Small acts of consciousness and kindness can be vital to those with social differences

a guest blog post by Liana Klin, ASF Summer Associate

I have grown up being taught everything there is to know about ASD with a parent that leads an autism center in Atlanta. I was often exposed to house guests with autism, attended the annual Autism Walk in Atlanta, received daily statistics regarding ASD at the dinner table, and volunteered within the autism community. These experiences and constant discussion about ASD has given me a unique perspective that I try to take advantage of in a less knowledgeable public. I am hyper aware of those around me on the spectrum, and this includes those around me in both my private high school and the current university that I attend. I have learned that not everybody is going to look out for others, and I urge you, reading this, to take what I say into consideration and use it to encourage yourself to be kind to those that may not be like you.

Growing up I attended a “progressive” school in Atlanta, Georgia, where being ‘weird’ was pretty normal, whatever ‘normal’ really meant. People familiar with my high school often joke that it’s  full of unique people with strange talents, especially because my school allowed us to dress however we chose, worked to highlight our unique talents, and tried to make student-teacher relationships as strong as possible. Unfortunately, it is difficult to create the ideal environment for anybody that differs from the ‘norm’, even with the constant efforts my high school put forth, and students on the spectrum still struggled to fit in more than others.

People that were less aware of these students’ social differences thought they were annoying or would subtly make fun of them. This was not okay, though I have definitely been guilty of it. Along with many prejudices that others and myself have, it is important to constantly be checking yourself for these hurtful oppressions. Students that attend non-specialized schools tend to be higher functioning and not as unaware as you may think. In one of my English classes, a student said to the class she was on the spectrum and is aware that she was different. 

I began my undergraduate education at Tulane University in 2018, where I was surrounded by a different ‘norm’ than I was used to. Many big-city, outrightly wealthy, and honestly, intimidating people sat beside me in my classes. People were less likely to be rude to others and speak poorly about strangers, and more likely to just do their own thing and pay no mind to those that are uninvolved in their social life. While being in this type of environment, it is easier not to feel judged or watched at all times, though this also means students that do need a social push in the right direction tend to become more isolated. For example, I had a calculus class of about 50 people, and towards the front of the lecture hall sat a student on the spectrum. This student sat alone and paid more attention to what was being taught than anyone else in the room, due to the disinterest in most other students on the material. He frequently raised his hand to ask questions to our professor, who also was somewhere on the spectrum and had difficulties giving sensible answers. This student frequently corrected the professor, which caused the class to erupt in giggles.

Throughout the semester, him and I were often two of the first few students to enter the lecture hall, and as I do with anyone, I would always greet him with a smile or a “hi”. What became somewhat of a ritual, evolved into a distant and near silent friendship between the two of us. If I entered the classroom a little late or with a friend and forgot to go out of my way to say hello, he would turn around and smile until I smiled or waved back. If he corrected the professor, he would turn around for some sort of reaction out of me. I honestly don’t even think the friend I sat with in that class had any idea of this communication between me and the boy in the front row.    

A large campus is intimidating, and not everybody is going to look out for others. Small acts of consciousness and kindness can be vital to those with social differences and can also push those with ASD to have a college experience that typically developing students are able to integrate into, usually, a lot easier. I still see this student from my calculus class walking alone to and from classes, and I just hope that he has other friends saying “hi” to him in his classes. There is not a need to go out of your own norm to make those with ASD in school feel better acclimated, we should all just treat those different than us with the same kindness and respect that we give to anybody else around us.