Neurodivergence in a Pandemic Realm

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“I can name all 46 presidents in order. And if you give me a number between one and 46, I can tell you the president… ‘13?’ That’s Millard Fillmore. ‘32?’ That’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt. ‘40?’ That would be Ronald Reagan. ‘23?’ That is Benjamin Harrison, the only president buried in Indiana.”

Sigma Nu president, DePauw swimmer, walking plethora of knowledge about U.S. presidential history, LEGO set building, and all things video games. These are just some of junior Alex Bowling’s noteworthy interests which also contribute to his growth and social life as an autistic college student.

According to the Journal of College Student Development’s article,College experiences for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Personal identity, public disclosure, and institutional support, 38.8% of college students on the autism spectrum will graduate. Although these figures are unfortunately low, the article states that most individuals with autism perform at the same or higher level than their neurotypical peers in the college age. The issue is not the smarts or the ambition of the student, but the institutional and widespread social support.

Those who are on the autism spectrum in college are co-leading an academic justice movement, and setting a sturdy foundation for the rights of and proper accommodations for neuro-divergent thinkers and leaders. Although online learning during the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic applies to all types of learners, autistic college students face the unique circumstances in different ways.

Bowling has had decent success at DePauw regarding accommodations for his autism during distance learning, but “feeling the pressure of having your face be constantly looked at on the screen especially if the professor demands having the camera on at all times- those [professors] that don’t, have definitely made things easier,” he said.

In a normal year of in-person classes, Bowling is given a private testing space away from the class, and is given extra time on tests and assignment extensions to accommodate his autism. Tests and assignments during the pandemic are completed from the comfort of his private room at the Sigma Nu house.

“But, for the most part, I’d say remote learning was a different, but I’d say slightly better experience in some regards. But I’m okay with going back to in-person classes, to get back in the norm,” Bowling said.

Off campus, Bowling has spent two summers with autistic adults in the West Lafayette area, building friendships and assisting them in their daily tasks through the company Community Ventures.

“I’ve decided to work mostly with higher functioning adults, that might need more social skills or just need a person to hang out and socialize with. Both of [my clients] are very into video games like me, so we go to video game stores a bunch, and just browse and sometimes make purchases,” he said. “It’s mostly being a friend to a person who might struggle to socialize with people a lot… it definitely doesn’t feel like a job honestly.”  

As of right now, there are no groups for autistic student advocacy at DePauw.

“I think it would be very nice to have a group that is united under neurodivergency. It would be helpful to get a good idea of how many of us there are, or how many are proud to say they are in this group, because I know a lot of people might want to keep their struggles and just try to make it through. I try not to be that. I’m the person who’s proud to say I’m autistic to everyone I meet,” Bowling added.

Outside of DePauw, junior Taelynn Gittins is a History and secondary education major on the soccer team at College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota. She has grown popular on TikTok through expressing herself, and teaching others on the app about the adult-autism experience. Of course, the pandemic hasn’t been so easy.

“I have never been a fan of online school. I can’t pay attention enough… I think that’s a big austistic thing. Students, we people with autism, are just wired differently,” Gittins said. “I can’t pay attention for more than probably 20 minutes at a time. And then I lose interest, unless it’s history. I love history, history is my hyper focus.” 

But since her autism diagnosis in third grade, her education career in middle and high school was met with serious bullying, until she was guided by a teacher who celebrated and encouraged Gittins to embrace her autism and skills. This led her to pursue her secondary education major, and do so with sympathy.

“I didn’t want anybody else with Autism to go through this,” she said about bullying and lack of accommodations. “I want my students to feel comfortable in school, no matter what they’re dealing with… And especially because I am neurodivergent, I think we need more educators like that.”

Gittins has also helped autistic adults in the Hugo, MN community for three years, and has learned a lot about herself and the importance of autism advocacy through her clients.

“I think working with [my client] helped me immensely with my autism as well, because when I was working with skills I had been taught through therapy, I was working on them with him. But it was also making me realize what skills I should be using in real life, too,” she said. “It’s teaching both people with autism how to work with others, how to work in society especially going out and about in public, and how to control our bodies.”

From a social standpoint, Gittins has shared the harm of masking, where autistic individuals will hide their stims (physical, reactive movements). She is trying to understand and help others avoid the habit of masking stims that she was taught from childhood.

“It’s essentially saying that you need to hide who you truly are, because the world’s not gonna think that’s okay… I hide characteristics of my autism, because I’ve been told it’s not okay. And that’s what masking is,” she said.

Ace Kace just completed their sophomore year at Florida State University, and is pursuing a marketing major while growing their internet following of 24.7K followers on Instagram playing guitar and advocating for the autistic community through the internet.

Since the pandemic hit, Kace hasn’t been able to perform live music, and has uploaded YouTube and IGTV videos to share their music. Large crowds usually bother Kace, but live performance is a different atmosphere.

“When I’m on stage and playing music, crowds and stuff don’t really bother me. When I’m burnt out and overstimulated, it’s harder for me to mask, so it’s difficult to be vocal and communicate with people around me,” they said.

Still, the music making has continued through the pandemic, and Kace’s new single, “Numb Love” comes out on May 14 on their YouTube channel @Ace Kace.

When the pandemic hit, the autistic community online changed in more ways than one.

“I think since quarantine has happened, the autistic community online has grown a lot, and it’s become much more saturated with other autistic creators. I think that’s a beautiful opportunity to interact with people and discuss experiences and struggles, and kind of talk about ways and solutions to help,” Kace said.

“I remember one time, someone messaged me saying that a video I made helped them to avoid a meltdown, and that was huge for me. I never thought I could do something like that,” they added.

On the other hand, Kace mentioned a darker side to autism representation online that has emerged recently.

“The internet can become a negative place at times, especially during COVID-19 I’ve noticed that it’s been a lot more negative and stressful… All the issues in the world are coming out as people are being more emotionally charged,” they added.

But online and in real life, microaggressions against autistic people persevere in everyday conversation. For instance, referring to autistic people as “a person with autism” has bothered Kace.

“Person-first language is the idea of putting the person before the disability,” they said. “And I always compared the saying to ‘person with gayness’ or ‘person with straightness’ like that’s just something they can let go of or not really identify with.” “Autistic person” is a perfectly respectable term, according to Kace.

The changes from the past year through the pandemic—learning, soccer playing, performing live—hasn’t been easy for anyone. However, the autistic college student community has continued to guide the way to better acceptance and embracing of autism.

“Autistic people can be more hesitant to change… but that’s something I’ve been trying to embrace and accept, because it’s natural and there’s nothing inherently wrong with change, it’s your ability to work with the change,” Kace said.