Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Celebrating student differences with Autism Awareness Month

<r the first time, Carleton’s Disability Services is running programming around Autism Awareness Month, also known as Autism Acceptance Month. It is a time to acknowledge the diversity of Carleton students and those on the autism spectrum. In the words of JR Green ’21, Disability Services Peer Leader, this April is all about “understanding and accepting human difference.”

By hosting an Autism Acceptance forum this Monday, Disability Services hopes to raise awareness that there are students at Carleton on the autism spectrum, whether their peers know it or not. “We’re all on a spectrum, and we’re all on the same spectrum to some extent,” said Chris Dallager, Director of Disability Services here at Carleton. In addition to promoting acceptance of students with autism, another hope is that the month will increase awareness of other students with invisible disabilities, as well as the resources that are available from Disability Services. 

Disability Services celebrated Invisible Disabilities Month this past fall, with positive responses from the campus community. Because “Autism can look so different from one person to the next,”  Dallager explained, it can be difficult to draw attention to the issue. Disability Peer Leaders also hoped to put up informational posters regarding autism around campus, but since a number of peer leaders graduated early this year, this may have to wait until next year. 

Only in their second year, Disability Peer Leaders are a new and prospering addition to the resources offered by Disability Services. Peer Leaders are paired with incoming first-years identifying with any disability who opt into the mentoring program and meet with their mentees throughout the year to help them acclimate to life at Carleton. Students “who do have an autism diagnosis have been more enthusiastic about the program because they might have a higher level of issues with making friends in general,” remarked Peer Leader, Julia Preston ’19. “So having that ready-made peer support relationship has been very important for them.”

Green, another Peer Leader, has found that their favorite part of being a Peer Leader is “working with students through our mentorship program for incoming first-years… it’s really great to see them sort of, you know, spread their wings and grow.” 

In addition to Peer Leader mentoring, Carleton Disability Services has established the Peers at Carleton program specifically for students on the autism spectrum. A pilot program this year, Peers At Carleton is a research-based social skills training program developed by UCLA. In 16 sessions and with a peer leader coach outside of the sessions, young adults on the autism spectrum learn and practice the skills of making friends and dating etiquette.

“That program, at UCLA is thousands of dollars, here, it’s free,” explained Dallager. If Carleton charged for these programs, Disability Services could hire a lot more staff, but minimizing the cost burden for students when possible is a priority for Dallager and his team. 

Colleges and universities across the country are answering the need for support programs for students on the autism spectrum. According to Dallager, there are currently more than 80 programs like Peers at Carleton operating at different colleges and universities. The last 10 years have also seen an increase in the number of staff at these institutions’ Disability Services offices. Some of these programs are more involved than those here at Carleton, says Dallager, but Disability Services does not want to create any barriers that cost could bring. 

With more students who have an autism diagnosis going to college, the increase in resources for these students has not been in vain. Dallager linked this trend to the fact that around 1993, the Diagnostic Manual for Psychiatry and Psychology began using the term “spectrum” to describe autism instead of the term “Asperger’s.” “I think colleges are seeing this increase because of that change in label and the change in thinking about this wider spectrum,” said Dallager. Better accommodations and assistance programs for students on the autism spectrum in elementary and high school may also have contributed to the numbers of students on the autism spectrum who have been able to attend college, Preston suggested. 

Another program to aid students with disabilities, coming next year, is Carleton Academic Peer Support (CAPS). Not just for students on the autism spectrum, the program will involve Peer Leaders working with two to three students at a time to help them organize the logistics and requirements of their classes, determining “what needs to be done when,” said Dallager. We all know how busy life at Carleton can get, and having access to tailored academic support can make a big difference.

The busy environment at Carleton, especially the wide array of clubs and other activities that are available, can sometimes pose a challenge to students on the autism spectrum. Preston explained, “A lot of people on the autism spectrum have very intense interests and passions, so they maybe have three clubs that they just really love and really want to go to, and they can’t do all their homework with those three clubs, but it’s just really hard for them to say no, I can’t… because they just care so much about all three of those things… it can sometimes be difficult to find a balance there.”

Preston has also arranged for a variety of books regarding the autism spectrum to be on display in the library, and, along with the rest of the Disability Services office, encourages Carleton students to learn more about autism. More information can also be found on the Disability Services Facebook page. 

Know that, as Preston points out, “This is something that affects students on this campus”, but that it can look very different for different people. As a Carleton student, the best thing to do this month (and whenever possible) is to keep an open mind. 

In the words of Jan Foley, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” 

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *