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Autistic students support each other at Holyoke Community College

  • Emma "Riv" Rege at home in downtown Northampton, Thursday, April 26, 2018. Gazette STAFF/Andy Castillo

  • Emma "Riv" Rege says the HCC group helps autistic students learn and interact at their own pace. Gazette STAFF/Andy Castillo

  • Emma "Riv" Rege at home in downtown Northampton, Thursday, April 26, 2018. Gazette STAFF/Andy Castillo

  • Tiffany Cavanaugh, left, who is president of the Students on the Autistic Spectrum group, and Eveson, are among those who have found friendships through the club. Gazette STAFF/Andy Castillo

  • Riv Rege of Northampton rides the PVTA bus to Holyoke Community College on Friday morning, May 4, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Elizabeth Eveson, who has found support in the campus group, Students on the Autism Spectrum group, studies in the Elaine Marieb Center lounge at HCC. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Riv Rege of Northampton, who is autistic, rides the bus from Northampton to Holyoke Community College wearing headphones to minimize social interactions that might prove troublesome. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING



@AndyCCastillo
Monday, May 07, 2018

She was sitting in Room 136 listening to the professor explain a homework assignment for a class in research methods and psychology when the room’s overhead fluorescent lights started buzzing loudly. Simultaneously, the student sitting beside her began furiously typing on a computer keyboard, taking notes. Everything suddenly became too bright, and Elizabeth Eveson, a psychology student at Holyoke Community College, fled the room in distress.

“The entire thing just got way too loud ... I ended up leaving the classroom and bawling in the hallway,” she remembered later, while sitting in a quieter room in the college’s Office for Students with Disabilities & Deaf Services.

Eveson, 24, of West Springfield, has autism, a neurological developmental disorder that occurs in one of every 68 children, more often boys. It’s characterized by problems communicating, repetitive behaviors, difficulty understanding abstract concepts, and sensory overload that’s triggered by unexpected noise, light and strong smells.

A condition on a spectrum, autism affects people in different ways, according to Kimberly LaMothe, a behavior specialist with the Easthampton-based nonprofit organization Autism Connections. The agency is a subsidiary of Pathlight, a western Massachusetts organization that reaches out to people with developmental disabilities. Some people with autism can’t speak or communicate at all. Others function well throughout life, but might process speech slower than normal or easily become upset in a busy environment.

“You get overwhelmed, not just by emotion, but with sound, and lighting, all of these things can factor into it,” Eveson said of how she is affected.

Most of the time, she’s able to manage by avoiding situations like large crowds or social interactions that might be troublesome. But sometimes unexpected events happen, and it becomes too much to handle.

In those times, it’s good to have community. At Holyoke Community College, Eveson has found support among peers in the campus group Students on the Autism Spectrum.

Coincidentally, a school adviser, along with Eveson’s friend, Tiffany Cavanaugh, who is also autistic and serves club president, were out in the hallway the day Eveson bolted from her classroom. They saw her in tears and took her to an empty room nearby “where I could just let it out, and get it out of my system,” Eveson said.

Adult concerns

There are currently 18 active students in the Students on the Autism Spectrum group and they help each other through friendship, and by advocating for public awareness and campus acceptance of autism. Throughout the semester, the group hosts informational workshops, panel discussions and social events.

“When I came here and I discovered there were other autistic people who thought differently, it impacted me positively, and I was able to say ‘I’m going to be able to succeed with and even because of my autism,’ ” said Eveson. “We all kinda have this understanding that there are times when we just want to be left alone, and that’s OK. I can be honest about not feeling like I want to socialize, and no one judges me.”

Much attention is focused on autism in children because it’s a developmental disorder and can be treated through early intervention, Eveson says, noting public conversation about autism is often directed by parents of autistic children, and services are often tailored toward formative ages.

But children with autism grow up, and navigating adulthood as someone with autism can be difficult. Not only with trying to cope with everyday circumstances, but there are barriers to care — many health insurance policies only cover support services up to a certain age.

According to LaMothe, the Massachusetts’ state legislature passed a law in 2010 expanding health insurance coverage to autistic children, enabling families to obtain additional services from designated private health insurance providers. However, the coverage ends at age 22. After that, those with autism must find services, sometimes advocating for care on their own, LaMothe said.

“This is the biggest concern that we see. A lot of these individuals are in the special education system until the day before their 22nd birthday,” LaMothe said. “We see so many adults who isolate because that’s where they’re comfortable.”

LaMothe said that social support groups, like the Holyoke Community College club, are key in helping those with autism advocate for themselves and succeed at life.

