Jennifer Partin was on her shift looking after children when she saw a young boy with autism grabbed and forced to make eye contact with another worker.
“I wanted to say something, but I was just a lowly respite worker,” she said. “Every now and then I get pessimistic, so what I try to do is just raise understanding.”
Partin, a psychology senior who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2016, started doing so at UTD. She founded a student group called For Autistic Empowerment — the first of its kind on campus — that provides support for individuals with autism.
“On one hand, we want to create a community where you don’t have to worry about people judging you for being autistic,” she said. “The other side of the mission is to spread education about what autism is and what it’s like. There’s a tendency towards awareness raising. Awareness without education leads to fear and stigma.”
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental condition that can impair social interaction and communication and encompasses a range of symptoms, skills and disabilities. According to a CDC report published in 2014, about one in 68 children have been diagnosed with ASD.
UTD is home to one of the nation’s largest populations of students diagnosed with ASD. According to the Office of Student AccessAbility, 450 students have registered for autism-related accommodations. A New York Times article published last November reported institutions such as Western Kentucky University and Adelphi University had similar accommodation programs that served between 45 and 100 students, far less than UTD.
A 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics found that 34.7 percent of adolescents with ASD attended college and 55.1 percent were only employed within the first six years after high school. For Noah Sasson, a professor in the School of Brain and Behavioral Sciences who specializes in autism research, these statistics reflect a larger problem in the way resources for individuals with autism are allocated.
“A huge problem is getting support for adults with autism because a lot of public services for kids with autism (are) tied to the school system,” Sasson said. “They’re very few of these kinds of resources for students once they age out of those.”
UTD’s large number of autistic students receive support from the OSA, which works to ensure they receive adequate accommodations based on paperwork filed with the office after acceptance into the university. Kerry Tate, the director of the OSA, said the office makes every effort to tend to personal needs.
“Each student is unique because they’re each going to have different environments,” Tate said. “It may be that they need different color paper when they’re taking their exam. It could be a variety of things, but once the documentation supports it, we are trying to meet their need.”
The relatively high number of students with autism at UTD can be attributed to the university’s strength in certain fields, Sasson said.
“We have top engineering programs (and) computer programs. These are areas where some – not all – people with autism tend to have talents and abilities,” he said. “There’s a lot of research on the kind of logical thinking in autism. Often times we see strengths in mathematics and science-related areas.”
Sasson said though autism is no longer as stigmatized in society as it was before, stereotypes surrounding autism are still prevalent. For Partin, dealing with these misconceptions as a student with autism is a constant struggle.
“People think that it’s some terrible tragedy that only affects children,” she said. “The five-year old boy lining up trains – that’s the stereotype.”
Partin is affected with executive function issues, which impair her ability to manage time and prioritize tasks, as well as dysgraphia, which affects her ability to write. To accommodate her needs, the OSA allows Partin to take notes on her laptop and record lectures.
On a personal level, Partin said she struggles to interact with other students at UTD.
“I have trouble bridging the gap between ‘acquaintance’ and ‘friend’ and actually feeling like I’m worth their time,” she said. “Part of that is a social anxiety thing from autism and part of it is just social ineptitude.”
In spite of the difficulties she faces, Partin emphasized the importance of being treated the same as any other UTD student.
“We’re just like you. We don’t need cures, we don’t need to be coddled, we don’t need to be looked at as weird,” she said.
To foster social connections within the community of students with autism, FAE meets every Friday to provide a space for dialogue and plan campus events. Chance Reyna, a computer engineering sophomore, joined FAE in September. He said he was hesitant to join the group, but found the environment to be welcoming and inclusive. Since then, he’s attended every meeting.
“The key word is acceptance,” Reyna said. “People at this point are aware that it’s a thing that exists, but there needs to be more understanding about how autism works in different people … (because) it’s literally impossible to throw a blanket statement that encompasses every single autistic person.”
Other UTD-affiliated institutions also support individuals diagnosed with autism. The Callier Center operates the Young Adult Communication Group, a support group for young adults diagnosed with ASD. Lucinda Dean, a lecturer in the School of Brain and Behavioral Sciences, launched the program in 2004 and started with a group of three members.
“What I enjoyed probably the most was seeing the young adults who attended grow in confidence with their social communication skills and feel more successful communicating with their peers and professors,” Dean said.
Christina Gollis, a speech-language pathologist at the Callier Center, took over direction of the group in the fall of 2016. By then, the program had grown to 20 members. She leads participants in role-playing scenarios such as asking a professor to fill out accommodation paperwork or interacting in a group setting.
“Most of the students who participate in the group that go to UT Dallas are very smart and they are very successful in the academic part of their classes,” Gollis said. “A lot of them end up coming for half of a semester and then they realize that they’re actually doing pretty well because they have met some new people that they have for support.”
After completing her degree in psychology, Jennifer Partin plans to pursue a career in academia and continue her advocacy work started in FAE by researching the ethics of certain psychological treatments.
“I have a lot of resources through being in connection with other autistic communities,” Partin said. “We share tips of the trade on how to navigate being autistic.”
Despite the challenges she faces, Partin is optimistic.
“Autism is like anything about being human. There are things that suck about it. And there are things that are awesome about it,” Partin said. “Autism isn’t a broken computer – it’s a different operating system.”
**Additional reporting by Marisa Williams**