When I first entered the gates of Mercyhurst University in the spring of 2017, I was excited, but also scared. I was nervous at the prospect of having to navigate college life and make friends (something that has been very hard for me) as an autistic individual in a new environment. Mercyhurst was my college of choice because it had a strong autism program, the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM). I was unsure about the program at first because my prior experience in schools that were designed to support neurodiverse individuals had not been great. However, the director of the AIM program was one of the first people I met when I visited the college, and he told me about the program and the type of support I would receive, easing my nerves.
AIM is built on supporting five aspects of an autistic student’s daily functioning: academics, independence, social skills and opportunities, emotional health, and vocational skill development. An AIM advisor helps students in the program create goals to meet these areas of functioning and then checks in weekly with each student to check their progress.
A few aspects of AIM make it unique. For one, the students are guided, rather than parented through college, meaning the students are given accessibility to resources and told how to use them; instead of the resources being handed to them, students must advocate for themselves and ask for these resources. AIM allows students to explore, make their own decisions, and make mistakes without forcing them back on track. This freedom of choice allows a student to develop his or her independence and learn from their past experiences.
Practical Life and Employment Skill Development
An autism-related challenge I encountered quite early on in my undergraduate studies was learning to manage my time effectively. During my freshman year, I was involved in different clubs and activities on campus and tried many new things; however I was not leaving enough time to study. As a result, my grades suffered and I was constantly doing assignments at the last minute. During the second term of my freshman year, I had the opposite problem: focusing on my studies so intently that I became stressed and failed to enjoy myself, though my grades were strong.
The AIM program helped me overcome these problems. During my meetings with my advisor, I discussed my academic progress, and together, we came up with goals and study strategies which included taking breaks, doing a few fun things during the day, and exercise. I ended both my junior and senior years on the dean’s list and earned my way onto the political science and psychology honors societies, while still having time to have fun and partake in social events.
In addition, each AIM student is enrolled in a zero-credit Career Path class, which is designed to teach the students skills needed to function in the employment setting, such as writing resumes, setting up an online profile (e.g., LinkedIn), dressing professionally, and interview practice. The Career Path classes were long and tedious at times especially after a long day of work, but were extremely important in my career development. I would not have had the interpersonal skills, knowledge, or confidence to interview successfully for my current job at George Mason University had I not taken these classes.
Professional Networking and Advocacy Opportunities
AIM also selects a few students to represent them on business trips to New York City and Washington, D.C. each year, in which students meet with different businesses, autism advocacy organizations, and politicians regarding neurodiversity initiatives in employment. In fact, my most rewarding experience at Mercyhurst was being chosen to attend neurodiversity summits on Capitol Hill and New York City in 2019 and 2020. Those trips gave me a passion for neurodiversity policy in education and employment.
At one of those summits, I met with Pennsylvania Senator, Bob Casey, to discuss and learn about local policy proposals relating to the workplace and education initiatives in regard to autism. Senator Casey actually stepped away from a meeting about COVID19 to meet with the students in the program. He asked us about our experiences with autism and what changes we would like to see for autistic people in the future. We also spoke with other Pennsylvania officials as well, including representatives from Senator Pat Toomey’s office, Congressman Mike Kelly, and former Governor Tom Ridge. This was the first occasion in which I had spoken to a politician about autistic causes and further fueled my passion for advocacy work.
In addition to speaking with political figures and lawmakers, we spoke with staff members at several neurodiversity organizations to learn about how they work to support individuals with autism. We also visited several companies that were interested in hiring autistic people, including Amazon, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and MITRE, a cybersecurity organization, to discuss their autism initiatives and give suggestions as to how they can improve employment experiences for autistic individuals.
Aside from discussing policy and legislation, the most rewarding aspect of these vocational trips was developing skills, such as dressing appropriately and being on time for meetings. We learned how to navigate a busy city using a map and public transportation. We also had to learn how to manage our time effectively because we were going on three to four all-day vocational trips during the school year, meaning we had readings, assignments, exams, and projects to complete upon our arrival back on campus.
What AIM Does Best
One of AIM’s distinguishing features is its emphasis on students advocating for their own needs and making their own choices and mistakes without intervention. That ability to make decisions without a guardian parenting them all the way through is critical to the learning process and a student’s independence. AIM also has a career path coordinator dedicated to connecting autistic individuals with potential employment and internship opportunities. Last, AIM provides vocational exposure experiences for students, to support their development of “soft skills.” Although the budgets of schools may vary, simply taking a trip off-campus with some autistic students to a park or a nearby town can help in the fostering of these skills.
AIM’s support through those components has made me a better and more knowledgeable person. That once nervous figure walking through the gates of Mercyhurst in the spring of 2017 had grown so much in four years and is ready to walk out those gates more confident than ever, and more ready than ever to support the autistic community.
Ben VanHook graduated from Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., in 2021, having earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in political science and psychology. He is currently enrolled for graduate studies at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. He plans to get a master’s degree in public policy with a certificate in education policy. He is employed at George Mason as a learning coach for students enrolled in the college’s executive functioning program.