AUSTIN (KXAN) — Students on the autism spectrum started a new organization this semester at Austin Community College to support and advocate for fellow autistic students transitioning to college.
ACCess Autism is hosting its first event Wednesday for students in the community college system. Vendors and information providers will set up at the Northridge campus to talk to students and faculty about autism.
“Not only do I see this club as an opportunity to connect with other people with autism, but we could also use it to promote autism awareness and help the community practice tolerance, respect and acceptance,” Miles Jackson said.
Jackson is in his second semester at ACC, studying music and is taking eight classes. He first started singing when his dad introduced him to Black Sabbath at age 12 and moved to Austin from Maine last summer to continue his education.
“When I discovered ACC, I figured it would be a good way to adjust to college life, so it wouldn’t be too overwhelming,” Jackson said. “Being autistic, I was hoping to connect with people who were also on the spectrum, basically those who speak my language.”
He found the new club when his friend and fellow music student, Sloan Dudley, asked if he wanted to be part of it. “And I’m like, ‘Heck yeah!'” he said.
Dudley is president of ACCess Autism, an idea developed with the campus autism specialist, Samantha Thomson.
“What we realized is a student-led organization would not only give us funding, give us a name on the campus,” Dudley said, “but it would also create this giant opportunity to create leadership in the autism community here on campus.”
The club has about 15 members so far, mostly on the Northridge campus, but Dudley hopes its reach grows to encompass more of the ACC system as more students on the spectrum learn about it.
It’s different from most autism support organizations. “Every member of the group and every officer of the group is a person on the autism spectrum,” Dudley said. When she started it, she found just two other clubs in the country that were set up the same way.
Colleges are still figuring out the best ways to support students on the spectrum. One out of every 59 children is identified as being on the autism spectrum, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the number of incoming college students identifying as such is much lower.
The College Autism Network found in 2017 that about 1-in-225 college students self-identified as being on the spectrum. Across ACC, Thomson estimates there are 366 students with either diagnosed or undiagnosed autism, and it’s her job to help with the transition to higher education.
“Once they leave high school,” she said, “a lot of people with disabilities, they feel like, ‘I don’t want anybody to know; I’m going to go make it on my own. I’m just fine.'”
“Providing the right support is the key to helping get them to graduation,” Thomson said.
That support looks different for everyone because Autism presents differently in each student. Thomson built out a sensory space on the Northridge campus, complete with soothing music, an aromatherapy diffuser, a comfortable lounger and other tactile objects for students with autism (or any stressed student) to take a break and relax.
Club members say the transition to ACC has been a mostly positive one.
“I thought a community college would be a great place to go to,” Iva Millsap, ACCess Autism’s vice president, said.
“I used to just be at home most of the time because I was home-schooled,” added Daniel Hager, “so I didn’t really socialize that much before I went to ACC.”
Dudley, the club’s president, wants to keep improving the environment at the community college system to welcome new students and to clear up any misconceptions among her classmates who aren’t on the spectrum.
“They think that it is negative and bad and needs to be fixed in a way where it really doesn’t,” she said. Wednesday’s event, she believes, will go a long way to achieving the change in thought the club wants to foster.
“And hopefully [they] realize that we’re not all that different that they are.”