Ashley Lewis attends class every day like any other student at BYU. The senior from Washington, D.C. is majoring in English, has a passion for writing and loves spending time on social media. She is also on the autism spectrum. Lewis said coming to college has helped her learn how to embrace her differences.
“College is where I learned to stop caring about blending in and being normal,” Lewis said. “I hope other autistic individuals learn earlier than I did that it’s OK to be themselves, just the way they are.”
But just like with everyone else, being different comes with its challenges.
Autism Speaks is an organization that advances research for causes and treatments for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.
According to its website, “Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.”
Jonathan Cox, a psychologist and assistant clinical professor at BYU’s Counseling and Career Center, has worked with several individuals on the autism spectrum. He helps them with behavioral problems, social skills, anxiety and depression.
One of the main challenges for students on the spectrum is navigating the strong social culture at the university, according to Cox.
“There’s so much emphasis on the culture of social activities, interacting with others and especially dating,” Cox said. “One of the core difficulties people on the spectrum experience is understanding social interaction and effectively communicating to other individuals.”
The 2015 National Autism Indicators Report showed 36 percent of adults with autism spectrum disorder attended postsecondary education while 30 percent attended college. Overall, about one-third of these young adults continue their education and more than half work.
Cox said autistic individuals have a different perspective that can be valuable if they’re willing to share it in classes, clubs and other social activities.
“It can be beneficial for students to hear other perspectives, to broaden their horizons and to understand where others are coming from,” Cox said.
Lewis used an analogy to describe autism. She said it’s like being on a different planet and trying to figure out a set of rules with a language that’s hard to understand.
“You try to say something and people look at you weird because they don’t understand what you mean,” Lewis said. “There’s a language social barrier gap there, but then sometimes you find something you’re really good at.”
Lewis said her talents are writing and navigating her way through social media, especially sites like Tumblr.
“Everyone has their own special talents; everyone is a member of a big choir and they all have a voice to contribute,” Lewis said. “There’s things that I can contribute that other people can’t, and there’s things that other people can contribute that I can’t.
Lewis said autism isn’t a disease or negative condition.
“Certain groups try to make it out like it is, but they are wrong, “ Lewis said. “It’s more about understanding autism not as a disability, but a different way of being.”