Thrive on Campus//

Autism Awareness — The Importance of Knowledge

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” — Alfred Adler

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

I always hope that whoever reads my writing gets something out of it — learns something new, gains new perspective, feels better about their day/self, etc. Today, I’m especially hoping that will be the case, as I’ll be writing about a topic very dear and sensitive to myself and my family. This will be an article that’s, well, everything autism.

I’m both excited and hesitant to share information about this topic, as it’s a topic I’d call myself quite knowledgeable about since my brother is on the spectrum himself! However, I myself am not, and cannot speak to the personal experiences of those who are. I’m going to be giving an overview of what the spectrum is, how it presents itself in individuals (who are on the spectrum), why it is a positive rather than a negative despite certain disadvantages, and why awareness is necessary! It’d really mean the world to me if you read this article with an open mind and heart, and let me know what you got out of it, my friend! Let’s get into it.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental “disorder,” only described in this way due to the fact that it is associated with a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication (source: autismspeaks.org). The reason it is described as autism “spectrum” disorder is that, much like how no two snowflakes look the same, no two individuals with autism have the same challenges and strengths. Individuals vary from being completely nonverbal in extreme cases, to those with asperger’s syndrome, which is less severe, yet mostly causes trouble with social situations and difficulty in interpreting/valuing the emotions and feelings of other people.

Autism can be treated early on with behavioral therapy (which was the case with my brother — we were very lucky to have had therapists from Seattle Children’s Autism Center and the University of Washington working with him), but often families don’t have the resources/access for this possibility. However, working to raise awareness of ASD works to bring the dreams and endless possibilities for individuals on the spectrum to life — we’ll talk more about how we can do this later in the blog!

When I was 10 years old, and my brother was 6, I saw, for the first time, someone mistake what was, in essence, a panic attack my brother was having, as him “misbehaving.” We were getting home with a babysitter, and my brother saw a bee, as well as heard it buzzing. I’ll talk about why this was a big deal in this section, but he flipped out, covering his ears, yelling, and refusing to leave the car. When my babysitter tried to pull him out, he dug his fingernails into her arms. Being a woman who’d worked with children on the spectrum, she was basically unfazed. However, the woman who’d taken it upon herself to stand and watch from her balcony in the apartment building hadn’t. “My Goodness,” The woman announced. “What an awful child! Does that awful child have parents?” My babysitter and I both told her that he had autism, but she clearly had no idea what this even meant; hence, the importance of awareness.

Speaking of which, let’s talk what ASD looks like. Although, like I said, no two individuals with ASD are the same, common symptoms include social communication challenges, and restricted/repetitive behaviors than can be debilitating to daily life. Individuals with autism may not understand fully/appropriately use gestures, make eye contact, processing facial expressions, tone of voice, literal expressions, etc. Many with autism also have sensory issues. This means that they are typically either over, or undersensitive to sounds, touch, taste, smells, pain, light, and other stimuli (source: autismspeaks.org). You may have witnessed, in life, a child with autism “throwing a fit”, or “acting out”, as some like to put it. What you’re really seeing is a sensory overload — an attempt to make the rest of the world quiet down. When your brain is ultra-sensitive to every detail, every action, every noise and scent, it gets overwhelming, especially for a child with a disorder that already limits how they express themselves. This is so, incredibly important to understand — children with autism are not being “bad.” They can’t help how they react. Empathy is incredibly important in these situations, as adding more stress will only make a situation such as my brother’s (mentioned earlier) worse.

People often only talk about the negatives of autism. Though the spectrum can be debilitating, it isn’t a bad thing! We all have our weaknesses and strengths, and those on the spectrum are no different. You’ve likely heard of savants (savant syndrome) — people with extraordinary talents or skills, that are often on the spectrum or have a mental/physical disability. Though these cases are amazing, the unique and wonderful traits of autistic individuals aren’t limited to savants — they are present in most people with autism in general. Autistic people rarely lie, as they don’t have the natural instinct that “typical” people may have to hide the truth from those around them. While the rest of us often tell little white lies, it’s pretty unlikely with someone on the spectrum!

Autistic people also often have unwavering passion for their interests — my brother’s, from example, is food and cooking. Every ingredient in his home cooked desserts must, and I mean MUST be fresh (God forbid we bring something frozen home), perfectly measured, unprocessed, and most importantly, delicious. They chase their passions and interests past the point of many “typical” people, who often become bored with certain topics quickly. It’s also not uncommon for people with Autism to have terrific memories. Again, I mention my brother, who has the best sense of direction of anyone I know, as well as a London-born artist named Stephen Wiltshire who took a visual tour of New York City, only to return home and recreate the entire skyline on a canvas from memory. All of this from a single flight over the city. Did I mention that he was diagnosed with autism at age 3, and mute until the age of five? Individuals on the spectrum, more often than not, are passionate, honest, creative, talented, and unequivocally good. Never ever underestimate them for a second. (Source: verywellhealth.com — Top Ten Positive Traits of Autistic People)

It is incredibly, and I mean incredibly important that we all work together to spread awareness of ASD. By awareness, I mean education, empathy, love, and support. Children on the spectrum, more often than not, experience bullying in schools. According to a 2012 study by the Kennedy Krieger Institute, up to 63 percent of American children with autism have experienced bullying — this is simply unacceptable.

There are many ways to help lower this percentage — watch out for warning signs.

  • We all know what bullying looks like (and we should be calling it out no matter who is being targeted) — we need to take a stand and defend others as if they were our own family. Report incidents to your school, workspace, wherever you are witnessing it.
  • Educate — encourage others to learn more about the spectrum so they can begin to understand just what children with ASD experience.
  • Don’t say the “R-word,” and stop saying it if it’s become a habit — trust me. No matter what your intention is in saying it, it’s more hurtful and harmful to people on the spectrum than you think.
  • Reach out and make friends with your peers on the spectrum — you’ll make the best friends you could ever hope for (there are many programs and clubs at school in which you can help out more with special ed such as Best Buddies International at many college campuses)!
  • Be empathetic — don’t make fun of kids in pain, or their parents trying their best to comfort them. Donate to help fund research and awareness activities (links will be listed in the Writer’s Note).
  • Find an awareness march.
  • Put on a puzzle — the international sign of Autism Awareness! Wear the Autism Awareness pin, bracelet, T-shirt, whatever you want!
  • Overall, be kind. Have an open mind and heart. Realize that not everyone thinks, processes, and sees the world, the same way you do, and choose to see that as a good thing rather than a flaw.

As always, thank you so much for reading my blog — it means the world and beyond to me — especially this time. Feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns regarding what I wrote about — so much love to you, and until next time!

Writers note: Thank you so, so much for reading, my friend. This is an incredibly important subject to me, and I really hope that you got something from this blog. If nothing else, please just be empathetic and kind, and think outside of your own perspective. If you have any questions, or if I left anything out, as always, feel free to contact me — [email protected] by email, or @_kaatieevans_ on Instagram!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lr4_dOorquQ – A video illustrating how a day in the mall may seem from the point of view of a child with severe Autism.

https://secure.everyaction.com/ynTHgQUB402qwetMAwHjwA2 – A link to donate to the Autism Society – anything is appreciated, but it’s totally okay if this isn’t an option for you <3

https://www.autismspeaks.org/ – A great site to answer any of your unanswered questions – provides resources for people with, or people who know someone with ASD

https://www.bestbuddies.org/ – An organization dedicating to enhancing the lives of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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