Last year, the club put on a bake sale to raise money for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, carried signs in the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade, went on social outings to nearby cities together, made a presentations to 40 high school students about transitioning to college with autism, and hosted a workshop on creating “stim toys” like weighted gel pads and stress balls, which are used to improve focus and regulate behaviors such as hand flapping, rocking or bouncing.

The club is “a powerful group of students,” said Andrea Hojnacki, one of the club’s advisers, noting that it recently won Holyoke Community College’s Club of the Year award for the second consecutive year.

Misunderstood

Eveson, who moved often with her father, a military service member, before settling down in the Pioneer Valley in 2015, psychologists didn’t suggest she had autism until a few years ago. As such, Eveson grew up “knowing I was different, but not knowing why.”

In school, she was quiet, withdrawn, and had some trouble relating to peers, interacting mostly with teachers instead. During her first year of college while in Virginia, she had an emotional outburst and collapsed in the middle of a hallway. Instead of friends, police were called.

“They didn’t fully know what to do in the situation, but took action and began violently shaking me and dragging me away while I was still mid-meltdown. It was really traumatic for me, because you’re not really supposed to touch people when they’re having a meltdown,” Eveson said.

These days at HCC, Eveson finds strength in others, like Cavanaugh, who can relate through shared experiences and without judgment. A driving force behind Students on the Autism Spectrum Cavanaugh restarted the club, which, initially formed in 2011 but had become inactive, when she arrived at the school in 2016.

“We are not a tragedy, burden, a disease, or an epidemic,” she said of people with autism. “We like to show acceptance, positivity, inclusion, equality, support and teach the college community that we can work hard, go to school, have friends, and do things like everyone else can,” she said.

Mostly, she says, she is happy with who she is.

“Some days, when you have a crazy meltdown, or you’re in a room and everyone is getting the sarcastic jokes and you’re sitting there wondering what everyone’s talking about, there are those very few moments when you wish you were ‘normal,’ she said. “But pretty much 98 percent of the time I love it. I wouldn’t change it.”

Cavanaugh compared her experience with autism to living in a foreign country where no one speaks the same language as you. It’s easier to communicate with others who have autism, she says, because they understand.

“For me, despite the stress, meltdowns and anxiety, (autism) doesn’t stop me from doing what I love. I may have to work harder than most, but with my hard work, dedication, and positive outlook on life, I am able to do well in school and the activities I am involved in.”

Those who have autism are able to, in some ways, appreciate life more, by noticing details like the feeling of grass on bare feet or the sound of conversation at the other end of a hallway, Cavanaugh says.

“Personally, it made me a stronger person. I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without it, because it has given me, you could call my greatest strength.”

Finding the way

Another student in the Holyoke Community College group, Emma “Riv” Rege of Northampton, says the Students on the Autism Spectrum provides a strong social structure for her and the other members, allowing them to learn and interact at their own pace.

Struggling with peers, Rege left the public school system after the first year of high school and went to North Star Self Directed Learning Center, an alternative education program based in Sunderland that helps students transition into homeschooling. North Star offered social support and a chance to learn independently.

Rege remembers experiencing an emotional meltdown in a farm building at The Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield years ago. A few family members and friends who were there intervened, and stood by until the crisis passed. Since then, Rege has learned to avoid situations that will trigger a similar episode. These days, Rege rides the R41 Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus to Holyoke Community College in the morning, wearing headphones to discourage social interactions, and taking care to sit near an exit for an easy escape if it’s needed.

Looking ahead, Cavanaugh said she'd like to see the Students on the Autism Spectrum group expand elsewhere. “We believe that other schools and colleges should also have autism groups to showcase acceptance, inclusion, neurodiversity and autistic advocacy and to have our voices heard,” she said.

In friendship, Rege, Eveson, Cavanaugh, and others in the autism group, embrace their autism.

For Eveson, who intends to transfer to Mount Holyoke College and study psychology, it’s just “a bump in the road, as opposed to a barrier, when I seek to achieve something.”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.

How to connect

For more information on the Holyoke Community College group, Students on the Autism Spectrum, email Maureen Conroy at mconroy@hcc.edu. To find out about programs for adults at Autism Connections, some of which are funded by MassHealth and the state Department of
Development Disabilities, visit www.autismconnectionsma.org. 

Autism Connections also provides in-home behavioral support services and recommendations for families, community activities such as sensory-friendly movie events, trips to Bounce! Trampoline Sports in Springfield, holiday parties, summer picnics, an
annual conference, and family outings.