• Brooke Simtob

Answering College Students' Questions About Autism

College notes and fidgets are important parts of both mine and Charlotte's lives

Today’s article is a collaboration with my friend and college roommate, Charlotte! Charlotte is a sophomore at GVSU majoring in Therapeutic Recreation, and she also is autistic.

While at dinner last week, Charlotte and I decided to go up to people in the dining hall at our university and ask them questions about autism. We asked them what they knew, and what they wish they knew about autism.

We went out to learn what people our age knew about autism, thinking that there would be lots of misconceptions. We were pleasantly surprised that they knew much more than we thought they would. We asked about 10 individuals, so this is not an all-inclusive list of what the public knows about autism; it is just a glimpse into what some college students might be thinking.

The Interview Process

The first question we asked the students was, “What do you know about autism?”

Some of our respondents knew about the details of autism such as…

- Autism is a disorder

- It varies in severity and degree

- Autistic people struggle with certain social abilities, such as eye contact

- They perceive and experience the world in different ways

- They struggle with sensory issues

- Some may fidget or stim

- Autistic people are usually very nice and affectionate

The respondents that seemed to know about autism were trying very hard to not be offensive or insensitive when they were explaining their understanding of autism. Their genuine care for being kind and respectful was heartwarming.

A few mentioned that they knew a lot about autism because they had family members who are autistic. There were also respondents who did not know as much about autism. These people expressed that they didn’t know much about it, and let the other people with them do most of the talking.

After asking them what they already knew about autism, we then asked them what they would want to understand more about autism and what they would ask someone who is autistic.

Here’s what they had to say:

- What are the differences between autistic and non-autistic people?

- What is the world like from an autistic perspective?

- How do autistic people handle those that are ignorant and mean to them?

- What can they do to help autistic people cope with the world?

- How can they make autistic people more comfortable when socializing with them?

Again, when asking these questions, some seemed hesitant to fully disclose what they were thinking because they didn’t want to be insensitive or offensive. This is a very common response when talking about autism with people who don’t know as much about it or don’t want to say the “wrong” thing.

We didn’t get to answer these questions then, but here is what we would have said if we had answered them. Hopefully, it gives you some insight into the autistic mind that you might have been curious about.

Here are our answers to their questions:

What are the differences between autistic and non-autistic people?

We are assuming that this question is asking what makes an autistic person, autistic. Autism is a neurological difference that someone is born with. The main diagnosis criteria of Autism Spectrum Disorder are social-communication difficulties and restricted and repetitive behaviors.

Social-communication difficulties can be impairments in verbal and nonverbal communication, as well as difficulties forming and maintaining relationships. It is on a spectrum, so some of us have more difficulties in this area than others.

Restricted and repetitive behaviors can mean a few different things, such as sensory sensitivities, intense interests or hyperfocusing on specific topics, stereotypical movements (stimming), and difficulties adjusting to change. This also can range in severity, as autism is a spectrum disorder (Read more about autism as a spectrum here: https://the-art-of-autism.com/understanding-the-spectrum-a-comic-strip-explanation/)

That is the technical definition of autism, but lets talk about what it means for us in our lives. For me (Brooke), being autistic means that I see the world in a unique way. I have a different way of experiencing the world because of my struggles with non-verbal social cues and sensory sensitivities. Being autistic also means that I can get overwhelmed more frequently, especially from things like change and new environments. I can get super hyperfocused on certain interests of mine and lose track of time, which can be great in being productive, but not so great if it is something that doesn’t need my intense focus. There are many more things that make me autistic, but this sums up just a few aspects of my life as a person with autism.

What is the world like from our autistic perspective?

This is a harder one to answer, because every autistic person views the world in a different way, just as every neurotypical person views the world differently. To answer this question fully, you would have to ask each autistic person individually. Here are some of our answers.

For me (Charlotte), I experience the world more intensely than many of my non-autistic peers. Noises that don’t bother other people often bother me, and tend to overwhelm me. When I get overwhelmed my emotions either get really strong, or I don’t feel anything at all. When I get anxious, I get extremely anxious which can lead to anxiety attacks. When I get upset, I get very upset and can’t control myself from crying, even if it is somewhere like a class where I am “supposed to keep it together”. Sometimes, these strong emotions can be amazing though. When I am happy, I get really happy and excited. So excited it is hard to contain it! You can tell if I’m really excited if my hands are flapping. Overall, I experience the world differently, but it is not any better or worse than anyone else's perspectives.

How do we handle those that are mean and ignorant to us?

We take a deep breath and realize that we are stronger than them and can handle anything and that we are kind-hearted and can do anything that…..

NOPE! We are just as human as you, regardless of our autism. When people are mean to us, we feel hurt and sad and lonely, and then we get back up again because we have no choice but to move forward and find the people who love us for who we are.

When people are ignorant, it is often not out of malice, but of pure misunderstanding and lack of education. We’ve been told that “You can’t be autistic because you talk”. While this can sometimes be frustrating, it can also be a great opportunity to teach others that autism is a spectrum disorder and looks different in everybody. There is no shame in not knowing something, as long as you are willing to be humble and open to learning more.

I (Charlotte), also had someone tell me that “autistic people can’t help it because they have an extra chromosome”. Clearly, that person was just misinformed as to what autism is, and I did not have any hard feelings toward this individual. I just simply educated my classmate as to what autism is, and that it is not a chromosomal disorder.

What can other people do to help us cope with the world and socialize?

The most beneficial thing others can do for us is to accept us for who we are, differences and all. This may mean learning more about our struggles as well, and realizing that they do not make us any less than someone who doesn’t struggle the same way. Everyone has struggles and strengths, and autistic people are no different!

Just because I (Charlotte) am wearing my ear defenders doesn’t mean that I don’t want to talk to you, it just means that noises in the background are too much for me at the moment. If I’m rocking in a fetal position in my chair, you don’t need to be worried. I’m probably not having a mental breakdown, I’m just stimming. So, just accept that we are different and treat us like you would anyone else; hopefully, with kindness and respect.

Our socialization might look different than how you socialize, but it doesn't mean that we are any less interested in being your friend. Learn our communication styles by observation, and then interact with us in a way that makes everyone involved happy. Or just straight-out ask how to communicate with us, and we will probably answer you sincerely.

Hopefully, this article answers some of your burning questions about autism that you didn't know where to ask. If you have any more questions, feel free to be open and honest with us here at BA4A about your questions and concerns; all of us here love answering questions and furthering the understanding of us and our autism. Don’t be afraid to ask something you are wondering or being offensive; as long as you are coming from a good place, asking questions is always a good idea to educate yourself.

In collaboration with Charlotte Deimel

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