Students share experiences with autism via Zoom

Photo courtesy of MissLunaRose12, Wikipedia

To honor Disability Awareness Month, Ramapo College held a panel on Oct. 21 where four students spoke about their experiences with autism. The event was hosted by Suzanne Calgi, the coordinator of the ENHANCE program that supports students on the spectrum. Once Collin Schumacher, Dylan Klain and Katherine Zarember introduced themselves, they answered a list of questions.

Panelists began with describing the experiences of coming to understand their diagnoses. Zarember said over the years, she noticed how she was the only student in her class who needed to leave for therapy, and she gauged how her behavior differed from others. In regards to their comfort levels about being on the spectrum, Schumacher and Klain both said they would confide in trusted friends, while others prefer to only bring it up when it was a necessity.

This wariness stemmed from experiencing mixed treatments based on their diagnoses. Schumacher reported his family was patient with him, but strangers’ reactions varied. In school, Zarember elaborated on how the higher level of sensitivity the staff used around her often became pity, and she preferred being treated like other students even when it came to facing consequences for missing work.

The panelists reported having more difficulties when they were younger. Interpreting social cues and strengthening conversational skills took time and effort. Schumacher compared his attempts to read facial expressions to a card reader in a store, as both can have errors. Learning coping mechanisms to avoid sensory overloads in hectic environments was also a challenge, and Zarember reported now she can be self-conscious of her hands in class. She tries to find “socially acceptable” ways to fidget, like playing with her hair. Anxiety and self-consciousness about fidgeting are commonly experienced by people on the spectrum, but in the end all kinds of fidgets are valid and a greater effort should be made to normalize them instead of placing the burden on autistic students to behave according to a neurotypical standard.

Virtual learning has brought new challenges. The panelists reported that technical problems are distracting, courses are less hands-on and routine changes can be gateways to time management problems. To aid with online learning, professors should welcome questions and clarification requests, and avoid rushing.

Arguably the most important subject was preferred terminology. Klain, like many people, prefers identity-first language and identifies as “an autistic person” to avoid separating pieces of his identity. Others like Zarember lack a preference as long as they aren’t reduced to being “a token autistic person.” She explained how people who don’t like being described as autistic or being on the spectrum often go by ‘neurodivergent’ because it can encompass any processing or neurological condition within the spectrum, including ADD and ADHD.

Another controversial topic was the idea of a cure for autism. Zarember said the idea was generally opposed by the community because its proponents “make us seem like we’re a burden or a disease.” Another student present emphasized the importance of awareness and education over a cure, and Schumacher added how people who are on the spectrum need to be at the forefront of the movement.

A common misconception they dispelled was the idea that they lacked empathy. This false belief is rooted in stigmatization and poor media representation. There are different methods of expressing empathy, not all of which meet societal norms.

This variance in self-expression should be taken into account by anyone dating someone on the spectrum. A neurodivergent partner might not follow traditional body language. Therefore, communication is vital for partners to understand each other’s emotions.

There was an overarching theme of how a shared diagnosis doesn’t equate to shared preferences and experiences. “Autism shouldn’t be understood one certain way,” one panelist said. 

Generalization is a gateway to assumptions, and people with disabilities should never be categorized as “underclass,” as everyone excels in different areas. A neurodivergent person can often focus harder on learning about a specific topic or a skill that interests them than a neurotypical person. 

“Different is not deficient,” Klain said.

As someone who is autistic, attending the panel was an emotional experience. I agreed with many of the panelists’ answers and their advice that if you are close to a person who identifies as autistic and wish to learn more, they are the best person to ask. Just ensure that they are comfortable answering, and remember how one person’s experiences aren’t universal. Overall, education like Wednesday’s panel is the key to breaking the stigma around autism.