Autism gives students advantages, challenges at school and work

598

BYU senior Austen Snow paced around his history classroom, talking to himself and pretending to give a lecture, and he hardly noticed what he was doing.

 BYU students and twin brother Austen and Bryson Snow are successfully managing their autism, proving how the disability can also be an advantage.
BYU students and twin brothers Austen and Bryson Snow are successfully managing their autism, proving that the disability can also be an advantage. (Samantha Williams)

When one of his classmates asked Snow about his behavior, he explained, giving a lopsided smile and shifting his gaze between the student and the wall, that he was “self-stimming” or repeating an action that calmed his brain and helped him think clearly.

Austen has high-functioning autism, or Asperger’s.

BYU professor Terisa Gabrielsen, who specializes in clinical work and research in autism, explained how the disability can at times negatively affect not just socializing on campus — like the pacing-the-classroom scene — but the interviewing process in job searching as well.

“The core difficulty in autism is social communication, and there’s a lot of social subtext in a job interview,” she said. “It’s hard for a person with autism to read nonverbal social cues and know how they’re coming across.”

Because of these disadvantages, the Americans with Disabilities Act gives these individuals the right to disclose their disability to an employer or school and request reasonable accommodations. However, as Michael Brooks, director of the BYU University Accessibility Center, explained, sometimes people with an “invisible” disability like autism choose not to disclose their diagnosis or request accommodations. This might hurt them in the long run.

“I think sometimes people feel, ‘I don’t want to disclose so my employer doesn’t think less of me.’ … But sometimes people might struggle with a job because they didn’t disclose,” Brooks said. “Disclosure, if needed, is important early on … eventual disclosure doesn’t erase poor work history.”

Austen explained his own approach to interviewing and disclosure, saying that during the interview he almost never tells a potential employer he is autistic, unless a question like, “Tell me about yourself” invites disclosure.

“Employers understand you might have a disability, but of course they want to know how you overcame that weakness,” he said.

And overcoming is something that both Austen and his twin brother, Bryson Snow, also a BYU student with autism, have done a lot of. Both have completed a service mission for the LDS Church as well as excelled in school with grades and extracurriculars.

Bryson Snow shared how he has overcome the anxiety autism often produces, for example, by channeling it into something productive: cross country running.

“I was having so much stress in high school, I didn’t know how to handle my health,” he said. “But I was beating everyone at running during gym, and coaches were telling me I should do cross country.”

Now, almost finished with college, Bryson Snow has run in the Boston and Ogden marathons. And he has learned to cope with stress better.

The other side of autism, though, is the unique advantages it affords. Having a disability engenders certain desirable characteristics, Brooks said.

“Workers with disabilities tend to be more loyal … they have a longer tenure at their jobs … (and) folks with disabilities can empathize. That’s a unique strength,” he said.

Autism itself can bring many useful traits to the table, Gabrielsen said.

“There are a lot of work tasks that people with autism are uniquely qualified to do — tasks requiring great attention to detail, tasks with repetitive elements, tasks that require you to dig really deep into a topic … and tasks that people with autism are interested in.”

People with autism can develop intense interests that fuel positive work habits. The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ online fact sheet on Asperger’s explains how “persons with Asperger’s seem drawn or driven to their special interests, zoning out on them in the middle of school, spending hours on them during free time and talking about them to anybody who will listen. Topics vary widely, from computers to deep fryers.”

The level of knowledge of people with autism can be pretty impressive, Gabrielsen said.

“I’ve met young kids who have entire railway schedules memorized,” she said. “So that’s a unique ability. And I’ve met kids who can reproduce a map from memory very accurately.”

People with Asperger’s can become experts on almost anything — it just has to be something they choose, on their own terms.

Bryson and Austen Snow plan on focusing their career goals on their interests. For Austen Snow, it’s history and record-keeping, and for Bryson Snow, it’s recreation planning and analysis. Whatever they go on to do, autism will continue to be for them a dual diagnosis of strength and weakness.

“Yes I am proud of myself,” Bryson Snow said. “Sometimes there’s a little few quirks I’m not so proud of, and I’m a little hard on myself for that, but other times I’m really proud of what I’ve done.”

If interested in more information about autism, check out the upcoming workshop, “Autism in Adolescence,” for professionals, parents, students and faculty, taking place Jan. 30 on BYU campus. Contact Gabrielsen for more information at or , or visit autism.byu.edu.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email