Friday, December 1, 2023

Autistic students reflect on their experiences with disclosure and acceptance at the university

NewsCampus NewsAutistic students reflect on their experiences with disclosure and acceptance at the university

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Prior to starting college, senior psychology major Max Miller was often not comfortable disclosing their autistic identity. Now, as treasurer of the Disability Alliance and a substitute teacher with the university’s Early Learning Center, they have connected with other neurodivergent individuals and found a supportive community.

Even with accommodations offered by the Office of Disability Support Services (DSS), awareness advocates like Miller see various opportunities for the university to become more inclusive towards disabled students.

“[The university] doesn’t really do a lot to recognize that there is a very, very large group of us here,” Miller said. “It’s almost like they either forget that we’re here or they only think about it during syllabus week when they give that mandatory shout-out like, ‘Oh, if you need accommodations go XYZ.’”

There are 172 autistic students enrolled with DSS and 1,244 neurodivergent students registered overall, according to DSS director Elizabeth Reed.

Many college attendees still choose not to share their autistic identity with DSS or anyone else at the university. A large reason for this was because there were no registered student organizations specifically for disabled or autistic students until the creation of the Disability Alliance this past spring semester, according to Miller.

“It’s easy to feel like you’re alone on campus,” Miller said. “It’s easy to feel like nobody else is going through the same things you are.”

Sophomore neuroscience major Michaela Hodges-Fulton and research manager Jessica Monahan are conducting a nationwide study to explore why a large number of students still refrain from openness about being autistic.

Advertised by bright orange fliers hung throughout various buildings that feature the words “Are you an autistic college student?” alongside a QR code leading to a questionnaire, the study asks questions about respondents’ past experiences with disclosure and other factors that may affect their decision to share.

Hodges-Fulton and Monahan have received what they described as a “pretty good” response rate, and though findings are still in preliminary stages, finalized results will be published as soon as their questions are answered.

Monahan went on to point out that many disabled students do not use DSS and perform just fine academically. As a result, one of the purposes of the study is to discover whether disclosing one’s neurodivergence and seeking assistance increases educational success or not, according to Hodges-Fulton.

“We have no idea if it’s actually helpful to disclose,” Monahan said. “There’s no research, that Michaela and I can find anyway, that says, ‘If you go to the disability office and you tell them you need accommodations, you’re going to do better.’” 

DSS provides accommodations such as additional time to complete assignments, attendance flexibility, note-taking assistance and other academic and non-academic support.

Describing the site as “archaic” and unlike other university webpages, Miller said that they and their friends frequently joke about the irony of university accommodation services being somewhat inaccessible.

Like Miller, freshman computer science major Leif Keane, an autistic student, found that DSS is difficult to navigate.

“For a system that’s supposed to help people with disabilities, it really isn’t friendly,” Keane said. “It very much feels like there’s just way too many steps to do everything.”

Keane has found that her professors are welcoming towards her accommodations, though some of them are too “hands off,” making the transition to college more overwhelming.

On the other hand, Carson McClung, an autistic sophomore public policy major, has had primarily positive experiences using DSS, as well as with making his autistic identity known to professors and peers.

As a person with “lower support needs,” McClung does not always need accommodation services, but is grateful they are an option.

His experience with disclosure and acceptance has been much more positive in college rather than in high school. As a special education student in high school, McClung felt he was seen as “defective.”

“I couldn’t input my voice,” McClung said. “It felt like people were speaking over me and trying to decide what’s best for me when I’m the one who knows it. … I felt like being autistic wasn’t something to be proud of.”

Though diagnosed at 2 years old, McClung was apprehensive to identify as autistic until he reached about 17 years old. Now a college student, McClung is generally open with his identity.

Keane feels similarly, describing herself as “more comfortable with the label now than probably ever.”

Keane, McClung and Miller all concluded with the same sentiment: that the vast majority of peers and faculty they’ve interacted with at the university have been accepting and open-minded towards their identities.

Still, each made a point to recognize that their mainly positive experiences may differ from others on campus who require a greater level of support. As such, McClung encouraged professors, administrators and students to always be attentive to other perspectives.

When animosity does arise for the three, it is usually on the grounds of people having false preconceived notions of what it means to be on the spectrum.

“A lot of people have a very specific understanding of what autism might look like and I don’t necessarily fit a lot of people’s definitions of autism,” Miller said, explaining that many tend to only picture those with higher levels of intellectual disability.

In the beginnings of its first full year active, the Disability Alliance is garnering interest among both neurodivergent and physically disabled underclassmen, according to Miller.

“Having the Disability Alliance is nice because it lets there be a community of people that can reassure you that other people are experiencing the same thing that you are,” Miller said.

When Andrew Jenks, the Disability Alliance faculty advisor and a paralympian, attended the university as a graduate student, there was no place to cultivate a disability culture, nor was there at West Chester University, where he received his undergraduate degree. 

Now, students in the Alliance “will be able to build a community around and be able to foster their own sense of inclusiveness on a campus and in a world which is largely just not built for them,” said Jenks.

Since disability impacts people regardless of gender, sex, race, ethnicity or otherwise, it is both diverse and difficult to understand without having first-hand experience, Jenks explained.

Though disability “tends to fall out of the discussion around diversity, equity and inclusion,” the issue is not unique to the university alone, according to Jenks. He emphasized that many campuses and policy-making institutions are prone to doing so.

“I’m lucky enough to work with a really talented and dedicated body of educators at the University of Delaware who do all of these things to try to make their classroom learning experience better,” Jenks said. “Because they want to create classrooms and learning environments that are more accessible to their students – learning environments that make students feel like they belong.”

Editor’s Note: Leif Keane, current development reporter at The Review, was interviewed for this story before officially joining The Review’s staff.




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