Center partners Titans to overcome autism challenges

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When Demiana Mishreki, 20, a communicative disorders major, entered the Peer Assisted College Support (PACS) program as a mentor for a student with autism last fall, she went into it thinking that she was going to be the one doing much of the teaching.

Over time, she realized that working with the student was a mutual learning experience. He taught her just as much as she taught him about life and school.

Recently, Cal State Fullerton welcomed the opening of a new center on campus, the Center for Autism.

The center is collaboratively staffed by the College of Education and the College of Health and Student Development and aims to provide services, research and support for students and children with autism disorders.

“Part of what the center envisions doing is bringing together some of the work that has already existed on campus … having a place to unite faculty interest, student interest, as well as broader outreach to the community,” said Rachel Fenning, Ph.D., a child  and adolescent studies professor and co-founder of the center.

A meaningful and more personal service offered by the center is the PACS program. The program offers assistance to students with autism at CSUF by pairing them up with a college student who has found success at the university. The students meet biweekly to discuss challenges faced while navigating through college and offer ideas to help overcome them.

“A lot of adults with autism, they don’t necessarily know how to go about being social all of the time and so they kind of struggle getting involved on campus and finding places to go,” said Mishreki. “My goal was to just open his (the student’s) mind up a little bit about the different opportunities that he could have at Cal State Fullerton other than just going to class and going home.”

Mishreki said her partner in the program was already very social and in a club, but many students with autism have a difficult time with social exchanges, time management and organizational skills. These challenges can cross over to their studies and if not addressed, can have a negative effect on their success at the university.

She said professors or other students often do not know the student faces these challenges and because of this, it is important for them to realize that it is fine to ask for help and advocate for their disability.

Though this may seem like a common solution to others, this can be difficult for students with autism to do because it involves exposing a very personal part of themselves.

Erica Howell, founder for the Center for Autism and a special education professor, said she recommends students with autisim register with Disabled Student Services because they make professors aware that the student may need special accommodations.

As a result, the professor can help the student be more successful.

“I would encourage them to advocate for themselves,” said Howell. “It’s helpful to always share with the professor like, ‘I’m excited to be in this class, I really like the content but I struggle with social skills and sometimes that may be difficult for me in the classroom’ … I think that’s really helpful.”

Vicky Cid, 24, a communicative disorders major, has taken the initiative to spread awareness about autism around campus and the community. She is co-president of Autism Speaks U, an organization that over the course of two years has raised $11,000 for the national organization Autism Speaks, and has also worked with Howell to put together the PACS program.

She said there was an overwhelming amount of students interested in becoming mentors.

“It was great to hear that students on our campus are eager to learn directly from their peers on the autism spectrum, then give back to them,” Howell said.

Cid was also a mentor in the program, and preferred to refer to herself and the student she worked with as partners.

“We are of equal status on campus,” she said. “We’re just there to support each other. I myself learned a lot of things from my partner, we were just there to help each other and learn from each other.”

She said students who are interested in learning more about autism or interested in learning how to support their peers should contact the center to see how they can get involved.

For students with autism, there are several services: PACS, Autism Speaks U, the CSUF Center for Autism and the DSS Center that “provide different angles of support” in order to give students a successful college experience.

Currently, Howell is working with students to launch a new club in the fall called Students 4 Autism.

The idea for the club came from a student with autism who was interested in bringing students with or without autism together for social activities like movie or bowling nights.

The idea for the club will be kept simple. Once ready to launch, a monthly calendar will be released with one activity a week.

“The main thing that’s exciting for me is to see how much student involvement we have and the fact that students with autism are involved, I think that’s huge,” Howell said.

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