Endless academic and social pressures can challenge even the most well prepared college student. For those with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the experience can be especially overwhelming.
As co-founder of the Autism Awareness Association (AAA) on campus, Jay Lytton works hard to draw awareness to the issue and get students with ASD the resources they need.
According to the Autism Society of America, ASD is the fastest growing developmental disability worldwide with nearly 50,000 cases added each year. At UC Davis, the figures have similarly risen as the number of students with ASD jumped from seven in 2008-2009 to 17 this year.
Despite the growing numbers, Lytton said the campus resources available for students with ASD are still very limited.
“It is a problem not only on our campus, but at universities across the nation,” he said. “The university addresses a wide variety of physical and learning disabilities, but the services really aren’t equipped to accommodate students with ASD.”
Lytton originally founded AAA three years ago in an effort to further educate the campus community about the disorder, but the function of the club changed as AAA members became aware of the growing numbers of students on campus that were diagnosed with ASD.
“We started to notice that the needs of many students on the [autism] spectrum were not being met so we started a social outreach network that was cosponsored by the Student Disability Center (SDC) and the MIND institute,” said Joelle Fregeau, the fundraising chair for AAA. “Students on the spectrum would get together every other week to talk, go over social skills, maybe watch a movie, basically act as a support network for each other.”
Though Fregeau said the group appeared to be successful, the program was discontinued for the current quarter due to budget cuts.
“The current goal is to work with student affairs and the SDC to start another group,” Fregeau said. “We really need the help of the university. AAA members don’t have PhD’s and we aren’t in a position to say what is best for these students, but we want to be able to get the word out there that these resources are available.”
The types of challenges that students with ASD face can vary widely depending on the individual, Lytton said.
“Autism is a social communication disorder,” Lytton said. “Obviously these students are at UC Davis because they are smart and have potential, but they can face a lot of challenges both inside and outside the classroom.”
For instance, while students with ASD may be really interested in their classes and understand the topics very well, their success may be hindered by their disorganization or inability to advocate for themselves.
“A student with ASD may have done the assignment but be unable to find the paper in the clutter of his or her backpack,” Lytton said. “Or maybe they have questions but aren’t able to go into office hours and communicate effectively with the professor. These are things they need help addressing.”
When reached for comment, representatives from the SDC said that they are constantly examining ways to outreach to students with different challenges and welcome input from students. They also said that while the support group for students with ASD was put on hiatus for spring quarter, it will be reintroduced in the fall.
One faculty member who is making an extra effort to advocate for students with ASD is Marie Carter-Dubois, the assistant dean of administration and finance for the school of education.
Carter-Dubois is currently working on the early stages of a task force which she hopes will work towards addressing the needs of UC Davis students diagnosed with ASD and identifying ways to help them successfully integrate into the campus.
“There is very little or no support in elementary and especially in secondary levels for students with ASD who are very highly functioning. As a result, families are left to navigate the educational system on their own,” Carter-Dubois said. “UCD needs to be ready to welcome them and be a model of hope for families worried about the future of their children.”
Though autism is more common than ever before, AAA members say it often gets overlooked because is still fairly misunderstood.
“I think the main problem is that people don’t realize that there are autistic students present in schools,” Fregeau said. “There is a lot of stigma attached to the word autism … the main problem is lack of education about [the disorder]. I predict with time we are going to hear a lot more about it.”
In the meantime AAA members are looking the future in terms of resources that they can provide for students with ASD, including a mentor program that would pair spectrum students with non-spectrum AAA members.
“These plans are not in the immediate future, but they are definitely things we are looking at,” Fregeau said. “Our main goal is just to make sure that these students can be as successful as possible during their four years here. That is something that every student deserves.”
ERICA LEE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.