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It really is a spectrum

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APRIL 28, 2019

Golden Bear Orientation during my first year opened with an overwhelming ocean of 7,500 incoming students spread out all over Memorial Glade. At that time, I knew exactly one other student there: David Teplitz, a speck somewhere in that sea of students. Both of us were a new sort of student at UC Berkeley. We were the campus’s first nonspeaking students with autism.

Students with nonspeaking autism make up only one part of the enormous spectrum of neurodiversity that is autism. It is analogous to the experience of college, which also has a powerful effect on the mindset of students in encouraging diversity of thought. UC Berkeley is especially known for this quality of fostering expansive thinking in all its students, so as I interacted with the other students on campus at subsequent autism-related events, in student organizations and in programs, I wondered more and more about what went on in the minds of my fellow students with autism on campus and what the autism spectrum is all about.

The world loves to put autism into little buckets or even subcategories, with generalizations about the way we feel, think and act. Some individuals with autism are called “high functioning,” which just seems to give a negative counterpoise to the rest as “low functioning.” Why is there a class distinction within autism itself like the ones found so often in general society — high versus low, rich versus poor, white versus Black? I personally think it inconsiderate and dehumanizing of professionals to brand kids as “low,” a label that often follows them for the rest of their lives and kills any expectations about their potential and abilities.

The irony of the continuum of neurodiversity that is autism can be summed up with a saying common in the autism community: It goes, “When you meet one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.” There will of course be overlaps, just like with our neurotypical peers.

I pondered on how this neurodiversity of autism presented itself at UC Berkeley. With these questions in mind, I decided to chat with some of the other students with autism on campus. I wondered how similar or different our thoughts were on issues related to autism or our experiences — the way we think we are perceived, for instance — may be.

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Right off the bat, the students here on campus disproved the great autism myth that all of us are eccentric genius software coders, an image the media seems to perpetuate all the more in a place as tech-heavy as the Bay Area. Autistic students at UC Berkeley pursue a wide range of majors, and the varying majors of the students interviewed reflected this diversity. Brazos Donaho studies computer science; Brian Liu, integrative biology and math; Teplitz, political science; Joaquin Nelson, math; Anna Bernick, American studies; and Cole Hasserjian, business administration. Tiffany Ceja and I are both majoring in psychology. Some of us, such as Teplitz, Bernick and I, also share a minor in disability studies.

But by no means does this small sample of individuals attempt to encompass or represent the broad spectrum that is autism.

We were the campus’s first nonspeaking students with autism.

The timing for this article seemed perfect, as April is Autism Acceptance Month. The fact that we have moved from “Autism Awareness Month” to Autism Acceptance Month is progress in some ways. Awareness is nice, like a person reading an abstract idea in a newspaper article, but acceptance implies action on someone’s part and a change in their belief system.

An umbrella diagnosis

Autism is considered a neurodevelopmental disorder and encompasses a whole big spectrum with all ranges of abilities and challenges. Who gets included in this umbrella diagnosis itself has undergone a sea change over time.

The classification is based on guidelines in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, set forth by the American Psychiatric Association. Under the DSM-5, or the fifth edition of the DSM, published in 2013, Ceja and Bernick’s initial diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome and PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified), respectively, are now included in the broad category of autism. Essentially, the former Asperger’s and PDD-NOS are presently considered to be milder forms of autism.

While a majority of autistics get the diagnosis as infants or toddlers, some such as Bernick are diagnosed later in life. In her case, it occurred at age 14. The fact of the matter is that when the symptoms are more obvious, an earlier diagnosis is more likely. These days, many are getting the autism diagnosis even late in adulthood.

Autism itself can be visible or invisible in its presentation. But how autism presents in the college-going young adult is not necessarily a function of how it initially began to present. Hasserjian had been diagnosed at age 3 as low functioning. Yet today, his autism is visible only to the very discernible eye, a shift Hasserjian credits to the intensive social therapy and other treatments he received. He feels his autism at present is best described as difficulties with social interactions and sometimes hypersensitivity to new situations.

Liu feels his autism is not that visible even to himself.

“My autism is barely noticeable to myself since I tend to focus on what we all have in common. I am reminded of my autism more through other people’s responses than my own actions,” Liu states.

