Students speak up, raising awareness of autism

'It's part of who I am'


The Autism Spectrum Club's 2023 Christmas party, courtesy of John Criger. 

Alex Alma, the president of the Autism Spectrum Club (ASC) at Central Michigan University, said for a while she’s known disabilities to be hushed and centered around shame. However, in recent years Alma said autism is becoming more than just being seen as a disability but as a part of who she is as a person. 

“It’s a part of my identity, it’s a part of who I am, and it’s something that we’re usually proud of,” Alma said. “We’re happy with who we are, and while it makes life more difficult in a lot of ways it also brings a lot of value to our life.” 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, "Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn and behave." 

Nearly five and a half million adults and one in 36 children in the United States have ASD, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Learning from the community’s perspective

John Criger, the secretary of ASC at CMU, said people should recognize that every person who is autistic is different. He said that whether it’s their experiences and struggles or their neurofunctions, autism is diverse.

Criger said there are several misconceptions many neurotypical people have about the autistic community.

"Whether it’s all of us being gifted or all of us being sort of infantilized, and that we need to be talked down to or treated like children to get to where we need to be, but many of us have arrived academically and socially and professionally and a lot of us don't get the full credit or recognition we deserve by our neurotypical counterparts,” Criger said. 

According to the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, with roughly 550,000 autistic children transitioning into adulthood within the next decade, an expected 45% will enroll in a university, college, or technical or vocational school in the coming years. 

Criger said one way people can support the autistic community is just by talking to them on the same level.

“We don’t need someone to hold our hand our entire lives,” he said. 

Criger said growing up no one wanted to address his autism with him. He said in some ways he felt people treated him differently by not taking him more seriously. He said while he knew what his disability was at the time adults still coddled him. 

From left to right, John Criger, Alex Alma and Zachery Mondlak at the 8th annual Autism Acceptance Walk in Boyne City, Michigan, April 30, 2023. Courtesy of Criger.

“I didn’t know the full extent of everything about my disability, but I knew that I had it and I knew what that meant for me that I was different from other kids but I didn’t want to feel different,” Criger said.

Alma said a typical trait with autism is having less tolerance. She said that lazy is often a word thrown toward people who are autistic, especially in school. She said that doing tasks may not be as much effort to a neurotypical person, as it is to an autistic person.

“We’re so exhausted we need time after these things to recover,” Alma said. “We can’t just bounce back immediately and start doing the next thing, and so people think we're just being lazy when really we need a lot more recovery time than most people.”  

She said something that isn’t recognized enough is the extent of how these tolerances feel. Alma said that while not every autistic person has the same sensory perceptions, for her it’s sound sensitivity. 

“It’s not just that it’s like uncomfortable or tiring, it’s literally painful to (hear) loud noises or certain types of noises,” Alma said. “I think a lot of people who aren’t autistic don’t understand like the degree of how those sensory things affects us.”

Experiences growing up

Criger said while he was officially diagnosed with ASD at age 10, his family knew since he was three years old. He said he had good support growing up in school, especially from his mom, dad and brother.

“They let me know that my brain is not broken, I’m not stupid, I can succeed just like everyone else, I can think differently than everyone else and I can approach challenges differently than everyone else which made me feel very supported and loved as a kid growing up,” Criger said. “Which is definitely something that holds true now.”

Alma said she was diagnosed with ASD in the summer of 2022. She said she thinks that not getting diagnosed until later was partly because she didn't have much support from her hometown in Grayling.  

According to Rutgers Health, one in four adolescents with ASD have not been diagnosed and about a quarter of 16-year-olds are also yet to be diagnosed. 

While she grew up around autism, Alma said she was considered neurotypical.

“There was very much a perception that autistic people wouldn’t really end up accomplishing much, there were never discussions of them going to college,” Alma said. “Everything was viewed in a very deficit-based model, and because of that I was never able to recognize the autism in myself until I started hearing from other autistic adults and not just from the staff and administrators in this school.” 

Alma said when coming upon her diagnosis it was a big relief because she felt broken. She said learning she had autism gave her some clarity as to why she experienced life a bit differently.

A common experience Alma said that individuals in the autistic community face is trying to blend in, a practice known as masking. Masking, according to the National Autistic Society, is a strategy they use to hide themselves by suppressing autistic behaviors or mimicking neurotypical behaviors to fit in with neurotypical individuals.  

“When I was very young, I learned how people generally needed to behave and so I picked up those behaviors and mimicked them to try and blend in,” Alma said. “People still saw through that to an extent so I did get bullied a little bit and stuff, but I didn’t have as bad of an experience as (others) that can’t mask.”

Criger said he masked a lot through all of his schooling. He said a lot of times he couldn’t tell if he was masking or not because he didn’t understand the barriers he had with communicating with other classmates. 

“Occasionally when I meet new people I try to mask and I don’t reveal that I’m autistic because I don’t want to be socially discriminated or excluded or ostracized in any capacity,” Criger said. “So I have my guard up and I mask as a means of protection of myself and when I earn someone’s trust, then I finally let them in and reveal that part of myself to them.”

“It’s very exhausting,” Alma said. “That’s, for example, why you see a lot of children get home from school and just completely meltdown because that mask is finally coming off.”

Alma said it can be a lot for an autistic person to come to terms with that shift in mindset, so they should take some time to explore themselves.

“Especially with that masking, I kind of lost who I was as an individual over all those years and it took me a couple years, honestly up until pretty recently, for me to truly figure out who I actually am after all those years of hiding myself,” Alma said. 

Expanding Awareness 

Criger said ASC is a place where autistic students come together every week and discuss similar experiences and struggles they face. He said it is welcome to all members, whether clinically or self-diagnosed. He said it's also about educating themselves on the different aspects of neurodiversity and growing together as a community.  

Criger said since coming to CMU he’s had a larger support system and ASC has played a large part in it. He said the Student Disability Services (SDS) on campus was a great resource for accommodations at CMU and helped him find ASC.

However, Alma said it took her a while to find her own community. She said she thinks CMU should have more support outside of SDS as well as more open inclusivity outside of academic accommodations. 

Alma said CMU should have more sensory-accessible events on campus. She also said the university should include a neurodiverse support staff to specifically help guide autistic students through accommodations and make notice of student groups.

Mallory Wilson, the coordinator for accessible equipment and training for SDS, said the office is working on implementing awareness this fall by going to first-year classrooms and informing people on how they can help those in need of accommodations.

With offices having different budgets, Wilson said SDS does what it can to help spread awareness of all disabilities without having a large ability to bring a lot of awareness.

She said the biggest thing that CMU can do to expand its support is to interact with students, figure out what they need and be more up to date on changes in the spectrum.

“One of our biggest things is that our accommodation process isn’t like a buffet bar you get to pick what you want,” Wilson said. “It’s truly about having that conversation with the students because what one accommodation might work for somebody may not work for another individual…”

She said that with CMU working on recognizing all disabilities as well as the SDS office, clubs and programs offered on campus, it helps bring more awareness. 

Criger said he thinks people overall have been more understanding that autism shouldn’t be suppressed in any way but embraced, including the positive traits as well as the challenges that come with it.

“I think it’s extremely beneficial that society is embracing people of all walks of life, and especially in regards to neurodiversity,” Criger said. 

Alma said she believes society is starting to change but to an extent. She said one good thing is that society is moving away from the idea that autism is something that needs to be cured.

“I don’t want my autism self to disappear and I think the majority of the autistic community feels that way, like it is a part of who we are, so finding a straight-up cure is not something we’re interested in,” Alma said. “I think the good news is we’re kind of moving away from that as a society, but I think there’s still a lot to be done.”