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Source: (PHOTO: Marian University)

INDIANAPOLIS–April is Autism Awareness Month. Autism rates have tripled nationwide, which means that our education system will continue to see increased enrollment of students with autism.

Both the Indiana Resource Center for Autism and other national research shows that only about 41% of students with autism finish a higher education. Marian University’s Personalized Learning Center wants to change that with a program specifically focused on helping students who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

They have a program called the “Spectrum of Knights.”

“Spectrum of Knights is a fee-based program here on campus where we provide individualized support to our autistic students. So we do things like one-on-one coaching, skill development workshops, peer mentorships, study tables, etc,” said Hannah Melton, autism coordinator for Marian University.

Melton says autistic people battle a lot of stigmas.

“It’s a lack of support really. The students I work with are brilliant, but they just have different needs than what we believe to be the typical college student. We’ve had a history of a lot of negative connotations around a diagnosis of autism, which has limited some professionals from diagnosing it,” said Melton.

But Melton says as that has changed, people are beginning to understand what autism is all about.

“Now that we realize it’s a spectrum and that no two autistic students are ever the same, our diagnostic rates have gone up over the years. There’s a common saying in this community that says, ‘If you’ve met one autistic person, then you’ve met one autistic person.’ No person is going to look the same as another,” said Melton.

One thing you may also see an autistic person is what’s called stimming, which are behaviors that involve repetitive movements or sounds. That can involve flapping one’s arms or rocking back and forth.

“Overstimulation is when there are sensory inputs that can cause their brain to have information overload. They describe it as if their brain literally shuts down. Stimming can help them navigate that sensory overload. We all have stimming activities of our own. We may play with our hair nervously, bounce your leg, or play with a ring on your finger. Those could be considered stimming behaviors. The difference with autistic individuals is that it’s used in a specific way to help them manage the sensory and information overload, so that they don’t get to that shutdown or meltdown point,” said Melton.

The “Spectrum of Knights” program doesn’t just focus on academics. They also help connect autistic students with other campus and community resources and enhance their professional, life, and interpersonal skills.

Coming up, they have a “Neurodiversity Celebration Night” on Thursday April 27 from 2-6 pm. Participants will watch a documentary, “Autism Goes to College” and participate in a discussion, followed by sensory-friendly activities including slime making, puzzles, fidget toys. The afternoon concludes with a student call-out for participation in Marian university’s new Neurodiversity Advisory Council to begin fall 2023.

The full interview with Hannah Melton can be heard below.