By Shayna Han
Last Tuesday during common lunch, Dr. Jane Thierfeld Brown visited Union to talk with faculty, students and staff about students on the autism spectrum.
Brown is a highly knowledgeable expert on the subject with 33 years of experience in the field.
She talked about students with autism and Asperger’s syndrome in the classroom, then answered questions from the professors in attendance. She offered advice and strategies to augment both professors’ and students’ academic experiences.
Union currently teaches about 150 students with documented learning disabilities, including less than 10 students diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
While the common misconception is that these students are not as bright as “neuro-typical” college students, most people with Asperger’s have above average to superior intelligence.
People with this syndrome have a different way of learning and socializing than the “neuro-typical” person.
Those on the spectrum have weaknesses when it comes to social knowledge, or what Brown terms “social dyslexia.”
They also need more help with organization, time and stress management.
According to recent statistics, 10 percent of the total population have learning disorders. In some places, it is even lower, at about one in 63 people.
The commonality of learning disabilities became clearer after Brown asked her audience who had a family member with autism and many professors responded by raising their hands.
Brown described what it is like to be on the spectrum. People with Asperger’s are extremely sensitive to noise, movement and light because they have increased sensory perception.
While some may be easily distractible and high-energy, they can focus on one thing and are highly knowledgeable on certain topics, particularly topics that interest them.
However, socially, people with this syndrome may withdraw, especially if the environment is over stimulating.
Director of Student Support Services Shelly Shinebarger says that the students she works with who have special learning needs are very bright but need certain accommodations to “even the playing field.”
She used the analogy of wearing eyeglasses. Wearing eyeglasses does not give one an advantage of seeing more on the paper; it simply allows the wearer to see what others see normally.
Similarly, giving a learning-disabled student extra time or a quieter room for exams only allows them to process the material more fully—they need the extra time to think through and ensure they are doing what is necessary for the test.
Currently, Shinebarger works with students who have documented learning needs. She provides counseling, organizational help and clarification.
Clarification is a big part of Student Support Services. As Brown said, “Parents explain the world to their child and explain their child to the world.” When a student with Asperger’s syndrome comes to college, they lose that vital translator.
When asked how Union students can help those who have Asperger’s Syndrome, Brown responded by saying, “Be open.”
“I am thrilled Union brought me here today,” she said, adding that the turnout of professors showed how “progressive” and dedicated Union is to making an effort to educate all students.
Shinebarger concurred, adding that she looks forward to Union’s “whole campus being more knowledgeable and understanding” to students on the spectrum.