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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,” Jane Smith* 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.”

Smith, 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,” Smith 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,” Smith 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 (Smith 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,” Smith said, “and that it could go OK.”

*Some names have been changed for privacy reasons.

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

ASU-led tech startup Hygiea heads to Berkeley entrepreneurship competition

April 27, 2017

Last year, a group of students launched a small startup with a big idea: to make waste management less wasteful.

To date, Hygiea has raised more than $40,000 in grant funding, and the team heads to their seventh entrepreneurial competition this week. Left to right,Hygiea founders Saiman Shetty and Parshad "Patrick" Patel, stand with the Mayor's Cup in Los Angeles, California. Since starting last year, Hygiea has made waves in the entrepreneurial world, entering numerous startup competitions and raising more than $40,000 in funding. This week, they're headed to the University of California, Berkeley, for LAUNCH. Photo courtesy of Saiman Shetty Download Full Image

Led by founder and CEO Saiman Shetty, Hygiea will be pitching their internet-of-things-powered platform, which gathers data about the content and capacity of waste containers at LAUNCH, the University of California’s startup accelerator, held at UC Berkeley. Rounding out the team are chief technology officer Parshad “Patrick" Patel and Pooja Addla Hari, VP Business Development, and a graduate of the technological entrepreneurship management program at the Polytechnic School, one the six Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. 

The idea for Hygiea came to Shetty when he noticed the inefficiency of waste collection. Workers often waste time visiting trash receptacles that aren’t full, while overflowing receptacles are missed.

“The inefficiency was in that the workers had no feedback or strategy about bin fullness and so could not plan their collection circuits effectively,” says Shetty, who earned his master’s of science in electrical engineering from the Fulton Schools.

To combat this, Hygiea developed a system that runs the data collected from waste receptacles through a powerful analytics engine that helps optimize collection routes and schedules. The system can also leverage past data to predict population dynamics and surges in receptacle use, possibly saving waste management companies 30 percent on collection costs. 

Shetty said the company is also looking to fill the need for this kind of service in the health care industry, where hospitals and other health care institutions have reported problems with biohazardous waste bins overflowing.

At LAUNCH, Hygiea will be competing against 15 other teams, which were selected from a field of 250 applicants. The grand prize is $30,000 in funding, with smaller cash prizes for the audience choice award as well as second and third place.

But this isn't Hygiea’s first rodeo. Their first entrepreneurial competition was the Silicon Valley Business Competition at San Jose State University last year. Out of 128 teams, Hygiea advanced to the final four, securing $5,000 in funding.

They also participated in Arizona State University’s signature startup competition, the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, becoming one of the 20 ventures in the 2016 cohort. They ultimately earned $20,000 in funding and struck a deal with ASU in which the university agreed to sponsor patenting and intellectual property processes. The venture also took home the top prize at ASU’s Changemaker Challenge, beating out 86 other teams to claim $10,000.

“These two grants helped us get the product development in full speed,” says Shetty. “We hired an Indian company located in Rajkot to jointly develop the software side of our product and we partnered with a local company here for the hardware. We love to keep hardware manufacturing closest to us because the turnaround cycle is super quick with companies in the U.S.”

Hygiea has made other connections stateside as well, entering Los Angeles’ Mayor’s Cup, which fields applications from innovative startups. Out of 150 applicants, Hygiea was one of five chosen to present and receive assistance from L.A. town hall to market their products to the city.

“We are currently in talks with the sanitation department of LA town hall to run a pilot program to prove its benefits to the city,” says Shetty.

The venture has also made inroads within Silicon Valley, accepting an incubation offer from Plug and Play Tech Center, the investment firm and startup accelerator that has produced PayPal, Dropbox and other successful companies. Plug and Play also invested $150,000 in kind and provided Hygiea with office space in Sunnyvale, California. This leap forward spurred Hygiea to incorporate and officially become a company.

“Thus, what started with student competitions and as a pastime project became a real product and ready to cater to a market need that is existent out there,” says Shetty.

While they prep for LAUNCH, the startup is currently fielding investment requests from different janitorial companies looking to leverage Hygiea’s tech to boost their operations. But Shetty sees the scope of Hygiea to stretch beyond simply become profitable, but to advance in the way we manage waste.

“More than anything else, we identify ourselves as a technology company and commit ourselves to our mission: To Eliminate Waste from Waste Management,” says Shetty. “That's how we want the world to look at us as well. We want to keep innovating to redefine the limits of waste management processes using technical innovations that we do at Hygiea.”

Pete Zrioka

Assistant director of content strategy, Knowledge Enterprise