The Invisible Disability: A college experience from a student with ASD

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Elle Love
CONTRIBUTOR

A person is standing at the edge of a maze with no visible exit.
“Growing up with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I faced newer challenges that became more complex as I navigated through different aspects of life.” Graphic by Mars Nevada/the Gateway

Challenges are harder to address when they aren’t visibly noticed. Growing up with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I faced newer challenges that became more complex as I navigated through different aspects of life, especially college.

The first few years of college felt like a never-ending maze where I didn’t know where to turn to for help or who to connect with socially. Because of my experience in public school, I was afraid to open up to anyone, causing me to feel lonely in a place full of people.

University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) education professor, Dr. Mitzi Ritzman, who specializes in special education and communication disorders, said this experience mirrors that of many students on the spectrum that she has worked with.

“Sometimes when we think about supporting students, we’re thinking about helping them academically,” Ritzman said.

But, Ritzman said, it is also important to assess and teach people with ASD about how to interact in the social world – where many students thrive the most in the college setting.

“When you think about that social world, it’s so vast! It’s huge!” Ritzman said. “There are countless, different sorts of activities that anybody could encounter in a day, so it becomes even more complex as we get older and move into both college and work situations.”

Transitioning into college, it was difficult to make friends with people I barely knew because I immediately forgot how to form friendships. The things that I want to say eloquently come off as awkward to other people—it turns them off from wanting to communicate with me.

I felt like I could express my thoughts better by typing and writing because it was easy to erase the mistakes in my writing. I wished it was easier to be as eloquent in-person so people could see not just my behavior, but who I truly am.

UNO Goodrich associate professor, Dr. Troy Romero, who researched developmental disabilities, said some of the main difficulties people on the spectrum face is feeling comfortable and being accepted in a space, often times because these individuals appear “off” to other people when they can’t read them.

“If they don’t know how to read you and you don’t know how to read them, it can often get harder to do group projects,” Romero said. “It can be harder to make friendships and college is a social setting.”

Whenever group projects are assigned in class, I am very concerned with how useful I am to the group, so I go with whatever the majority agrees on because I do not know what I can contribute.

My grades suffered because of the misconception that I was lazy in my peer reviews. It was a blow to my self-esteem.

“College is hard already but when it’s hard to connect with people who are having the same kind of troubles as you, it makes it more insurmountable,” Romero said.

Because issues seem larger to me than to other people, it causes me to self-reflect on an endless list of what I have done wrong. It took a toll on my happiness when I began to hate everything about myself for not being “normal.”

When I got older, I realized that there’s no such thing as “normal.” Even though I noticed my weakness in verbal communication, my strength was through writing.

There are individuals on the spectrum who are nonverbal that need a lot of support, while verbal individuals need support on social competencies—all of which are a part of the spectrum, said Ritzman.

“It’s important that we move towards more acceptance and the appreciation of more unique skills, abilities and characteristics that people on the spectrum have,” Ritzman said.

Romero also said one of the biggest hardships for students on the spectrum is the reluctance to ask for help to avoid being singled out.

“People with autism don’t want to be treated differently,” Romero said. “But they are not getting the accommodations that they need that will help make the transition easier.”

If I could provide advice to my younger self, it would be encouragement to ask for help from the many resources available on campus.

Director of Accessibility Services, Jen Papparoth, said many students are fearful of asking for accommodations because they do not want the knowledge of their disability to become public.

“Here at the college level, we take confidentiality as very important,” Papparoth said. “We never share to any of the professors, faculty or staff on campus what the disability is. We only share what the accommodations are for the student.”

Papparoth said when someone comes off differently to other people, there’s always a little bit of apprehension on how to interact with the person. She said the best way to be an advocate is to think of the “person first,” by asking what you can do to help support them.

My advice, from me to you, is to be open-minded when people behave differently than you. You may be surprised about what their abilities are when they are given the chance to showcase them.

“We all are here, and we all have goals,” Papparoth said. “A lot of that starts from the things we learn in kindergarten by treating each other with respect and kindness, the way you want to be treated.”

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