A Seat at the Table
Words by Collin Cunningham | Photos by Eriko Iida
“I actually worked with a yeast that could have been potentially used for cancer treatment. It’s PCR, which is protein coded to the cancer, and it steals iron, so if you PCR it and get it so it would trace only to the cancer cells, the cancer cells do this situation where they make their own blood vessels and they starve out the neighboring cells.
“Well, let’s starve out the cancer cell by having this yeast here. And we don’t have cancer anymore.”
The man who just casually explained his theory for eliminating cancer is Timothy Mikes, a Kent State alumni who graduated in the spring of 2017 with a public health major. Tim gave up on his cancer-eradicating pursuits after he stopped feeling comfortable in Kent’s biology program.
As a freshman in high school, Mikes was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. He said his autism causes him anxiety in social scenarios, and that he benefits from interacting with people who understand his condition.
When Tim had to take a verbal test for one of his bio classes, he went to student services to see if they would help accommodate him. “You would have thought I was asking for the moon,” Mikes said. “And that’s not okay.”
It’s easy to understand why Mikes feels disgruntled. At least, for me it is.
Like myself, Mikes is part of the 1 in 68 children born every day who fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. He’s upset because he and many others who are on the spectrum believe that the disorder is misrepresented, and that requesting accommodations or behaving differently than his peers cause them to be viewed in an inferior light. His views are shared by Kaylee Moskala, a freshman studio art major.
“I’ve had a lot of people in my life tell me there’s something off about me or something different, but they won’t guess autism,” said Moskala. “And once I say autism, I’ve had this exact response: ‘Oh, you’re too smart to be autistic.’ And I got really offended.”
Moskala has Asperger Syndrome, or AS, which lands on the autism spectrum as a developmental disorder. AS is most comparable to high functioning autism (HFA). Though her and Timothy may possess similar traits, they have unique perspectives on the world, based both on experience and majors.
Mikes is a graduate student who studies medicine and health, and thus looks at the world through a more practical lens. Kaylee, however, is a first- semester freshman, and is a more creatively- minded individual; she expresses herself through the patterns and characters she draws.
What I came to understood about ASD and myself while I was talking to Moskala and Mikes is that everyone on the spectrum approaches the disorder in a way that’s relevant to their own interests.
“Art’s my voice when words fail, when I can’t talk, when I can’t articulate all the emotions I don’t necessarily understand,” Kaylee says. This sentence resonates deeply with me. My creative pursuits are what allow me to interact with a world I don’t comprehend. Even this article you’re reading now is an attempt to bridge the gap between my realm and the neurotypical one. “The pain that I don’t want to talk about, because I don’t want to feel it, because it makes me uncomfortable, instead of pushing it down, I put it on paper,” Kaylee says.
Dr. Lisa Audet is one of the university’s foremost experts on autism, having worked with developmental disorders for the past three decades. Her job is to increase the success of degree-seeking students who have high-functioning autism.
Over the years, Audet has seen many cases of students with autism. Some have prospered and been able to find success using their unique perspectives. Other kids, though, experience depression, anxiety or suicidal ideation that sets them back as they transition from living at home to a dorm or apartment. One student Audet worked with became so upset that he entered a state of denial about his autism, and now works at a grocery store with a master’s degree.
According to Dr. Audet, independent living, problem solving and socialization skills are the areas in which individuals on the spectrum are most likely to struggle. These factors are inherently involved in leaving high school and becoming a college student. A transitional period, such as this, that would be stressful for a neurotypical person is far more difficult for students with ASD.
Periods of difficulty and feelings of alienation often lead young adults with autism to seek out help from more experienced adults. A lack of public understanding of autism, however, prevents autistic students from getting the accommodations they need.
“I don’t think our staff and faculty are trained to see it and then to know what to do about it, or where there might be resources here on campus that would help them if they were to come across a student who is on the spectrum and was in need of some support,” Dr. Audet says.
This opinion was echoed by Kaylee, who has had run-ins with people who didn’t comprehend her behavior. People often ask her why she won’t look them in the eye. “It’s like, I’ll give you eye contact when I’m ready,” she says. “If you try to force it I will start to panic because I do not like this. And it’s actually gotten me questioned by security cops or mall cops, because if someone approaches me – an authority figure – and I don’t know what’s going on, I’m like hi-hmm. I start to shut down and they’re just like ‘Why are you doing that?’”
One of the greatest disparities between autistic and neurotypical individuals is sensory integration. The Autism Research Institute describes it: “Children and adults with autism, as well as those with other developmental disabilities, may have a dysfunctional sensory system. Sometimes one or more senses are either over- or under-reactive to stimulation. Such sensory problems may be the underlying reason for such behaviors as rocking, spinning, and hand-flapping.”
Once, when I was about four or five, I stood on the side of the street with my parents and baby sister and bawled my eyes out for several minutes as a motorcycle rally drove past and I just couldn’t understand why. It turns out, I was just feeling overwhelmed by the noise from the loud engines.
Though I was first diagnosed when I was three years old, I didn’t know about the concept of sensory integration until I spoke with Tim, who described being overwhelmed by senses as “similar to having a seizure inside your body.”
Timothy’s public health degree gives him an informed viewpoint on an issue he himself faces every day. One of the most interesting facts he had to share was that the average person’s rate of suicide is 12%. “Right off the bat,” Tim says, “a person with ASD has a 34-50% attempted suicide rate. That’s not good.”
And Tim’s right. That’s not good, but that doesn’t mean that ASD is entirely terrible. Some, like Kaylee, feel that autism heightens certain aspects of their mind or personality and assist them in certain ways. There was one interesting story that Kaylee offered that really stuck with me.
In high school, Kaylee did a project for her history class where she compared Einstein to Hitler. Just think about that. But it wasn’t in poor taste; both were very accomplished men of German background who achieved great things, one a genius visionary and one a manipulative and evil mastermind. Some of Kaylee’s classmates were upset with her for choosing to compare two individuals from opposite ends of the morality spectrum, but that was exactly her point.
“It’s not saying they’re the same person; it’s saying what can happen with two sides of a spectrum,” Kaylee explains. A lot of her art reflects this mindset. Kaylee wants to show people that individuals on the spectrum exist and aren’t inherently different from neurotypical people. Her character designs often express emotion through body language and colorful clothing, but not through facial expressions. She believes this reflects her own inability to fake expressions for emotions she’s not feeling.
“My angry face kinda looks like this,” says Kaylee, staring at me without much emotion at all. “They’re like ‘That’s not angry it looks like you just sucked a lemon.’ I’m like, ‘Maybe I’m angry at the lemon.’”
Just as Kaylee can express herself through her mindset, it’s undeniable that Tim’s intelligence is also bolstered by his diagnosis. He’s immensely smart, and motivated by the knowledge he possesses to the point of action. He thinks the key to making environments safe for every one of the 1 in 68 people who have ASD is to teach those who don’t understand.
Dr. Audet also feels this way, but remains positive that people like Kaylee and Tim will be the mechanisms of change we need to spread the autism community’s message.
“I think many people are unaware that we have a large pool of students who are on the spectrum here,” Audet explains. “They get here because they’re very smart. They get here because they pulled the grades in high school. We might have students here who have a diagnosis of high functioning autism who were valedictorian in their class. So the academic piece is something that they can handle, but the social component is something that becomes very difficult. … It’s changing, though. It’s changing for the better.”