On Tuesday, Feb. 21, Dr. Elizabeth Reeve came to St. Olaf to speak about autism on college campuses. Reeve is a child and adolescent psychiatrist who focuses primarily on patients with developmental disabilities. Her lecture, “Autism Spectrum Disorders: Coping with ASD as a Young Adult,” was attended by student tutors, SI session leaders, future nurses, future teachers and others with an interest in the topic. However, Reeve’s message of inclusion applied beyond those present in Buntrock Commons’ Sun Ballroom.
Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is a group of symptoms characterized by social, communicative and behavioral dysfunction. There is no known cause for ASD. Theories suggest a genetic link, as the disorder tends to run in families. An ASD individual often is full of enthusiasm, open-mindedness and acceptance. However, the symptoms often make being a student and fitting into social environments more difficult.
Socially, a student with autism may stand out for unusual eye contact or body language. Eye contact may range from complete avoidance to overabundance and tends to add a barrier between an autistic and non-autistic person, as lack of eye contact typically translates to disrespect. In a conversation, if the listener is looking away or staring at the ground, the speaker may assume the listener is bored or not actually listening. In reality, the autistic listener may be attentive but unable to demonstrate interest. On the other side of the spectrum, too much eye contact can be perceived as staring. With body language as well, an ASD individual may stand too close, making others feel uncomfortable.
Students with ASD may also have difficulty communicating. As a group, they tend to be concrete thinkers, meaning they tend towards more literal thinking. In her lecture, Reeve spoke about an autistic student who came to class only to see the sign, “CLASS CANCELLED.” Most students would look at the sign and know the professor cancelled class for only the day, but this ASD student never went back to his class, assuming class was cancelled forever. He was thinking so concretely that he took the sign to mean class was literally cancelled. This is one example of hardships in communication.
Behaviorally, an ASD student may struggle with routine and regulating schedules. Reeve says routine can be a “blessing or a curse” for an autistic individual. Frustration may surface when routines are broken or changed, even if only by a minute. However, strict routines, if upheld, can fortify expectations. But sleeping and eating routines can be difficult to uphold. Often, unregulated sleeping and eating schedules can lead to complete lack of sleep or missing meals. Due to this, an autistic student may have more difficulty keeping up with schoolwork.
The symptoms of ASD can vary from mild to severe. They can also present themselves differently depending on the individual, as evidenced by a quote Reeve shared, originally said by Dr. Stephen Shore: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
Every ASD individual has a unique set of symptoms, a unique experience and handles the disorder uniquely. Because autism lies on a spectrum, unique is the key word. There are 3.5 million United States citizens with autism, and it would be inaccurate to put them all in one category.
About 0.7-1.8 percent of college students are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Here at St. Olaf, this means about 30 of the 3000 students have ASD. Reeve offered answers as to how to tutor, teach and otherwise help ASD students, but she also emphasized that those efforts would be most helpful if enacted by the community at large. Anxiety, depression and loneliness are among the largest challenges for autistic students. The behavioral struggles make it difficult to be a typical student, the social struggles create a barrier between ASD and non-ASD students and the communicative difficulties make it hard to ask for help.
Reeve suggested a number of ways to help ASD students. If you know someone with ASD symptoms, reach out. Invite them to lunch. Suggest to them a club to join. Be specific and direct when speaking with them to avoid any confusion – idioms, sarcasm, inferences, metaphors, allusions and puns don’t always communicate themselves. But most importantly, Reeve said to be open to these students. Often, they want to be included yet don’t know how to communicate their desires. Like all people, these individuals deserve to be loved, accepted and treated fairly.