September 27, 2020

BY LINDSAY TESSIER

Conestoga College was lit up in blue on April 2 as the college took part in World Autism Awareness Day to help draw attention to autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects tens of millions of people worldwide.

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly declared April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD), and every year since, autism organizations around the world have marked the day with fundraising and awareness-raising events. This year is the sixth time the event has been held but the first time Canada has been involved.

From 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., a group of Conestoga students with autism and Asperger’s syndrome took turns staffing an information table, sharing their stories and handing out pamphlets and gift bags – all in an effort to educate people about autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The group, called the A-Team (Autism, Asperger’s, Awareness) meets weekly to socialize, chat about their hobbies and interests and support one another.

Their display was decked out in numerous shades of blue – complete with glowing blue light bulbs – as part of the international movement to “Light it up Blue.”

In 2012, the campaign, run by Autism Speaks, saw nearly 3,000 structures in over 600 cities, 45 countries and on six continents illuminated in blue to shine a bright light on autism.

An estimated one in 88 Canadians ― as many as 100,000 in Ontario ― have ASD. Last year, more than 800 students with the disorder registered for support at Ontario colleges and universities.

The A-Team wants to educate people about autism as well as encourage support and inclusiveness for individuals with ASD. They believe many people still have misconceptions about the disorder.

One thing the group wants people to know is that autism can look different in each person. There is a wide spectrum of abilities and needs that can accompany each diagnosis.

The resounding message from all members was that not all people with ASD can be painted with the same brush.

Computer engineering technology student Alex Menage said he thinks people need to speak more to people with autism and Asperger’s. “If they speak to someone with autism that they actually trust, that gives them a better message about what it’s really all about.”

“There are those of us with Asperger’s syndrome who think outside the box but there’s also those who don’t,” he said.

People with ASD often have difficulties with social interaction and communication skills. This can be especially challenging on a college campus.

Lisa McBrearty, a health office administration student, agreed and said it can be difficult to manage in classes that deal extensively with communication. “I think that 75 per cent of communication is non-verbal and we can’t really read body language, so it’s kind of a barrier in communication.”

Zac Martin, a student in the hearing specialist program, said he often has difficulty reading other people’s body language and that this is a problem many people with ASD struggle with.

Martin said one of the common misconceptions people have is, “That we can’t do anything.”

“If they think that then they’re wrong, because I can ski,” he said. Martin joined the Canadian ski patrol and is also a ski instructor at the Waterloo Track 3 at Kitchener’s Chicopee Ski Club. “So that shows I’m successful at what I do and I’m motivated.” He said he also loves singing and he plays the saxophone. “Music is one of my specialties.”

A student who couldn’t be there wrote a letter addressing a stereotype.

“There’s a thinking out there that people with Asperger’s lack empathy and that’s false. We are, in fact, very empathetic and care deeply for other people. It’s true that when we get caught up in our own perspectives, particularly when we’re upset, we might withdraw into ourselves but it doesn’t mean we lack the capacity to think about others and what they experience.”

The group wants people to know that all of their varied interests are a part of who they are and they have many things that define them other than autism.

Though they are unique in many ways – with talents ranging from drawing, playing instruments and kayaking – they aren’t so different in their desires to study, learn and build a life. They say the group has helped them to feel more included in college life.

McBrearty said she enjoys having the other group members to talk to because they are accepting of her quirks. “It’s just nice to have people that get you,” she said.

“It’s nice to have people who love you for you.”