April is Autism Acceptance Month, which developed over the years as a way to make society more inclusive for autistic people and ensure that they have a say in policies that affect them.
You may know this important annual event by other names—World Autism Month or Autism Awareness Month—but the newer name aims to shift the conversation from simple autism awareness to the more meaningful autism acceptance. Autism acceptance emphasizes that “autistic people belong and deserve welcoming communities, inclusive schools and workplaces, and equal opportunities,” according to the Autistim Self Advocacy Network.
Navigating the Challenges of College
Autism is a complex developmental disability that affects how people communicate, behave, interact, learn and experience the world around them. Finding success in school isn’t always easy for autistic people, even when they’re highly intelligent.
In college, it can be difficult for autistic students to deal with the stress of schoolwork, new social settings and a changing schedule. Executive functioning—things like planning ahead, staying organized, setting goals and prioritizing—can be especially challenging for autistic people. It’s important for autistic students to seek out support and take advantage of college resources for students with disabilities.
Maya Rayner Fried came to Front Range Community College after struggling through two years at Colorado State University. When she started college, she didn’t have an autism diagnosis, but had recently been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. She also has anxiety and depression.
“I went to college straight after high school because that’s what everyone I knew was doing too, and I come from a family of college graduates,” says the 2015 graduate of Fort Collins High School. But Maya wasn’t prepared for college-level academics and decided to take a break after her second year at CSU. She started working for a preschool, in part because her mother is an early childhood paraeducator, so she was familiar with the field.
Comfortable at Community College
After some soul searching and a year off from college, Maya knew it was time to return to earn a degree. FRCC’s Larimer Campus wasn’t far from where Maya grew up, and she decided to enroll.
“Honestly, the first time I applied to college, it had been suggested to me to check out FRCC, but I ignored the advice,” she says. “This time, I knew that it might fit me better than a huge university. It felt less intimidating.”
Another bonus was that Maya was quickly able to identify resources to help her succeed this time around. She visited FRCC’s Disability Support Services and got set up with accommodations.
One year into college, she learned that she is autistic—which was a relief more than a surprise. Her older brother was diagnosed with autism in elementary school.
“I’ve had an inkling of this for many years, and my family has too. The more I researched it, the more I realized it’s something I’ve dealt with for a long time. Being diagnosed validated things I knew about myself that others has always invalidated. Finally, I felt like I had the knowledge to help myself.”
Finding a Place to Belong
Maya joined the Assisting Students through Discovery (ASD) Club on campus, an organization that brings autistic students together to support one another. ASD is an autistic-led group intended to help students succeed in college and have a community to which they can turn for support, advice or just conversation.
“We talk about all kinds of things, and it’s a great community to have because we have a lot in common and can relate to each other’s experiences,” she says. “Autism is an important part of me, but it is only a part of me. I embrace it rather than ignore it.” Maya is now an ambassador for the ASD club, which just won the outstanding student organization award at FRCC’s annual equity and inclusion summit.
Initially oriented to support autistic students, the ASD has transformed into a space for all kinds of students. The club promotes an inclusive culture on campus and helps students with disabilities feel they belong. Members discuss the disability experience and work to create opportunities for disability inclusion across campus and the overall Fort Collins community. ASD has been a critical piece of the college experience for many FRCC students.
Success in College
With the right mindset and support in place, Maya has grown to enjoy college. She has learned how to navigate ups and downs and has stuck with it, even when it hasn’t been easy.
“I’ve learned so much about how to advocate for myself and communicate with teachers and classmates,” she says. “Those things have taken years of practice. I’m now very focused on succeeding in college.”
Maya is working toward an AAS in Early Childhood Education. She’d like to work in the preschool setting again when she graduates. In the long term, she might return to college for a bachelor’s degree in disability studies so she can improve the systems in place for individuals with disabilities.
Seeking Kindness and Understanding
Her message to others during Autism Acceptance Month is simple: Be kind and understanding. “There’s a wide spectrum with autism,” Maya says. “Some people are very private about the disability and how it affects them, and others are more open like I am.”
“The best way to support people is to just be nice,” she says. “Be understanding that some people might do things differently and act differently. Being autistic is only part of who someone is. Like everyone, we need help sometimes.”
What is Autism?
Being autistic can mean a wide variety of things for different people. There’s often confusion about what autism is and is not, but the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) shares that there are certain characteristics that many autistic people have in common:
- A unique way of thinking. They may embrace strong interests in topics others don’t care about or understand. They might pay close attention to detail, be great at problem solving and take longer to think about things. They may struggle with things like surprises, making decisions, executive functioning and processing thoughts and feelings.
- Processing their senses differently. Some autistic people are sensitive to bright lights or loud sounds. Others might not notice when they’re hungry or in pain. Some might repeat the same movement over and over—known as “stimming”—to regulate their senses.
- Moving differently. That might look like a lack of coordination or inability to stop moving. It might be difficult for an autistic person to control how loud they talk.
- Communicating differently. Some autistic people are non-verbal (or start life non-verbal and are late to start speaking). They might communicate by typing on a computer or spelling out words on a white board. Some might communicate with behavior or script out what they want to say. Others have no outwardly noticeable difficulty with verbal communication.
- Socializing differently. This might mean they are more direct or have a difficult time making eye contact or controlling their body language or facial expressions. They might not understand social etiquette all the time.
- Struggling with everyday living activities. Sometimes it might take a lot of energy to cook or do their jobs. They might need breaks to recover energy.
It’s not always easy to spot autism because it looks so different for everyone. Autistic people are like everyone else: They have different challenges, strengths, talents, backgrounds and lives.
Autistic People Belong
ASAN says that autism acceptance emphasizes the message that autistic people belong. Acceptance means many things:
- Respecting the rights and humanity of all autistic people
- Centering the perspectives and needs of autistic people with intellectual disabilities, nonspeaking autistic people and autistic people with the highest support needs
- Listening and looking to autistic people as leaders
- Fighting to ensure that the universal human rights of all autistic people are respected, especially the rights of autistic people with the most significant disabilities
This month, we hope you’ll join us in taking some time to learn more about autism and ways we can all be more accepting.
You can start by reading alumna Kendal Nolan’s story about how she found her way to success at FRCC and has become “autism proud.”