The fact that nonspeaking individuals like Teplitz and I made it to UC Berkeley can be credited to our families finding and availing of an alternative means of communication — in our case, typing — that allowed us to access mainstream education. Speech apraxia, which can roughly be thought of as difficulty in translating conscious thought in the brain into actual (oral) motor action, means we have limited verbal communication. This often places us at a disadvantage at the starting line in childhood, as a lack of verbal communication is often wrongly equated with a lack of cognitive skills, which means we are not given access to mainstream education. Our kind of autism is very much visible. We don’t have the luxury of deciding to reveal it or not. But Teplitz feels that for the most part, once he starts to type, people understand his situation better.

Who gets included in this umbrella diagnosis itself has undergone a sea change over time.

Where the autism is not as visible, the conundrum then arises as to whether or not to disclose it. An issue could well be whether telling others of your autism would turn them off, or would it help in their understanding of your situation? The response from interviewees was varied.

Nelson tries to hide his diagnosis.

“Sometimes in rare cases when someone is clearly uncomfortable, I will tell them,” he says

Ceja grew up in a very conservative area wherein speaking of one’s own disability was an open invitation to being bullied, making her school a very toxic environment for those with disabilities. Moreover, as she is Latina, she described having to contend with the negative connotations of autism within the Latinx community. As a result, she did not speak of her disability until college. Since coming to UC Berkeley, she has come to realize that there are now more resources to support those with autism and less stigma against autism, which has made her more open to disclosing her diagnosis to others.

Hasserjian is more open about his diagnosis now than before, as he no longer feels he has to prove his worth, though he won’t bring it up in casual conversation. He finds that people can be taken aback upon hearing of his diagnosis now, but they generally move on.

Bernick may bring it up casually later in an interaction.

“I … will bring it up after some time or a lot of time to say that, OK, I have this disability, this is how it affects me, but most of the time, it’s no big deal,’ ” she says.

For Donaho, the diagnosis is just not important enough to talk about, and, as per his description, he mentions it only if he feels he needs to.

Surviving academia at UC Berkeley

Academics at UC Berkeley is not a cakewalk by any means, so in speaking with interviewees, I explored what it took for students with autism to survive academia. The UC Berkeley Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, does provide a set of accommodations to help these students access education, the most common one being extra time for taking tests in a distraction-free setting. But the nature of the spectrum means each student faces different cognitive, learning and other challenges specific to academia. According to Emily Paulson, my counselor at the DSP, there are approximately 50 students who have actively disclosed their autism diagnoses and are presently receiving DSP services at UC Berkeley.

Since coming to UC Berkeley, (Ceja) has come to realize that there are now more resources to support those with autism and less stigma against autism, which has made her more open to disclosing her diagnosis to others.

For Hasserjian, self-advocating and navigating accommodations were tough during his first year when he didn’t know what accommodations he would receive. He wishes the DSP would do more one-on-one work with students.

And accommodations form the core of our being able to attend college and access education for nonspeaking students such as Teplitz and I. Many of our challenges lie not in understanding or cognition but rather in handling the vagaries of our dysfunctional output system and the way the brain controls the motor muscles of our body. Given our sensory dysregulation and other issues, our accommodations also include a personal one-on-one aide to help us regulate and communicate. We even share an aide now. The cost of employing the aide, however, is funded by our families and does significantly increase the price tag of receiving a college education.

Apraxia makes for very slow typing in Teplitz’s case and in turn, makes it difficult for him to take part in discussion sections. Many of his professors, however, have given him questions ahead of time, so he gets to prepare answers beforehand and participate in that way. The extra timing for tests in cases such as Teplitz and mine is barely adequate at times.

I also find that, in larger classes, the pace of instruction is faster and oftentimes, the topic has shifted before I can finish typing. I do very much want to participate, so l aim to contribute at least one or two comments in discussion sections, especially if the topic is interesting. I try to keep my responses as succinct as possible so it takes less typing effort, but this is not always possible. I also have to strategize which questions I should even respond to. Sometimes there is a lag between my typed response and what is being discussed; luckily, the instructor or graduate student instructor doesn’t seem to mind once they get used to me.

Hasserjian says his autism affects him more in the first week of class, as it is difficult to try to find people to interact with and to ask questions. He usually sits alone until he gets more comfortable in the classroom. The extra time on tests helps so that he does not feel pressed for time and can instead focus on the task at hand. Also, the testing room has fewer distractions compared to the classroom.

Donaho indicated that he can sometimes have some trouble with paying attention and understanding material during lectures. He needs that extra time on tests, as it takes him a while to write. Ceja echoed the sentiment, saying it takes her longer to process information. In her case, however, the extra time for tests she gets at UC Berkeley is the first time she’s needed accommodations in a school setting. Bernick says she also has trouble with paying attention during lectures.

