Students with autism thriving on Marshall’s campus
HUNTINGTON — Few experiences are more formative in a young man’s life than those spent on the college campus. Here, an 18-year-old “man” in the legal sense can develop his personality, lasting him throughout his life.
It’s a difficult time for anyone and at least on the surface, it would seem even harder for those navigating life with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
But they’ll contend that notion. They will at least question it, in their own words. Who with autism could know what it’s like to live without it, and likewise who living “normally” have ever seen life through their eyes?
Those questions seem secondary when seeing their lives simply for what they are - whatever path they’re taking, and whatever point on the spectrum they were born into — Marshall University’s students with autism are thriving on campus.
“I’ve gone through my whole life knowing that I have autism,” said Zach Lewis, a Lesage native and recent Marshall graduate with a degree in history. “But besides some social skills that I’ve improved on over time, it never really affected me. I’ve been diagnosed at a young age and had to live through the fact that I have it.”
Marshall is one of the few universities in the nation to offer programming and aid specifically tailored for those with autism through its College Program for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Established in 2002, the College Program supports each individual student by building strategies and navigating college life. This is built around the specific needs of their place on the autism spectrum. Naturally, it also cultivates social life and builds camaraderie among students with autism.
“It’s helped me become a better person overall,” said Rowan Sales, a senior natural resources student from Sarasota, Florida, who arrived at Marshall after attending a boarding school in Connecticut. “I came here that first summer shy and kind of timid but over time, I became a bit of a social butterfly.”
It’s still a difficult time in life, autism or not. For Sales, it’s a problem dwelling on the past and constantly reliving award moments. There’s an occasional bout of irritability, like anyone else, through the College Program he’s learned to treat people more gently.
For Caleb Crawford, autism in college is most apparent when giving presentations or partnering up in class — an unpleasant poke of nerves and shyness.
“That’s also been a little awkward for me sometimes because it’s hard for me to just go up to someone in class and ask them to be my partner,” said Crawford, a Paden City, West Virginia native majoring in English toward a career in technical writing.
Crawford transferred to Marshall after two years at nearby West Virginia Northern Community College in Wheeling, coming to Huntington in part because of its autism services.
The College Program’s weekly sit-down planning meetings add a bit of stability to his to-do lists, and have made the college experience a smoother one.
“The folks here are just very helpful and always willing to answer questions,” Crawford said. ”(College) is about like anything else: the more you do, the easier it gets.”
The College Program was the specific reason Jerry Larcher came to Marshall. The senior geography major from Baltimore counted on one hand the comparable autism programs available that he found during his college search.
Like Crawford, keeping organized was a major plus taken from the program for Larcher, not to mention being introduced to some of his now closest friends.
But as for how autism has affected his college experience is anyone’s guess.
“It’s very hard to pinpoint how ASD has affected my experience because I really can’t compare living a life with ASD and living a life without it,” Larcher said.
The scope of it all — living with autism, how the program helped, and all the little details not mentioned — is a great deal to unpack, Lewis added, and it spills over to both academics and social life. It’s a normal life, as far as he knew it, built alongside friends with or without autism.
“The experience was intense, but at the same time the most fun I’ve ever had,” Lewis said.
And for students with autism planning on coming to Marshall this summer, the advice was simply and said with a smile.
“Just relax, be yourself and have fun,” Lewis said. “Because we might be hanging out that first weekend at Fat Patty’s.”
For more information about the College Program for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, call 304-696-2332.
Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter at @BishopNash.