As National Autism Awareness Month draws to an end, the work of Portland State University’s Asperger’s Syndrome and Autistic Student Alliance (ASASA) is only just beginning.
Formed by Jody John Ramey in January 2003, ASASA is the only national organization of autism-spectrum university students in the country.
Though a relatively new student organization, ASASA has already sponsored various forums, lectures and informational displays around campus in an effort to educate PSU community members about autism-related issues.
Activities have included an open forum titled “Disclosing Hidden Disabilities: Who, What, Where, Why?” on March 12 , featuring invited guest Roger Meyer, author of “Asperger’s Syndrome Employment Workbook.” ASASA also cosponsored a lecture by literary anthropologist Dawn Price-Hughes on April 21, where she spoke from personal experience about the unique experiences autistic students face within the traditional education system.
Displays have also been featured in various locations on campus; subject matter has ranged from “Autistics Write!” in the Branford P. Millar Library, to an outline of the autism spectrum in the Smith Memorial Student Union.
Ramey said the goals of the organization include spreading awareness surrounding autism-related issues on campus, educating the PSU population about arts and culture produced by members of the autistic community and, most importantly, facilitating “an avenue for people within the PSU community to meet and creating an informal support structure that no one else can provide.”
“It’s nice to have someone to talk to who understands your way of thinking,” Ramey said. “For those on spectrum, even their closest friends don’t have their sensory hypersensitivities and can’t understand their physical experience.”
While autism can be difficult to define due to conflicting clinical definitions, Ramey explained the disorder as a “sensory-related phenomena where an individual has a combination of sensory hypersensitivities along with sensory interpretation issues.”
“For example, a problem with sensory interpretation might be if a person with autism were to meet someone and only see parts of their face, and then the next time they see that person, they see other parts of their face and not recognize them,” he said. “While that may not be common, similar experiences are combined with hypersensitivity, where some people can hear a dog whistle, or smell human pheromones. The smell of someone’s deodorant might be as persistent as the sound of a jackhammer.”
While many people consider conditions within the autism spectrum to be “disorders,” Ramey described many benefits that come with that unique perspective.
“A common trait of those with autism is the ability to ‘think outside the box,’ as well as think in pictures,” he said. “Many people on spectrum end up as college professors, or engineers, places where creative intellectual thought is valued above people skills.”
Despite growing national awareness surrounding autism, many people aren’t often aware of the varying disorders within the spectrum and the behaviors associated with them, Ramey said.
Typically, there are four conditions within the “autistic spectrum.” While Autistic patients and those diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome may have different disorders, in reality they are really very similar, he explained. Someone who has been diagnosed as autistic is less communicative and experiences delayed speech, while someone with Asperger’s Syndrome may experience hyper-developed speech, he said. Asperger’s patients may also have trouble comprehending words or definitions within a social, as opposed to an intellectual, context, he said.
Ramey explained that Childhood Diagnostic Disorder is also included under the umbrella term “spectrum” and is a condition in which patients develop normally for the first years of their life, then experience extreme setbacks, often developing classic autism symptoms. The last term associated with autism is Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified, the diagnosis given to patients who fail to be easily diagnosable.
However, despite small differences, Ramey explained that each of the conditions are very similar to the others.
“There’s any number of diagnoses, all different when it comes to the psychological definitions, but very similar in how they live their lives,” he said. “When someone says that they are ‘on spectrum,’ they can be referring to any or all of the four disorders, at any level of severity.”
ASASA’s plans for the future include a poetry reading May 12, as well as Ramey’s participation in the Oregon Coalition of Dance’s Blue Sky Benefit series. Plans are already in the works for next year’s calendar, including a focus on autism and sexuality, as well as a play written, directed and performed entirely by spectrum individuals.
While ASASA events are open to all interested parties, because meetings serve as a safe and supportive environment they are not open to the general public. For more information, or to contact the group, log on to www.asasa.pdx.edu.