News Article Details

Having a conversation about autism spectrum disorder

Times West Virginian - 4/12/2019

April 12-- Apr. 12--FAIRMONT -- Bonnie Henning wants to clear up misconceptions people have about autism.

The first misconception is in the number of people who have the condition, as the autism spectrum encompasses more individuals than some realize.

"The prevalence of autism is really increasing," said Henning, assistant professor of special education at Fairmont State University. "To the point where pretty much everyone in the world is going to have someone that they love, work with or socialize with that's going to have autism impact their lives in some way."

This was just one of the lessons Henning discussed at a lunch and learn panel Thursday at Fairmont State. The panel focused on promoting awareness of the condition during April, which is Autism Awareness Month.

"We want to raise that awareness," Henning said. "And to give some basic idea of 'How can you talk to someone with autism, how do you interact with someone with autism, how do you work with someone who might have autism.' So just kind of giving them that overall understanding of what it is and how you can really interact with someone."

In addition to speaking about the condition in an open forum, Henning brought in several individuals in the school's Autism Individualized Mentoring and Support Services, or AIMSS, program to talk about themselves and answer questions from the panel.

AIMSS helps college students who are on the autism spectrum adjust to the culture of higher education.

"Our AIMSS program provides individualized support for students who are on the autism spectrum," said Julie Reneau, associate professor of special education and director of AIMSS at Fairmont State. "We contact professors to help students navigate the transition between high school and college. We also work on social skills because that's an area that sometimes students on the spectrum struggle with in college."

While individuals on the spectrum can have difficulties in certain settings, both Reneau and Henning said that interacting with people with autism is never a one size fits all situation.

"Autism is a spectrum," Henning said. "You're going to have those individuals who can't communicate verbally at all and then you have those who are great communicators who do other things."

Although the level of communication that individuals with autism have can vary, Reneau said her department is available to help those students perform actions necessary to get through the college experience.

"Professors assume that if a student is really intelligent, very bright that they will have the typical social skills and ability to adapt," Reneau said. "That's not always the case with students with autism. They may need more support on how do you navigate talking with a professor, how do you go to their office and ask questions and set up appointments."

With this in mind, Henning and Reneau discussed how to best communicate with individuals with autism. Henning stressed the importance of actually meeting and interacting with individuals with autism, to learn firsthand.

"I can tell you lots of things, but to actually talk to someone with autism and talk to them about their life and their needs is just really more meaningful," Henning said. "I think just raising the understanding that it's a spectrum; there's going to be people on all different sides with different behaviors, different levels of IQ, different things for all of these people is what autism means, not just what we see on TV."

Email Eddie Trizzino at and follow him on Twitter at @eddietimeswv.


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