Given our sensory dysregulation and other issues, our accommodations also include a personal one-on-one aide to help us regulate and communicate.

Students such as Liu, on the other hand, don’t make use of accommodations, as he does not feel he needs them.

“I honestly don’t know much about how my autism affects me in the classroom since autism informs me of my peculiarities more than my peculiarities inform me about autism,” Liu says.

Then, there is the issue of interacting with staff members and professors at UC Berkeley. I email them before the start of the first lecture so they can understand the kind of student they will have and not be overly surprised. After all, I, with my nonverbal autism, am a new type of autistic student for them. I am comfortable with email interactions, but a face-to-face meeting is quite a different kettle of fish. It takes me many weeks into the semester before I can go to office hours, and some semesters, I don’t make it at all. I agonize about how the professor will view my behavior and my slow speed of communication, my anxiety skyrocketing in the process. It turns out to be much ado about nothing, for the most part, as most professors have been super nice and understanding of my challenges in live interactions. Still, the process starts over each semester with each new professor.

Teplitz agrees that his professors have been nice and have waited patiently for him to type. He makes sure that he meets his professors before the start of each semester so they get to know him.

Hasserjian thinks he may not necessarily know what to do in certain situations with professors. Much like me, it takes him many weeks to build the “social energy” for office hours. He attributes this hesitation to not being entirely conversant with the etiquette needed to approach a UC Berkeley professor. I would imagine that this scenario is true for even the neurotypical students here on campus but magnified in the case of autism.

Liu has to consciously control the pace of his speaking and pay special attention to communicating transitions. He tries to not be a professor’s pet but to make up for his deficiencies. I have to agree with Liu on the issue of deficiencies. As an individual with a disability, there is that unspoken pressure to constantly prove your worth.

I agonize about how the professor will view my behavior and my slow speed of communication, my anxiety skyrocketing in the process.

Nelson feels he is very quiet during lectures and discussion sections, which he notices makes others feel uncomfortable. For Bernick, emotional regulation is an issue when things don’t go her way. She tries to handle situations in a more mature and calm fashion instead of getting angry. She is also aware of the conscious and constant effort to maintain eye contact during these interactions. Ceja and Hasserjian expressed similar anxiety over eye contact.

Eye contact is indeed an issue for many on the spectrum, including myself. As such, I make it a point to email ahead of my first meeting, letting the individual or individuals in question know about my lack of eye contact so that at least one issue is out of the way. I have a long list of issues to worry about during interactions, and it is helpful to put at least a few of them to rest ahead of time.

Most of Donaho’s interactions with professors happen in office hours or at the end of class. He does not feel they are bad at all, though sometimes, it is difficult to figure out what to say.

Ceja, on the other hand, seems very much at ease with interactions. She gives people a heads- up so that they are aware of her slower pace because it takes her longer to absorb information.

This semester, the office hours for one of my courses are held in the atrium in Stanley Hall, a place constantly milling with talking students. Even if I wanted to go and take part, it is sensory overstimulation for me. I have made it just once.

An autism point of view

The word “autism” abounds these days — but what do autistics think about autism, and what do they think nonautistics think about autism?

I posed a question to my interviewees: If autism could be summed up in a word or phrase, what would it be? The answers varied — happy, great intellect, difference, challenges, interaction and opportunity.

Then, there is the question of what we think nonautistics think about us.

The majority opinion was that neurotypicals automatically associate autism with weird or unusual behaviors, even if they think autism should be accepted. According to Bernick, we are assumed to be Rain Man — that savant or gifted autistic character portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the ‘80s. Teplitz points out that nonspeaking autistics are traditionally thought of as mentally deficient, an attitude that our presence at UC Berkeley is hopefully helping to change.

Ceja thinks certain attitudes are also influenced by the background and the area from which people come. In Tennessee, she heard someone talking horribly about their own kid with autism. In Nepal, she met a guy who said it was sad for people to have autism because it’s like a disease that does not go away.

Such attitudes and comments are very hurtful.

