Kendal Nolan’s college journey with autism has been neither linear nor easy—but as she prepares to start graduate school this fall, she says every milestone has been important.
“I was misdiagnosed as a teenager with other things before doctors finally told me I had Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of 15,” says Kendal, who grew up in Fort Collins.
After high school, she moved to Roswell, New Mexico, to start a special program for students with disabilities at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell (ENMUR). The program is designed to train participants for entry-level jobs in areas such as office work, food service, child care and animal healthcare.
After she completed the program, she decided to transition into further undergraduate studies at ENMUR. But her first attempt at a bachelor’s degree was unsuccessful.
“I moved back to Fort Collins and was really struggling to find my path,” she recalls. “But I knew that any type of job that interested me would require higher education.”
Finding Support at FRCC
Still doubtful that she could succeed in college, Kendal decided to take a class at Front Range Community College in 2012. There, she improved her study skills and developed confidence with the support of her instructors and the college’s Disability Support Services staff.
“Certain things have always been hard for me—like time management, executive functioning and managing test anxiety. But at FRCC, I had good support,” Kendal says.
“I learned foundational skills and tools that helped me become a good student. I started liking who I am and changing my outlook about what I have to offer the world.”
On to CSU… and Beyond
After earning an associate degree from FRCC in 2016, Kendal transferred to Colorado State University and began working toward a bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies. She wasn’t sure exactly what her future career would look like, but knew that she wanted to work in a job helping others.
Kendal also got involved in the Bridge Program at CSU’s Center for Community Partnerships, working as a peer mentor for incoming freshmen and transfer students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or other disabilities. That experience led her to become an assistant director for the program over two of her summers during college.
Kendal’s work with the Bridge Program also opened other doors. She eventually became a research assistant—studying inclusive education, anxiety, ASD and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder under CSU professors.
Turning “Weaknesses Into Strengths”
At CSU, Kendal became what she calls “autism proud.” “I want to turn my greatest weaknesses into strengths,” she says.
She has continued to get involved in organizations that advocate for people with disabilities. She’s volunteered for the Alliance for Suicide Prevention of Larimer County since 2019. She continues doing research at CSU for the Department of Human Development and Family Studies as well as the Center for Community Partnerships.
And since 2019, she’s served on the board of The Arc of Larimer County—an organization that promotes and protects the civil rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She has been serving as the interim president of the nonprofit since December.
Sharing Her Experience with ASD
Much to her own surprise, Kendal has become an advocate for people with autism and is sharing her experience widely. She’s contributed chapters to two books written by a local licensed psychologist who specializes in ASD and another group educating teachers on ASD.
She has also led workshops on time management skills for the Center for Community Partnerships and has presented at the Colorado Autism Conference and at CSU’s Occupational Therapy Knowledge Exchange Day.
“Autism Has Made Me Who I Am”
“Having a disability used to make me feel like less of a valuable person, and my challenges held me back a lot as a teen and young adult,” she says. “But I realize now that autism has made me who I am.”
Kendal’s life experience has influenced her plans for her career too. Now a 2020 CSU graduate, she works as a paid intern at the Center for Community Partnerships. She was also accepted to Regis University and will begin working on her master’s degree in nonprofit management this August.
Inspiring Social Connection
After grad school, Kendal hopes to start a nonprofit that helps people with ASD and other disabilities to develop social connections. “There are so many wonderful organizations out there that help people with disabilities learn many of the skills they need to succeed and be independent,” she says. “But in my experience, it is so important to connect with others to avoid the isolation that is very common with students with ASD.”
As the autism-proud person she has become, Kendal says her goal is to accept herself while striving for improvement. “My time at CSU has been transformational, and I would never have even gotten to CSU had I not gone to FRCC,” she says.
“I’ve learned why getting involved is important. I have learned that other people can tell you over and over that you can achieve things, but you have to believe that yourself. And now I do.”
April Is Autism Acceptance* Month
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines ASD as a “developmental disability caused by differences in the brain.” People with ASD might have challenges with learning, paying attention and moving—and with interactions and social communication with others. There is no medical test to diagnose ASD, so diagnosis can be difficult or delayed.
During Autism Acceptance* Month, we encourage our community to learn more about what life is like for people on the autism spectrum and what ASD is not. There are many organizations that can help you can learn more about autism, but here are a few places to start:
- Autism Society Colorado
- Autism Research Institute
- University of California-Davis Mind Institute
- The Autism Society
We can all take a page from Kendal Nolan’s playbook—and start changing our outlook about what our friends, classmates, colleagues and neighbors with autism have to offer the world.
*Editor’s note: In the interest of being inclusive and accepting, many autism-related organizations have begun to encourage people to call April Autism “Acceptance” Month, rather than “Awareness” Month.