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Autistics on Campus bust myths, show young students that college is possible

ASU student says to #AskAnAutistic to get the real story about autism.
April 27, 2017

A group of autistic ASU students welcomed local high school students to the Tempe campus to learn about college life

The shift from high school to college isn’t always an easy one. The newfound independence can be both freeing and intimidating — especially if you’re autistic.

“The transition to college was very frightening for me,” Jenna Breunig said. “Many autistic high schoolers are already struggling to function at their current level of independence. … Being pushed to be even more independent, especially if you don't feel developmentally ready, can be terrifying.”

Breunig, a computer science undergrad at Arizona State University, is more comfortable these days, thanks in part to her involvement in Autistics on Campus, a group that provides a judgement-free space for autistic students to socialize and spread awareness and acceptance of the disorder. Earlier this monthApril is Autism Awareness Month., AoC members engaged in their first community-outreach endeavor when they welcomed a group of autistic Tempe High School students to ASU’s Tempe campus for a tour and panel discussion about college life.

There was some initial hesitance from the high schoolers after they filed into a classroom on the second floor of Coor Hall, where the discussion was held. But once the AoC group members began sharing their personal stories, hands were flying up to ask questions.

Greggory Ohannessian, an interdisciplinary studies grad student, recalled a time when he almost missed the shuttle from ASU’s West campus to Tempe.

“If that happens, don’t panic,” he said. There’s always another on its way.

Other nuggets of wisdom AoC members shared included reaching out to the ASU Disability Resource Center. With a location on each campus, the center is easily accessible and offers a number of services, including special testing accommodations, note-taking assistance and equipment rental.

“If you’re coming to ASU, you need to go talk to these people,” business undergrad Daryn Nehrkorn said before moving on to the topic of student clubs. Aside from the AoC, he listed off clubs for such activities as cosplay, video games and Quidditch, which drew excited gasps from the high school students.

“Like, Harry Potter Quidditch?” one asked.

“Yes,” Nehrkorn said. “But I don’t think they’ve figured out how to make the brooms fly yet.”

On the way from Coor Hall to the Memorial Union for lunch, Nehrkorn chatted easily with Tempe High sophomore Austin Hartwell. Hartwell was impressed with the size of the campus but acknowledged it was also a bit daunting. If he decides to come to ASU, he said, he most likely will join the AoC.

Finding a group of “like-minded” peers can be difficult among such a large student population, AoC faculty adviser Maria Dixon said. She attributes the tongue-in-cheek phrase to the students who established the AoC nearly a year and a half ago after coming to her for help communicating better with students and professors.

Dixon, a speech language pathologist and clinical associate professor in ASU’s Department of Speech and Hearing Science, said she realized that what the students were looking for might be better served as a student organization where they could regularly engage with other autistic students who were experiencing similar things.

So far, her inclination has proven correct.

“It's nice to have friends, especially ones who can relate to me better,” Breunig said. “We face a lot of the same problems.”

Including stigma and a lack of understanding from non-autistic people, who may have good intentions but bad sources of information.

“It’s important to learn from real autistic people if [you] want to understand autism,” Breunig said. “Autistic people are often shut out of the conversation about ourselves when, really, we're the ones living with autistic minds 24/7, so it would stand to reason that we know the most.”

Short of speaking directly with an autistic person, she suggests checking out organizations like the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, the Autism Women’s Network and the U.K.’s National Autistic Society (Breunig recommends these organizations in particular, as she said she has found that some others may have misleading or inaccurate information).

Dixon is pleased to be a part of something that not only provides a sense of community but empowers autistic students.

“Having the students recognize that they’re not all alone on campus is really big,” she said, but it’s more than that. It’s also about “valuing [their autism] and seeing that they have something to contribute to the diversity on campus.”

That’s a message the AoC members want to convey to as many people as possible, beginning with the Tempe High students.

“My personal hope is that this will help them start to imagine what college could be like for them,” Breunig said, “and that it could go OK.”

 

Top photo: Tempe High School students Katelynn Thompson (left), a junior, and Anna Molina, a senior, grab chopsticks for their meal at the Pitchforks dining hall at the Memorial Union. It was part of a Tempe campus visit that included a tour and panel discussion about college life for autistic students. Photo by Anya Magnuson/ASU Now

 
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April 28, 2017

Cronkite Outstanding Undergraduate Katie Bieri loves learning about range of subjects as a part of being a reporter

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

Cronkite student Katie Bieri has worked hard throughout her college career to make her journalistic dreams come true.

In her eight semesters at ASU, Bieri has completed seven internships at news organizations in New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and New York. She has worked for CBS’ National News Political Unit, reported live on Arizona politics from Capitol Hill and earned bylines for the Arizona Republic writing breaking-news stories.

And she’s loved every minute of it.

“It’s so much fun being a reporter,” Bieri said. “The fact that you get to learn so much and become a mini expert in all sorts of things. It’s what I’m meant to do.”

Bieri, who is graduating May 8 with a bachelor’s from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, believes journalism is more than just a craft.

“It’s taught me so much about life,” Bieri said. “Sure, there’s pressure and stress, but it also teaches you how accountable journalists have to be for their stories.”

The 21-year-old has covered courts and cops, business and consumer news, border issues, and last semester assisted political reporters on the 12 News Watchdog team in Phoenix.  

 

After graduation, Bieri will work for El Paso’s KVIA ABC-7 as a bureau reporter, covering Las Cruces and southern New Mexico for the TV station.

The New Mexico native, who is receiving the Cronkite Outstanding Undergraduate Award, answered some questions about her experience at ASU.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I found my niche while working in my high school's weekly television broadcast. Everyone else wanted to pursue film school, but I loved shooting, writing and editing my own news packages. I was able to produce packages for New Mexico State University, but after visiting ASU, I knew I was moving out of state for college.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: The wonderful thing about attending college is that suddenly, you're surrounded by different perspectives, cultures and beliefs. I have definitely been challenged by my closest friends to become more willing to accept criticism. As a journalist, one quote that will always stay with me is, "There is no good writing, only good rewriting." Sometimes, it's so difficult to just begin writing a story. We have to remember that the stories of the people that we're telling are more important than our fears of inadequacy. You just have to put pencil to paper and get ready to rewrite as many times as necessary.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: The sole reason I chose ASU was to attend the Cronkite School. As soon as I visited, I knew this would be my home for the next four years. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to study border reporting, report on politics from Washington, D.C., and interned for a number of wonderful local news companies as well as CBS News in New York.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Sign up for as many opportunities you can (without overwhelming yourself), even activities that don't necessarily relate to your major. Explore all aspects of being a college student while remembering the end goal: getting a job. It's perfectly fine to have the occasional sleepless night — find a set "schedule" in college is extremely challenging. Just focus on making great memories. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: While I eventually moved out, I loved living in Taylor Place on campus. I highly recommend it for incoming students. I made such wonderful friends and acquaintances living in the dorms. Furthermore, it was so close to Cronkite and allowed me to be as involved as I could be in the school.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be working as the Las Cruces correspondent for KVIA in El Paso, Texas. I interned at this station four years ago. Las Cruces is also my hometown. Very excited.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle? 

A: I would invest the money in sustainable resources and infrastructure that could bring clean water to people in impoverished countries.

Top photo: Katie Bieri will soon graduate with a bachelor’s degree from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and then head to a job at the Las Cruces bureau of the El Paso station KVIA. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now