be contacted at [email protected]