I am a poster child for autism. Last spring, my image appeared across the campus as part of a campaign in which students offered up inspirational messages on living with a mental illness. My message said I survived social anxiety and self-harm, and they could too. It was a message that was well received—and that made me feel more accepted.
I learned I have autism, a developmental disorder that mainly affects executive functioning, sensory processing and social interactions, when I was in elementary school. I didn’t fully feel the impact until I was a college freshman and wanted to make many new friends in a short period of time. I have trouble communicating my feelings, and I often speak literally, so people think I’m quirky.
I felt more self-aware once at Westfield State. However, in the last semester of my senior year, a group of students—all navigating mental health issues, including autism—brought a group to campus that helped relieve the stigma. Active Minds, a national nonprofit organization, is dedicated to creating an accepting campus culture. Danny Kochanowski ’16, who lives with depression and social anxiety, helped bring the chapter to campus.
It was Active Minds that sponsored the poster campaign. The group also offered up activities that brought students together, such as an art therapy workshop I took part in. Sitting with peers, coloring with markers and pencils alongside others who were finger-painting and folding origami, I was able to stop worrying about fitting in and perfecting my networking skills for post-graduate interviews. I focused instead on my colorful picture of a cat and dog playing in the rain.
My peace of mind was an outcome Kochanowski banked on. “I was really inspired by the idea that something like Active Minds could raise awareness,” he says. He notes there have always been campus resources for those with mental health issues and disabilities, but Active Minds is more intentional in bringing students together for discussion and support.
A second group, the Autism Community Club, was also getting its start on campus last April, fittingly in National Autism Awareness Month. I addressed students who attended the group’s first meeting about what it’s like to be an autistic student in college.
I graduated in May and am now working as an editorial writer for Citystream, Inc. in Cambridge and am also studying for my master’s in publishing and writing at Emerson College. While I can no longer benefit from Active Minds, I’m pleased it’s available for others. Having the outlet gave me a voice. I started blogging about autism advocacy, and Kochanowski and our friend, Active Minds Vice President Paul Falcone ’16, both started blogs about mental health awareness. “You are loved,” Falcone writes in all of his posts. His readers feel it.