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Neurodiverse learning

Students with developmental disabilities can thrive – in the right conditions

Student Life | Student View

By Hayley Whelan

Autism spectrum disorder (or ASD) is often misunderstood by neurotypical people.

In social media and my daily life, I hear and see evidence of people who don’t understand what living with this developmental disorder entails.

Autism can affect people in both visible and more subtle ways.

Never assume

Many people who have autism have mastered the art of blending in with the crowd. You cannot assume that you know how someone with autism looks or acts.

Never use a developmental disorder as a casual joke, or worse, an insult to a seemingly neurotypical person. Comments like these are based in ignorance.

You also can never know what reality others may be living in or what details they might not feel comfortable sharing with you, if they do have a developmental disorder.

Autism is a developmental disorder that can affect how a person learns, thinks and socializes. There is a wide variety of ways that people experience autism.

Autism as a post-secondary student

I had the good fortune to be able to interview a current Memorial student who has autism (who preferred anonymity).

She kindly shared with me how she experiences autism and how it affects her university experience.

This student’s daily routines are affected by her autism in many ways.

“My senses are amplified in a way that makes some everyday experiences overwhelming,” she said.

She says that everything from harsh lights to loud and/or repetitive noises to uncomfortable clothing and certain smells can disrupt her daily routines.

Autism is a lifelong disorder, so she has had to make daily adaptations to facilitate her individual needs.

“While there are experiences we don’t share with neurotypical people, there are tons that we do share.” — A student with autism

Unfortunately, being on campus does not make it easy to succeed and thrive.

“Fluorescent lights, loud noises and a lack of overall tactile comfort can all become overwhelming,” she said.

The struggle to find a quiet place to eat or study on campus motivates her to complete most of her work at home.

Coping with group work and other social situations is one of the bigger challenges that she faces, she says.

‘Just people, too’

Being autistic often means that your social skills are impaired in a way that causes you to misunderstand emotions, be unable to recognize sarcasm or emotional cues in everyday conversation and experience anxiety when interacting with others.

Providing private work spaces is an effective way for autistic students who may not feel comfortable sharing the details of their condition with a professor to overcome some of these challenges.

I gained a lot of valuable perspective by connecting in a meaningful conversation with just one neurodiverse person.

“Autistic people are just people, too, and while there are experiences we don’t share with neurotypical people, there are tons that we do share, and we can build a rapport on that,” the student said.

As for advice for other autistic and neurotypical students who may feel that they are alone in their post-secondary education experience, the student says it’s important to advocate for themselves if they are facing discrimination, feeling overwhelmed or just think something is “off.”

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help from friends, family, professors or the university if you need it. You deserve to be here, and I think you’re all amazing human beings.”

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