FINDING COMFORT IN IDENTITY: LIVING WITH AUTISM
Emelyne Bingham, Senior Lecturer in the Teaching of Music, Blair School of Music, Faculty VUceptor
Kyle Schwartz, ’19, College of Arts and Science
Thanks to Vanderbilt Visions, we were fortunate to have formed a friendship through the common experience of living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While we received our diagnoses at different ages (Kyle at three and Emelyne as an adult), we both feel fortunate to have received the support necessary to manage the significant challenges we, and others on the spectrum, face daily. Of course we’ve encountered our share of stereotypes along the way, including assumptions about our cognitive abilities, our capacity for empathy, and our social needs. In reality, though, we have different combinations of strengths and weakness just like neurotypical people do.
For many people on the autism spectrum, social skills don’t come naturally; they are learned cognitively, which involves a great deal of trial and error. Often these errors cause misunderstandings with people who don’t understand autism and therefore write us off as awkward, arrogant, or even rude. This can increase an ASD person’s isolation, which in turn inhibits social learning, thus perpetuating the cycle.
The transition to college life can be especially difficult for a person with autism. Socially, it’s challenging for most everyone—but for someone with a social disability it can be overwhelming. Cognitive processing differences in ASD students sometimes require additional time and energy to manage everyday tasks. Additionally, adjusting to new sensory stimuli such as ambient noise in large lecture and residence halls can seem unmanageable. ASD students may find difficulty in advocating for themselves in these situations, as doing so requires reaching far beyond their social comfort zones.
We know we are among the lucky ones, as sadly, not enough people with ASD and other cognitive or developmental disabilities make it to college. We hope that increased awareness and understanding of ASD may bring much needed support, which may someday facilitate that change. Because of programs like Vanderbilt Visions, we envision change happening one conversation at a time. So if you see us out having coffee somewhere on campus, we hope you’ll stop by and say “hello.” We’d really like to get to know you, and also…well, we could use the practice.