Autism awareness: UCA students work on disability support

Photos and story
by Daniel Adams 

Autism is a disability that affects youth nationwide. According to the CDC, 1 in 59 people have some form of autism and there is an increased chance of autism in boys, with the rate being four times greater. 

At the University of Central Arkansas, an organization has formed that looks to help disabled students. The Autism and Neurodiversity Alliance (ANA), formerlyStudents who Advocate for People (SWAP), was created by students of Professor Cindy Lea and has been active for the past year.  

Lea, the coordinator of leadership and engagement for the Honors College, was inspired after attending a conference presented by the National Autism Network in Vermont. Its mission is to spread the word about Autistic students in colleges and help give them a voice.

The idea for a group came to her after being in a session led by John Sheehan, an accommodations specialist at Purdue University. It was this session that made her think a support group for neuro-diverse students would be beneficial for UCA. 

“We are seeing more and more students with disabilities who have been successful with accommodations in K-12 starting college,” Lea said. “[As a result], faculty members do not always have training to understand the disability and know how to help their students.” While she’s helped keep the group afloat, it’s the students that have been leading the efforts. 

“Being a student group, you have some students who are totally new to the group and some who have been around since the beginning. I try to let students set their agenda and I try to just support them and make sure the day-to-day things get done.” 

Thanks to fundraising efforts, a disability sensory room was created in Room 28 of the Old Main building at UCA.  

With its calm environment, it’s meant to help students with autism, Asperger’s and other mental disabilities to have a place to settle down amidst the chaotic nature of college. 

Lea said that the students are looking to potentially add a swing chair and/or a bookshelf with information about autism and other neurological disabilities. The fundraiser from earlier in the spring was aimed at raising funds toward buying a swing chair, five pair of noise-cancelling headphones and two weighted blankets.

Aaron Conrad, a freshman with the UCA Honors College, first heard about the program from Lea at an Honors retreat before the semester started. Conrad is diagnosed with Asperger’s, one of the disorders classified in the autism spectrum. When he heard that a group on campus was advocating for neuro-diverse people, Conrad knew he wanted to be involved. 

“I think the low-sensory lounge is a great place that has a lot of aids for most sensory needs,” Conrad said. “I honestly haven’t spent a ton of time there but overall the room is a great, quiet place to go!” 

The room has been received extremely well by other students. There are no exact numbers available, but the commodities have been used by several students over the past few months. 

For those interested in supporting the group’s efforts, Lea would prefer direct cash donations be made after the group is approved to be an RSO (Recognized Student Organization) on campus.

While Disability Services will continue to provide support on campus for students who require it, ANA members hope to help students in a relaxed manner and show that people still care about each other, regardless of what disabilities they may have. 

For more information about ANA, please contact Lea at [email protected]