As an autistic student, 19-year-old sophomore Mebust knows college wasn’t built for people like them in mind. The summer before their freshman year, they scoured the internet for tips on how to be an autistic college student. All they found were advice columns for parents with 14-year-old geniuses and scary statistics.
Around 40% of autistic Americans will graduate college, according to the National Library of Medicine. Nearly 60% of non-disabled and neurotypical students graduate. It’s one of the biggest reasons Mebust, who only goes by their last name and they/them pronouns, decided to create the University of Montana Autism Network, or UMAN. They said they wanted to create a place to help beat the statistics — and, more importantly, help fellow autistic and otherwise-disabled students know they aren’t alone.
“My goal for creating UMAN was to create an intentional autistic space for other autistic students at UM,” Mebust said. “Talking about our own experiences and identity is something that I tend to do with any autistic person I meet. It’s something integral to myself and others that few can relate to, and UMAN was made to make the most out of that.”
UMAN was created by Mebust and their roommate Clio Whittington in the past semester. It meets on Tuesdays from 4-5 p.m. in a conference room in the Branch Center. It’s currently the only autism social support group run by, and for, autistic students on campus.
Autism refers to Autism Spectrum Disorder, a group of developmental disorders that are caused by differences in the brain, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention said. Autism is commonly associated with difficulties in communication and repetitive behaviors.
“People with ASD may also have different ways of learning, moving or paying attention,” the CDC said. “It is important to note that some people without ASD might also have some of these symptoms. But for people with ASD, these characteristics can make life very challenging.”
The social differences are what make college so much harder, Whittington said. It’s not that the students can’t do the work. The students are being asked to complete classes that won’t accommodate them or don’t match their learning needs. If classes require students to make eye contact or speak in public, autistic students may have to focus harder to accomplish the same goals.
“I’ve been thankful to have a lot of support from my peers and faculty, but there is always constant ableism thrown my way,” Mebust said. “Learning isn’t ableist, but the academia and social environment it exists in does.”
While UMAN isn’t tackling classroom barriers for autistics itself, it provides a space for autistic and other disabled students to speak freely about the obstacles they face.
Mebust and Whittington talked about how non-autistics, or allistic people, tend to expect autistic people to be either hyper-intelligent prodigies or incapable. Mebust remembers playing into the stereotype by using bigger words.
“It’s not that I’m lying to allistic people,” Mebust said. “It’s just that they expect something different. I don’t even realize I’m doing it half the time.”
A big stressor that students talk about is masking. Masking is when neurodivergent people try to hide or suppress behaviors that neurotypical people aren’t familiar with. It basically means hiding symptoms of autism, like resisting the urge to make repetitive motions or forcing oneself to make eye contact. Neurodivergent people may not always be successful at masking, and that can put them up for further scrutiny or vulnerability, Mebust said.
“That’s a lot of pressure,” Mebust said. “At UMAN, we try to make a sensory-friendly environment and a social space where masking isn’t expected from anyone.”
UMAN isn’t affiliated with the Associated Students of the University of Montana, or ASUM, but Mebust said it’s interested in getting access to funding and connections with the other student groups. However, one of the biggest challenges is establishing an official list of members.
In order to register as a recognized ASUM student group, UMAN would need a president, treasurer, an adviser and eight other members to be listed on GrizHub. While UMAN has been gaining a steady stream of 15 members per meeting, UMAN prides itself on maintaining confidentiality of members who don’t publicly want to share their disability, Mebust said.
“That may limit our publicized support, but we’re not here for that,” Mebust said. “We’re here for each other.”
UMAN isn’t the University’s only resource for autistic students, but it’s the only organization that’s run by autistic students. Other resources like the Mentoring, Organization, and Social Support for Autism Inclusion on Campus program, or MOSSAIC, can evaluate classrooms and spaces on campus for autistic students. MOSSAIC will then develop a kit that will help mute distracting or harsh stimuli that could bother neurodivergent people. It’s directed by UM doctoral candidate Jennifer Schoffer Closson, and it has placed UM as the seventh most autism-friendly campus in the United States by Best Value Schools.
Mebust said while programs like MOSSAIC are important, it’s also important for students to have a space where they don’t feel like they’re being evaluated, judged or serviced.
“We can talk about special interests or unwind with crafts,” Mebust said. “Whatever it is, it’s important for us to have a place to just be.”