There are also many theories about autism, including the notion that autistics lack empathy. The majority of the spectrum students I spoke to felt it is the very opposite — that we very much have empathy. Donaho is very sensitive to the needs of his roommate who is a cancer survivor. In Teplitz’s case, he feels he has too much empathy, which is a view I concur with. When you have sensory dysfunction, you are overly tuned to the environment, which includes all the emotions of the people you are interacting with — even the unspoken emotions on their part. The result can be an emotional roller-coaster ride for me as I try to deal with all this bombardment of information in addition to their words. Neurotypical people may assume that we autistics are incapable of empathy, when in fact, we just happen to express it differently. Reactions by way of our facial expressions and body language may not match what society is used to and expects.

And as Bernick also points out, all folks, autistic or not, don’t necessarily understand another person’s point of view or emotions in general, unless they have had similar experiences themselves. The standards of normative empathy, ironically, thereby become exclusionary rather than truly empathetic — desiring to understand and share in the expressions of others.

According to Bernick, we are assumed to be Rain Man — that savant or gifted autistic character portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the ‘80s.

So it is a spectrum after all.

Students with autism actually bring a lot to the college campus, which can only be a win-win for the student body, the university and the world at large. Neurodiversity means we can truly contribute to and be part of the solution to help resolve some of the challenges in the world today. The students I interviewed brought up some of these skills.

For Hasserjian, it’s the attention to detail and the fact that when we are passionate about something, it is with “110 percent” focus. Donaho points out that we are very task-oriented and organized. For Teplitz, it is our superior intellect. Nelson highlights our clear and objective mindset. Liu points out that we bring true perspectives — he finds that his autistic friends are more honest and open, as there is less guile, and we have nothing but the best wishes for our friends. Bernick highlights our unique point of view. Ceja made the interesting observation that “we tend to attract kinder people in our lives because they do have to be kindhearted to a certain degree to understand us.”

And I believe we autistics represent the idea of “possibility,” as we bring with us all manner of undiscovered potential.

When social is a skill

An autism diagnosis rests on two main issues — social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior. In the social interaction area, we exhibit a wide range of interest and capabilities, just like our neurotypical peers.

The academic experience, at UC Berkeley and elsewhere, also includes interactions with other students — for instance, group projects within the classroom and outside the classroom. How do the students on campus with autism fare when it comes to collaboration? Once again, the answer is: It’s a spectrum.

For Hasserjian, it’s the attention to detail and the fact that when we are passionate about something, it is with “110 percent” focus.

As a child, Hasserjian needed notecards to help him navigate conversations and would freak out if the conversation went off script. He is much more comfortable with social interactions now; sometimes, however, he does not pick up easily on things such as sarcasm. In academic settings, Hasserjian feels he is on the quiet side when it comes to academic group projects and that his opinion is not always taken into account, as he may sound nervous when presenting his ideas rather than coming across as confident. He thinks it’s just a matter of practice, though. Hasserjian tries to get involved with student organizations on campus so that he gets more time working on group projects.

Nelson explained that, in social settings, he tries to fit in by using a sense of humor, which can sometimes annoy people, and they stop hanging out with him because they think he is not serious enough.

“Inside the classroom, I am very quiet, and this makes students and faculty uncomfortable. I need to start initiating conversations and group projects with my classmates. I am a wallflower. Outside the classroom, I am even more isolated and quiet. I need to start talking and starting conversations more often,” Nelson says.

Donaho seems more at ease with group interactions in his computer science major, though sometimes he feels he’s making the others do more work in a group project because he has some understanding to process. He says most of his interactions are normal, though at times he has trouble figuring out what to say. But it all works out fine in the end.

Ceja credits childhood therapy with providing her the tools to have few to no issues with social interaction these days. She does not feel that her autism limits her interactions with other students in any way, other than requiring that tiny bit of extra help sometimes on group assignments. Bernick simply is not comfortable with frat-style parties, especially those involving alcohol, as she thinks it is basically playing with fire.

Liu says he does struggle with social interaction skills, though he is annoyed that the intricacy of social interactions has been reduced to a mere “skill” that can be addressed through therapy. He finds that he often has to reflect on his own personality in order to change it to better suit or please people. Though he has not had any group assignments, he joined a study group last year.

Bernick similarly feels she can socialize properly most of the time with people who are neurotypical. She does feel more comfortable with one-on-one interactions rather than with group interactions. In group interactions, she has some trouble maintaining conversation topics and also has a habit of interrupting interlocutors, often resulting in overlapping conversations.

