The Winter quarter Autism Spectrum Success group will focus on developing skills for autistic students and expanding an inclusive environment at Clark. The six-week program started Jan. 25.
The group, created by Accommodations Specialist Brenda Wierschin and former Director of Counseling and Health Services Eliot Altschul, meets weekly each Fall, Winter and Spring quarter since Fall of 2016.
After Altschul left Clark, Wierschin worked on the group with Dean of Student Engagement Cathy Busha. Wierschin facilitates the group with Professor Shayna Collins, a counselor at Clark’s Counseling and Health Center.
“It’s a place for students on the spectrum to connect with each other and form community,” Wierschin said. She said it can be hard for autistic students to find and connect with each other on campus.
Wierschin said the group gives autistic students an opportunity to explore their emotional and social strengths while addressing their challenges.
Second-year student and group member Aaron Rasmusson said he’d hoped to attend Washington State University Vancouver like his dad, but others directed him towards Clark instead.
Rasmusson said he was unsure about attending, but realized Clark is the right school for him.
Originally interested in history, Rasmusson is exploring his options and plans to graduate with a General AA degree in 2019 or 2020. “It’s been fun,” he said.
Wierschin told Rasmusson about the group last Fall and he attended in Fall of 2016 and 2017. He said he couldn’t join the group during Winter and Spring 2016 quarters because of scheduling conflicts, though he’s attending the current group.
Rasmusson said he was nervous attending the group’s first meeting, but the other members made him feel more comfortable. He said he enjoys having other autistic students as friends and resources helping him through his college career.
Wierschin said her biggest challenge is inviting autistic students who don’t already have a connection to herself or Collins. She said an autistic student who isn’t involved in Disability Support Services or Accomodation is less likely to take part since they don’t know the group exists or who’s involved.
“I encourage people to come talk to me about the group so they can feel more comfortable attending,” she said. “Students should join the group if they’re interested in making connections, forming community and exploring different things about themselves.”
Wierschin said the group meets to discuss a specific topic each week, but allows the students to take time in the direction they want. She said a few topics include self-identification, stress management and stigmatization of being autistic.
“It wasn’t something I was looking to do, but I just kept meeting students that had needs beyond what Accomodations was able to provide,” she said. “It creates a safe place for people to not feel so alone.”
Rasmusson said he made connections through the group, including a friend he talks to about religion.
“It was interesting seeing how we can talk about things like that and have a nice chat,” he said.
He said one of his challenges in the group was helping others feel heard during discussions, but he learned the differences between autistic people’s communication.
“It’s a place where I can express how I feel,” Rasmusson said. If he has a bad day, he said he talks about it with the group to feel better.
Wierschin said she hears positive feedback from students who participate and thinks students enjoy the group because many of them return each quarter.
“Six [attendees] has been the magical number,” she said. Her goal is to provide autistic students an environment for exploring, connecting and learning more about themselves.
Wierschin said she promotes the group through word of mouth from instructors. She said the more faculty learn about autistic students’ needs the better prepared they’ll be at to respond to their autistic students.
Currently, the group is modeled from the book “Independence, Social and Studies Strategies for Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder” by Michelle Rigler, Amy Rutherford and Emily Quinn. Wierschin said if the group expands, she wants to emulate the level of support autistic students are offered at Bellevue College, which hosts a comprehensive program called Autism Spectrum Navigators and offers correlating classes.
“The connections people make with one another is the success that I see in the group,” Wierschin said. She said the group indirectly affects the Clark community by helping autistic students feel more connected and comfortable at Clark, which allows them to be more interactive on campus.
Rasmusson said Wierschin is a friend to him because she helps him with his class accommodations and takes time to understand him. He said the group has helped him discover an open side of Clark and allows him to see the way other autistic students are growing, learning and understanding college.
Wierschin said she will decide the Spring quarter group’s starting date at the end of Winter quarter. For more information about the Autism Spectrum Success Group, email Wierschin at BWierschin@clark.edu.