5Cs Must Support Autistic Students

In light of President Trump’s recent comments on autism, in which he described the increasing rate of diagnoses as “horrible,” it is important to examine how autism is regarded at the 5Cs and work to foster a greater community understanding of autism.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and nonverbal communication, extremely repetitive behavior, and sensory over-stimulation. The autism spectrum describes the vast range of these conditions, including Asperger’s Syndrome, which is similar to autism but causes no delay in the development of verbal communication.

The causes of autism are still debated and researched today. However, in 1998, British gastroenerologist Andrew Wakefield published a study which claimed that vaccinations directly cause autism. While this study was determined fraudulent and was retracted, the belief that vaccines cause autism still permeates much of American society.

Autism is a political battleground, with some groups advocating that it is a disorder and needs to be cured, and others arguing that it is a variation in the human genome and should be accepted as a difference. As a result, the way in which one refers to autism is usually considered a political act. 'A person with autism' describes the condition as a disease and disorder, while 'an autistic person' describes the condition as part of the individual that should be accepted.  

I believe that if the campus understood more about these issues, then autistic students would feel more accepted. For instance, at Pomona College's Residence Hall Staff training last September, which I attended as a chair of Pomona's Judiciary Board and an Orientation Adventure leader, the presenting dean discussed sexual assault and inappropriate sexual advances.

A student raised their hand and asked: "What if the person making the advances does not know that they are inappropriate?"

The dean replied: “Yes, if the person has autism or something like that, then we will try to work with them, but in the end, they must take responsibility for their actions.”  

In my opinion, this statement reinforced the stereotype that a person with autism is unable to socially understand when another person does not want sexual advances to be made. If there were other autistic individuals in the room, I can only imagine how this must have made them feel.  

To me, the comment and lack of response from anyone in the room made me question whether I should ever flirt with someone. In my opinion and that of the majority of the medical professionals with whom I have spoken, the social difficulties of autistic individuals do not inhibit them from understanding when a person is receiving unwanted attention. The social struggles are typically more nuanced such as difficulty making eye contact, reading body language, or understanding sarcasm and figurative speech.  

A greater community understanding could also allow autistic students to feel more comfortable in our campus’s public spaces. As a result of overstimulation, autistic individuals often cannot attend large social gatherings or loud parties without having enormous support and overcoming enormous difficulty.

I am not suggesting that parties turn down the volume of their music or make the environment less stimulating, since that is the nature of parties. But perhaps there could be more autistic-friendly social gatherings that have less bright lights and a moderate level of music.

Finally, I believe that if there was a heightened community understanding of autism and increased autistic representation, more autistic students would feel like they belong at the 5Cs. In my three years at the 5Cs, I have not found any role model, professor, or staff member who is on the autism spectrum. While there are numerous possible explanations for this, one troubling possibility is that there are simply not many autistic role models on campus.

However, other possibilities include that I have not encountered an autistic role model simply because I have not met every older adult on campus, or because those professors or role models with autism do not publicize the fact that they are autistic. Another possibility is that many professors who are on the autism spectrum have not received formal diagnoses because autism is medically understood much better now than a few decades ago.  

Regardless of the explanation, it is troubling that the difficulties faced by autistic students and the wider topic of neurodiversity are not publicized or discussed in Pomona College news or ASPC publications. In my experience, and from those whom I have talked with as well, autistic individuals are told from an early age that they do not behave normally and will subsequently experience difficulties holding a job or having a typical, independent adult life. This is not helped by the fact that a significant portion of autistic individuals live in group homes or with their immediate family members late in life.  

For these reasons, a wider community understanding of autism, the support of autistic role models, and the support of our student government and fellow students are immensely important, especially now that deeply-concerning comments about autism are being made.

Adam Mitchell PO '18 is a physics / astrophysics major from Portland, Oregon. He enjoys running and can often be found lamenting the fact that it's not raining.