“I am a wallflower. Outside the classroom, I am even more isolated and quiet.” — Joaquin Nelson

For typers like Teplitz and me, we have no qualms about social interaction. Rather, the obstacle is the patience required on the part of the other person who has to wait for us to finish typing. It can make for a slow and awkward conversation initially (which causes a good deal of anxiety for us), but once they get used to us, we make for great conversationalists. They also eventually get over being distracted by our body mannerisms. Individual or small group interactions are easier, while student parties can be a little hard to handle because of the sensory bombardment of loud music, overlapping conversations and lights.

Teplitz has also not been assigned any group work. According to him, not speaking makes interactions with peers difficult but not impossible. I have to agree with Teplitz in that it is not impossible but that it takes significant effort on our part. I remember being terribly nervous about a group assignment in statistics during my first semester and agonizing over how I would interact with the others.

So I go armed and prepared with ideas to our first meeting. As a result, I am able to contribute substantially to any of the group projects I’m involved in. The live interactions are always a challenge because of the sensory bombardment that comes with meeting in a more public space; I am very conscious of my increasing offbeat, impulsive behaviors in such environments and wonder how distracting I am to the group, even as I am trying to generate ideas and comments while also typing them. In my first and second semesters, I was part of a class debate team, using my text-to-speech app to give the opening statement and helping with the research work beforehand. That was pretty cool.

And, like Hasserjian, I have consciously gotten involved in student organizations and extracurriculars to increase interactions with other students. My mental confidence in interaction has increased somewhat, though my offbeat mannerisms continue to be less under my volitional control, causing anxiety.

Students with autism also face other issues on campus. As exciting as our campus is, a few interviewees point out that walking down Sproul Plaza at lunchtime is a sensorily overwhelming experience. I’ve taken part in tabling on Sproul, which is both exciting and overwhelming. Nelson, Liu and Hasserjian point to the challenges of finding and maintaining a social life, social interactions and obtaining a feeling of belonging. The task is difficult enough for neurotypical kids but that much more difficult for students with autism. Sometimes, there may be preconceived notions about autism to overcome as well.

In my first and second semesters, I was part of a class debate team, using my text-to-speech app to give the opening statement and helping with the research work beforehand.

In response to these particular issues, students with autism use various strategies to help cope with the pressure. Nelson turns to drawing and painting, especially arts and crafts. Hasserjian loves to exercise, is an avid follower of all sports and took part in the NCAA brackets in March. Bernick makes use of routines to get through the day. Teplitz hikes almost every day; sometimes I accompany him as well on the lovely wooded trails in the Oakland Hills.

The art of stimming

The other criteria associated with the autism diagnosis are in the behavior aspect, manifesting as restricted repetitive behaviors and offbeat mannerisms. In the autism world, these offbeat, impulsive mannerisms are often referred to as “stims,” “stimming” or “self-stimulatory behaviors.” Stims are both a mystery and a conundrum to the observing neurotypical person. These behaviors serve many functions, including, in my case, a reaction to the bombardment of sensory input from the environment, dealing with interactions, expressing emotions such as excitement or acting as a coping mechanism. Sometimes, it’s a veritable “stim party” roller-coaster ride for me with all the impulsive hand movements, head movements, fidgeting and vocal sounds going on.

Stims can be both subtle or so obvious as to make people stare at you, which is a terribly uncomfortable feeling. These actions are often involuntary and not really under our conscious control. For instance, Teplitz hums and is not aware of doing so until someone reminds him. He can also scream when overstimulated, especially around eating — a habit that he himself says is “universally unpopular.”

As a child, Ceja would put her knuckles together at face level and start shaking when super excited. Her mom even termed her behaviors “happy shakes,” though for a while in her childhood, there was concern that this behavior was somehow seizure-related. Now, she notices that during social interactions, she tends to talk loudly.

“I fidget a lot and make weird vocal noises when I am excited, which weirds people out. I also am very blunt and honest, and this has caused a lot of hurt feelings,” Nelson says.

When bored, Donaho likes to pace around, which he feels people regard as weird. Hasserjian says his stims involve a lot of repetitive behavior. He can watch the same YouTube clip 10 times and knows every single Cal football result dating back to 2005. As a child, he used to flap his hands, and he thinks he has replaced that with knocking his knees together, as it is calming.

These behaviors serve many functions, including, in my case, a reaction to the bombardment of sensory input from the environment…

Bernick can end up talking to herself or even sometimes laughing to herself. She has fixations on her daily routine, and her fixations on some TV personalities can negatively impact her behavior and emotions, such as when they had to cancel a show. Liu uses unusual hand gestures in conversations when nervous. He likes to hold things and wrap his wrists. And, if he has to make a split-second decision, he looks back and forth rapidly to cope with the pressure. And while leaping and jumping down the stairs may appear “weird,” he does so anyway, as it is “just so much fun.”

