Waunakee overcomes the stigma of autism


Sam Himegarner

Riley Collins, Managing Editor

Though classes begin at 8:15, I more often than not find myself at school as early as 7. Most of the time, I am here early for rehearsal in several musical cocurriculars, which is always an exciting start to the day.

The early mornings are also a well-needed opportunity to fully wake up, as my first class on A days is AP Calculus BC.

My Contact Time destination varies but is often a club or cocurricular meeting; Wednesdays are invariably dedicated to this very newspaper.

My second hour, then, is Physics II; we are currently studying thermodynamics. My final class before lunch is British Literature. As of writing this, we are currently reading the Scottish Play and reenacting its dialogue as a class.

After eating, I end the day with AP Macroeconomics. Attending class is my first choice of what to do during this time, but its opportunity cost is going home and taking a nap.

My B days are equally enriching albeit slower-paced. Classes begin with Engineering Design and Development, where I am working with Cole Fetters and Nathan Ripp to improve desk ergonomics.

After Contact Time, I go to Orchestra. Playing bass is always an enriching and fun experience, and this class is a great opportunity to reduce stress.

Next, I enjoy a leisurely early lunch followed by a study hall. I end the day with Spanish V, where we learn both a language and a culture.

Currently, not many groups have me stay after school, but I stay sometimes for Art Club and other groups. Once I get home, I take a nap before having dinner and then doing my homework. I practice playing bass and occasionally play video games. I end my day by journaling and going to bed. My weekend activities include laying out this very newspaper and simply enjoying the downtime. From my experiences with school, I know firsthand that Waunakee is undoubtedly exceptional when it comes to special education. The district has always allowed me to realize my potential, encouraging me to take rigorous courses alongside my peers.

From a young age, I was placed in general education classrooms with peers who are still my friends to this day. When I took interest in accelerated math classes in first grade, I took a placement test and got accepted.

I have continually had great opportunities since, the idea that autism and success are mutually exclusive never crossing, let alone stopping, my journey. Nobody has seen me as a list of symptoms and deviations to correct, but rather as another student and, more importantly, a person.

Complementary to the school’s program is our community culture. Special educators prioritize and care for students just as general educators do, and both parties are able and willing to communicate not only with each other, but also with the pertinent students and their parents. Waunakee is undoubtedly highly accepting of neurodiversity; I am very grateful for both the district and the community for accepting me.

I understand that the neurodiversity paradigm, which views mental differences as natural variations rather than as illnesses, offends some.

If people feel that mental differences have negatively impacted their own lives, I understand.

When I use the term, I do not intend to trivialize those who have genuinely suffered due to mental differences. All people are entitled to their opinions and to their life experiences, and if they believe medical treatment would benefit them more than acceptance, they may have it.

I choose to embrace neurodiversity because of my own background and experience, but I do not wish to force it upon anybody else.

I am also aware that the term encompasses more than just the autism spectrum, but I am using it as such for the sake of simplicity.

As with many other aspects, Waunakee is ahead of the curve; much of the United States is unfortunately not as tolerant or well-informed of neurodiversity.

An infographic by the Autism Family Center exposes myths surrounding the condition, such misconceptions including the ideas that “autistic individuals are dangerous” and that “there is an autism epidemic.”

Even fiction centered on protagonists with autism appears to conflate the condition with savant syndrome. On the contrary, Darold A. Treffet’s 2009 article “The Savant Syndrome: An Extraordinary Condition. A Synopsis: Past, Present, Future,” reports that as few as 1% of autistic people are actually savants.

The United States is not alone with its stigma; other countries throughout the world also experience fear and misunderstanding of neurodiversity.

Many communities in Korea view autism as a hereditary disorder that injures the affected individual’s entire family. People and governments are actively working to reduce the stigma, though; a 2015 OMICS International article titled “Autism, Stigma, and Achievements of Bangladesh” explores how the government of Bangladesh has worked to reduce stigmas surrounding mental health conditions including autism spectrum.

Groups such as the Interactive Autism Network remind us of Temple Grandin’s observation that neurodiversity is “different, not less,” something that Waunakee’s community already keeps in mind.

In addition to being culturally tolerant of mental differences, the community actively pursues continued awareness with flyers throughout the school celebrating the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Awareness Week.

Waunakee’s continued dedication to offering equal opportunities to autistic students is admirable, and I am continually grateful for the community’s and the district’s work to provide a positive learning experience and to end the stigma.