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A safe space for outreach and fun

New Autistics on Campus club focuses on acceptance, outreach and fun at ASU.
Autism students find communion in ASU group.
December 7, 2015

New ASU club Autistics on Campus to focus on acceptance

“Imagine being dropped into the middle of a marching band.”

That’s how Jenna Bruenig described what it’s like to deal with sensory overload as an autistic person.

“There’s all the instruments, it’s very loud, very colorful and everyone is moving.”

The half-dozen students in the room nodded as Bruenig shared her insights. They could relate.

Bruenig and several other students have formed a new club called Autistics on Campus to share experiences and raise awareness about autism at Arizona State University.

The group has met twice and is looking for more students to join when it resumes after the winter break.

“When I came to ASU I met a couple of people who are autistic, but as a general rule you don’t meet a lot of them and I think it would be great if we had a safe space where we could meet,” said Bryant Morrow, a freshman computer science major, who is a member of the group.

“Just meeting people at all in Tempe is tricky.”

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition in which the brain processes information differently. Some autistics have trouble communicating or with social interactions, such as making eye contact or detecting nuances in conversation. But there is a huge variation in symptoms — a point that the ASU group wants to emphasize in its outreach.

The members debated a logo for the group, possibly incorporating the neurodiversity symbol — a rainbow-colored infinity sign, which is a sideways figure 8 (shown in the photo at the top of the page).

“The neurodiversity logo symbolizes the idea that everyone’s brains are a little different and it’s OK to be different and we can all accept each other for who we are,” said Bruenig, a junior computer science major. “It’s a lot more positive than the puzzle piece.”

Some of the meeting talk was like any other college group — pizza, video games and lack of sleep. But the students also shared their unique challenges. Some take medication that has to be precisely timed. Others struggle with whether to tell their professors they’re autistic.

And then there’s hyperfocus — the tendency for autistics to concentrate intensely on one task and block out everything else.

“When you’re constantly focused on something it can often cause you to forget about other things,” said Blaine Crimin, a junior who is majoring in informatics.

They shared strategies for diverting hyperfocus.

“I have a light-up timer and you click it and it’s green, then yellow and then it flashes red when it’s time to go and that’s how I avoid being late,” Bruenig said.

Sixty-four students are registered as autistic with the ASU Disability Resource Center. Those students can take a one-credit class that covers coping strategies and study skills, and the center offers testing accommodations, adaptive technology and other help.

Bryant Morrow

Bryant Morrow (left), a freshman at ASU, is a member of Autistics on Campus, a new club. Photos by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Maria Dixon, a clinical associate professor of speech and hearing in the College of Health Solutions, is the group’s faculty adviser. Last summer, she ran a group on campus for autistic adolescents and teens to practice social communication and interaction with peers. Morrow contacted her about a college-age group, and eventually, Autistics on Campus was formed.

“The social part of college is hard for them, all the things involved with interactions between people that have nothing to do with learning from a textbook,” she said. She’s worked with autistic students on strategies for dealing with roommates and professors.

“It’s like trying to read other peoples’ minds is what they tell me,” Dixon said.

Autistics on Campus is not a therapeutic group, Dixon said.

When she asked the students how the group might affect their lives, several answered: “More social activities!”

Autistics on Campus is planning an outreach project for Autism Awareness Month in April, and debated what that might be.

Jenna Bruenig and Peridot Sai

Jenna Bruenig (left) and Peridot Sai are among the founding members of Autistics on Campus, a new group that will focus on outreach, acceptance and social activities.

“I don’t put in a lot of effort to suppress my symptoms. I would like people to know a little bit about autistic body language,” Bruenig said. “When I’m fidgeting, I can pay attention. I don’t have to be looking at you to listen to you.”

They also are interested in dispelling myths, like the perception that autistic people are savants, like the one portrayed in the movie “Rain Man,” or that they have an intellectual disability.

“We want to focus on acceptance and education,” Bruenig said.

“There are autistic people on campus and there are people on campus who will have an autistic kid or marry an autistic person and they should know it’s OK.”

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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The future of our place in space

Bill Nye shares the optimism of space exploration with ASU students, faculty.
Bill Nye, the rational guy? TV star says space exploration should be privatized.
December 7, 2015

Science celeb Bill Nye visits ASU to share his views on a "bright" future outside Earth

We are specks, floating in a black void.

And that black void is where we’re headed, to work, play, explore and learn.

That was the theme of a talk Monday night at ASU Gammage by Bill Nye, science educator, CEO of the Planetary Society and host of the popular TV show “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

Arizona State University’s New Space Initiative in the School of Earth and Space Exploration hosted the talk and panel discussion with representatives from New Space — aka private space companies.

“Everybody has asked these two questions: Are we alone? And where did we come from?” Nye said. “Is there someone else in the universe wondering the same thing?”

He referenced recent events in Paris and California. “Space is optimistic,” Nye said. “We will learn more. We will learn more about ourselves, and our place in space.”

Nye spoke about his third grade teacher telling him there were as many stars in the sky as there are grains of sand on the beach. “She way underestimated it,” he said, pointing to photos of Earth taken from Saturn. “From space, I’m just another speck. … I suck.”

Man having fun with his hands.

"There is a lot of space in space," Bill Nye said at ASU Gammage, adding that we should be exploring it because it is a source of optimism. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

The American effort to put 12 men on the moon cost about $151 billion — adjusted for inflation. The days of spending vast amounts of government money are over, Nye said. It’s up to the private sector to make space a reality.

Only 551 people have gone into space, said Will Pomerantz, vice president for special projects at Virgin Galactic.

“It’s not NASA’s job to fulfill Will Pomerantz’s childhood dream of going to space,” he said. “If I want to go to Arizona, I go on and buy a ticket and it’s pretty easy. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that for space?”

Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining company, talked about how in the future materials to build space stations and spacecraft will be mined in space.

“Those are all things that are going to happen in this century,” Lewicki said.

ASU grads are working in New Space companies now. Space is becoming much more than just a place for astronauts, said Scott Smas, program director of the New Space Initiative, in a pre-event interview.

“As fantastic a place as NASA is, some students are drawn to the entrepreneurial small startup world because they can have their hand on many more things than they would if they were at a larger, stodgy bureaucratic institution like Boeing or Lockheed Martin,” Smas said. “There seems to be an uptick in going away from JPL to places like Spire, where there are a couple of engineering grads. It’s a less than 100 person company that’s launching CubeSats to track ships across oceans. Their launch manager is an ASU alum.”

Space isn’t a distant thing done by brilliant gods on some far-off plane like Lockheed Martin or NASA any more, Smas said.

“I hope that we have people living long enough in space that we have hospitals up there,”  Hannah Kerner, Space Frontier Foundation

“You are seeing faculty, students, researchers open up access to space in terms of science and technology developments and exploring new arenas in the planetary field,” he said, citing ASU’s role in many ongoing NASA missions and the role that students play in them.

Pomerantz echoed that space has a lot of job opportunities now, pointing out he was washed out of becoming an astronaut because he wears glasses.

“When I was a student, there were about four jobs, period (in space),” he said. “Now I think you all do have a place in space. … If you are a graphic designer, we are hiring one now.”

Hannah Kerner is the executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, a group dedicated to opening the space frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible. She is also earning her doctorate at ASU. Kerner envisioned many private space stations in a decade. She echoed the thought that there will be far more job descriptions than astronauts in space.

“I hope that we have people living long enough in space that we have hospitals up there,” Kerner said, pointing out a friend who is both a nurse and a space enthusiast.

It’s a hopeful view of our place in space.

“Go get ’em, people,” Nye said.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News