The irony is that even neurotypical people engage in a lot of stim behaviors. Case in point: the involuntary clicking of a TV remote control in a person’s hand or doodling or chewing on the ends of pencils by students. I often think the repetitive hand movements and body-rocking motions of rap artists look an awful lot like the stim behaviors of some autistics. It boils down to whether the current society views a behavior as socially acceptable as well as the contexts in which these behaviors are carried out. What is acceptable itself keeps changing over time. And as Liu pointed out, “I have gotten better at identifying my own peculiarities. But are they even peculiarities at all? Or are they different expressions of the same soul?”

For many of us, our experiences since toddlerhood have been only through the lens of autism. It is very much part of our identity. While we may find ways to dampen some of our challenges to improve our quality of life, it’s uncertain that becoming entirely neurotypical is all that ideal. When you look at all the craziness in the world of neurotypical minds throughout our history and even in the modern day, it gives you a significant moment of pause.

Addressing the confusion and stigma

While autistics have made many inroads, the fact of the matter is that there is still a long way to go in reducing the confusion and stigma surrounding autism in the community. For instance, a neurotypical high school volunteer once told me that his volunteer group initially had a lot of trepidation at the thought of meeting our autistic group of kids for monthly game socials — his exact words were “freaked out!”

Such attitudes are simply caused by the fear of the unknown. In reality, we are perfectly approachable. It is also totally OK to go up to a fellow student with autism, interact with them and engage in conversation or small talk, just as you will with neurotypical students. You just may have to show a little patience for those who take longer to process or those who have communication challenges. It may just make our day. I recently had a conversation with two fellow students on the topic of the multitude of hair color one sees on campus, eyelash extensions and why the really long fake nails that girls have are really an advantage, as they mean you don’t bite your nails. It was all so fascinating for me. Such seemingly trivial and casual interactions increase our sense of belonging, inclusion and community on campus.

“I have gotten better at identifying my own peculiarities. But are they even peculiarities at all? Or are they different expressions of the same soul?” — Brian Liu

Reducing stigma and encouraging inclusion boils down to more resources for those on the spectrum and education for nonautistics. Education and awareness of autism have to happen at an earlier level, perhaps even at the elementary level, and be taught by those on the spectrum to follow the adage of the disability rights movement: “Nothing about us without us.” Liu suggests more campuswide interactive events, and Bernick suggests including this education during orientation.

Near the end of the interview, the students were asked what was the best and worst part of being at UC Berkeley. For almost all the students, the best thing is the diversity and community on campus, which can be quite the experience. It is in Hasserjian’s words, “A microcosm of the people you are going to meet in the world.”

For me, UC Berkeley is a place of a multitude of opportunity and possibility; my deep regret is that I am not able to avail myself of many of these opportunities because of the nature of my autism challenges, and I am not able to interact and learn from the other students as much as I would like to. Teplitz loves the fact of being presumed competent, even with the accompanying sadness of not being able to speak.

The worst thing about UC Berkeley was hands down the heavy coursework and constant midterms. Hasserjian also is very disappointed by the poor performance of the Cal basketball team. I heartily agree. I would also dearly love to see Cal win the Big Game during my time here.

The interviewees also shared advice for fellow UC Berkeley students, both of the autistic and nonautistic varieties.

For the nonautistic students, the main message was to not be critical or irritated or form a quick first impression during your interactions with autistics. Be respectful. People need to be given a chance and not have judgment passed on them based on the first five seconds of a meeting. A better and more helpful approach would be for nonautistics to try to understand and support their fellow students with autism on campus. You may not find better friends.

And I believe we autistics represent the idea of “possibility,” as we bring with us all manner of undiscovered potential.

Every one of the students I interviewed has great pride at being a student here. For many, UC Berkeley is close to where we grew up and a place that many of us aspired to join for many years. Donaho and I grew up across the bay, but Teplitz grew up looking directly down on the Campanile clock tower every day from his home in the Oakland Hills.

For the students with autism on campus, the students advised being true to yourself. Staying organized and figuring out a routine is a suggestion to help cope with the challenge of the coursework, as well as picking your professors carefully — that can make a lot of difference. Others chimed in to say to just put down your smartphone, enjoy the beautiful campus and get lots of exercise.

Contact Hari Srinivasan at [email protected].

APRIL 28, 2019