By Lulu Larcenciel
Ryerson touts itself as an accessible institution, but many on the autism spectrum have found otherwise. There are sensory issues like classrooms with smoke detectors that produce constant overwhelming low-level ringing, Ryerson’s overstimulating hubs and halls, mandatory group work and a lack of assistance for students having social communication issues with professors or administration. Autists face hurdles to attain the same education that non-autistic students have access to.
There are fundamental misunderstandings about autism in our society that impact students at Ryerson more than you might think. In second year, I took developmental psychopathology because one of my special interests is mental health and the human condition. There was one brief lecture about autism, and the professor touched on a few common traits before announcing that people on the spectrum have special interests like cars, engineering and bugs.
“If any of you were on the autism spectrum you wouldn’t be here,” he said, “because this isn’t the type of thing you’d find interesting.” I was shocked by his ignorance, and since I was not comfortable outing myself in front of 200 other students who had just been told I didn’t belong—I was shocked alone.
Jason Nolan, an early childhood studies professor who is also autistic, is all too familiar with the difficulties of navigating inaccessible educational environments.
“If any of you were on the autism spectrum you wouldn’t be here,” he said, “because this isn’t the type of thing you’d find interesting”
“All educational institutions, including Ryerson, are inherently neurotypical spaces that actively disabled the neurodiverse community,” he said. “Disablement happens at every level of institutions, from pedagogies and policies that enforce a one-size-fits-all solution to complex problems down to the physical infrastructure that is hostile to sensory and mobility differences.”
As one student, Brit Alexander, said, “Being an autistic university student is a very alienating, unsettling, immensely stressful experience for me. My mental health is impacted a lot… I feel like an outsider in every single class [and] feeling like I’m the only one experiencing sensory discomfort and the only one who doesn’t know how to make small talk or build friendships.”
This mirrors my own experience as an autist, and so did Alexander’s proposal for making university more bearable for those on the spectrum. “I wish there was a support group, or social group [for autistic students] on campus that was highly structured and facilitated. Something that integrates mental health support, executive functioning and organizational supports, functional social skills training for the workplace, etc,” said Alexander.
Autistic students at UWaterloo do have an ongoing support group, something Ryerson must work to develop. Through Academic Accommodation Support (AAS) there are no ongoing groups or resources specific to autism. According to Director Marc Emond there is an upcoming summer program with eight fixed workshops that centre around relationship building. Emond did not respond in time for publication when asked about how this program is supposed to be accessible to all autists during the summer, when they’re most likely not on campus. Workshops like this have the potential to be beneficial if they are expanded into consistent support and to include other skills.
Classroom accommodations like assistive technology or private rooms for writing tests are welcome, but AAS facilitators do not assist students communicating with other branches of the school, navigating socially, or with sensory or executive functioning.
For most people it takes a long waiting list or a lot of money to be formally diagnosed, and some people avoid getting diagnosed for fear of mistreatment or discrimination by any authority figure
A student who asked to remain anonymous experienced stigma from ServiceHub staff while navigating the confusing and overwhelming OSAP process, and was told by their AAS facilitator they would have to handle the problem themselves as it wasn’t in the AAS prerogative. This is an example where the “accessibility” of Ryerson starts to show some holes.
AAS also only helps those with a medical diagnosis, which many on the autism spectrum do not have. The Ryerson Medical Centre does not diagnose, though physicians are willing to refer students to outside specialists to pursue diagnosis elsewhere. For most people it takes a long waiting list or a lot of money to be formally diagnosed, and some people avoid getting diagnosed for fear of mistreatment or discrimination by any authority figure. Some also don’t get diagnosed because they don’t accept the historically-oppressive medical model of care.
So why is there no support structure for autism spectrum students? I was continually referred to the school of disability studies, but staff and faculty had no answers to that question as well.
Professor Eliza Chandler from the school of disability studies referred me to activist and Ryerson alumni Raya Shields, who noted that there are some groups at York that meet weekly and monthly, as well as executive functioning coaching and sensory pods—but here at Ryerson, students are left to find outside resources on their own.
While general student support groups were also recommended by various Ryerson staff from AAS and the school of disability studies, none of them have specialists or even specialized training for assisting those on the autism spectrum.
If it isn’t accessible to neurodivergent people, then it isn’t accessible. A regular day in the life of an autistic student is stressful and overwhelming, and it’s time for Ryerson to support us consistently, both on campus and in the training of professors, facilitators, and staff.
“Increasing academic supports for autistic students is necessary and welcomed, but it barely scratches the surface, and will never be enough to create an equitable learning environment for autistic students,” said Nolan.