Disability Awareness Symposium provides insights into neurodiversity

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Washington State University’s Access Center invites the community to explore neurodiversity during its Disability Awareness Symposium on Wednesday, April 12, from noon to 3 p.m. in Butch’s Den in the CUB.

The symposium’s first workshop, led by recent WSU alum Gillis “GW” Williams from noon to 1 p.m., will also be accessible virtually

The term neurodiversity originated in autistic communities and encompasses the diversity of how people experience and interact with the world around them, and that there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, said Matthew Jeffries, director of campus climate and community building in Student Affairs. 

Recent WSU graduate Gillis “GW” Williams is excited to talk about autism with the Coug community.

Neurodiversity is commonly associated with people with autism or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The Access Center is seeing an increasing number of students diagnosed with autism and ADHD — about 50 WSU Pullman students currently served by the Access Center are diagnosed with autism, and an additional 500 students have ADHD — and these increases helped prompt Jeffries and his team to make neurodiversity the topic of this spring’s symposium.

“These students make up a very large portion of those we serve, and while some people might have perceptions about what autism and ADHD are, I don’t think many have a good understanding of the different ways people are managing in academia,” Jeffries said.   

Jeffries noted not all students with autism or ADHD have official diagnoses. Because diagnostic criteria are generally focused on how autism and ADHD present in more privileged parts of the population, many women, LGBTQ+ people, and people of color are undiagnosed and lack access to official support systems. 

‘Putting people with disabilities first’

The symposium will consist of three consecutive workshops where Jeffries said faculty and staff will learn strategies that will help them work more effectively with neurodiverse students. 

  • The Autism Way, 12:10–1 p.m., led by Williams. Williams created the organization “AutismChoseMe” to spread awareness about autism. One of the ways he is educating people is by creating clever videos about autism on TikTok; Jeffries said Williams has around 150,000 followers on the platform. April is National Autism Awareness Month, and Williams said he is excited to return to campus to share his experiences of living with autism and how it impacted his experience at WSU.

“I plan to share why I think it’s important to put people with disabilities first, how I strive to be a leader for all autistic individuals, and my desire to do all of this while having fun,” he said.

Leslie Gwartney
  • Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, 1:10–2 p.m., led by Leslie Gwartney, associate director of the Ravens Scholar Program at the University of Idaho.

Founded in 2011, the Raven Scholars Program is an individualized program that helps University of Idaho students on the autism spectrum transition to college. Gwartney will discuss the program’s tier support system that includes monthly social events, workshops, and peer mentor support for all students.

  • Supporting Students with ADHD, 2:10–3 p.m., led by Tammy Barry, WSU vice provost for graduate and professional education in the Graduate School and professor in the Department of Psychology.
Tammy Barry

Barry will discuss her research that examines ADHD, aggression, and disruptive behaviors associated with autism among children.

“Dr. Barry will talk about ways to make classrooms and work environments inclusive and more supportive for students with ADHD and autism,” Jeffries said.

Creating an inclusive environment

Knowing how to make classrooms and work environments more inclusive to neurodiverse students is particularly important at a university the size of WSU, Jeffries said, where some students find it difficult at first to find a community.

“My dream is for WSU to offer students with autism a class they can take or a support group they could join so they can find a clear community, learn from each other, and develop more skills to help them be successful,” he said. “While that won’t happen soon, these workshops will teach us that there are things we can all do right now to create a more supportive environment for them.”

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