How do scholarship winners cope with autism and college?

All of  our ASD Ascend 2021 Autism College Scholarship winners have different struggles with autism and college. Our first three scholarship winners attend colleges with autism programs Our fourth and fifth scholarship winners are very successful in college without specialized programs. Oftentimes the struggles of high achievers with autism spectrum disorder are invisible to others. 

Today we’d like to introduce you to two of our winners. Melanie Shaw and Clarence Harmon both have navigated not only the transition to college while managing autism, but also the heavy burden of life with COVID.  They continue to overcome the obstacles put in their way and have gained new courage and confidence to look with great expectation at their future careers.

Melanie Shaw is a pre-med student. She wasn’t diagnosed with autism until she was an adult, which she now sees made her college experience different than her peers. She wrote, “In high school, there were clear goals: take these classes, do your homework, get good grades, and you’ll graduate. I was my class’ valedictorian because I understood these goals and could follow through. However, when I arrived at college, there was no single list of classes to take to get to a sole benchmark of success.” In her experience, this made college far more difficult than high school because there is a greater emphasis on forming a broad range of social, academic, and professional relationships without a clear path for doing so. “All these things were independent, and none of them were graded. 

That’s why, for me, the hardest thing about transitioning into college wasn’t the things that were being taught, but the things that weren’t.

Melanie Shaw

This extensive networking was challenging for Melanie, who preferred to keep to a small circle of family and friends. However, she pushed herself to reach out to others and new possibilities in her chosen field of medicine. Her determination to challenge her comfort zone has paid off with a bright future in medicine. She is successfully managing autism and college. She wrote, “I want to become a pediatrician because of my autism so that I can impact the way that ASD is viewed by society while helping children and their own families learn about their own health and any possible conditions.”  

Like Melanie, Clarence Harmon also faced struggles in making the transition from high school to college, which were further exacerbated by the pandemic. He wrote, “Transitioning from high school to college is an obstacle all freshman college students must endure. However, this period of change feels exasperating due to the current pandemic. The social, emotional, and behavioral supports that were present in high school to address my autism, ADHD, and speech delays ceased to exist in my first semester of college.”  

In high school, Clarence was fortunate to have had a strong network of school therapists and teachers, as well as his mother, who together helped him with speech delays, emotional behaviors, hyperactivity, and academics. His mother also encouraged him to participate in sports, which he learned would help tremendously with his impulsivity.

Clarence Harmon -ASD Ascend 2021 Autism College Scholarship winner
Clarence Harmon IV

He wrote, “Being on varsity sports exposed me to a lot of unpredictable social events. However, nothing prepared me to handle COVID-19 in college. A significant amount of my coping mechanisms to deal with life (and disability) were replaced with isolation, social distancing, and asynchronous learning in my freshman year. Due to COVID-19, there is not an opportunity to participate in physical activities, team sports, and benefit from in-person social interaction.”

How did Clarence cope with autism and college? Instead of throwing in the towel, he got to work. He designed a daily workout routine comprised of stationary rowing, bike riding, and treadmill walking to recreate the body regulation for his large, athletic frame that he benefited from in high school.   

COVID has also created some emotional and skills-based setbacks for Clarence. To cope with anxiety, he has employed breathing techniques and kept a journal. When he feels himself sliding back to previous behaviors, he pauses and makes an effort to focus on what he wants to communicate.

He wrote, “Some people may have similar starting points, but each have different finish lines. No matter where I started, I can choose how to finish. I can perform to my limits, surpass them, or focus on my struggles for the rest of my life. The COVID-19 environment has caused skills regression and fear. It again takes me a moment to process thoughts before speaking and I must learn online social queues/norms. Yet, there is a silver lining to having my disability. I know how to persevere.”

We know he will! We were excited to find his name on the The University of Alabama in Huntsville dean’s list. His tenacious spirit won him the ASD Ascend 2021 Autism College Scholarship and will no doubt lead him to his dreams of being a college athlete and future forensic accountant. Please check out last weeks blog post to learn how college autism programs have helped our other three winners.