Neurodivergent infinity symbol. Rainbow colors

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, the Bridges to Adelphi program and the Adelphi University Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging co-hosted an event focusing on self-advocacy for individuals on the autism spectrum.

“Autism Acceptance: A College Self-Advocacy Showcase,” featured four panelists, including Adelphi alumnus Sean Culkin ’17, MS ’22. Each speaker shared their experiences in higher education and answered questions around the topics of learning differences, accommodations, different kinds of needs from sensory to social to executive functioning, and advice they would offer to others.

The discussion was led by the award-winning speaker, author, and CEO and founder of KFM Making a Difference, a nonprofit corporation focused on disability advocacy and housing, Kerry Magro, EdD. Joining him were: Culkin, an Adelphi graduate and marketing professional at Enzo Life Sciences, Inc.; Dennis James Taylor, a graphic artist and a consultant for the PBS Kids series Hero Elementary, and Paul Morris, an autism awareness advocate and assistant in the New York Medical College Office of Human Resources as well as the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at New York-Presbyterian Westchester Behavioral Health Center.

Diana Damilatis-Kull ’10, MA ’12, MA ’14, director of Bridges to Adelphi, explained that highlighting autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and self-advocacy during National Disability Employment Awareness Month was important to her because one in four Americans has a disability and ASD is the fastest-growing among all developmental disabilities.

“You can see from the latest data that it is extremely likely that you will encounter someone who is neurodivergent at some point in your life and career,” said Damilatis-Kull.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2020, the prevalence of ASD in American children was one in 36, up from one in 150 in just 20 years. The CDC defines ASD as a developmental disability characterized by persistent impairments in social interaction and the presence of restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests or activities that can cause a wide array of difficulties in social interaction, communication and participation in daily activities.

“It is crucial that we listen to and learn from the various perspectives of neurodiverse individuals because everyone’s lived experience is different and unique.”—

Chotsani Williams West, MA ’07, Ed. D. Assistant Vice President of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging

For neurodiverse individuals, Damilatis-Kull explained, it is important to emphasize a “person-first” perspective because everyone is unique; no one person can represent all neurodivergent people. She noted that misconceptions and biases can come into play when neurotypical people (those who are not neurodivergent) engage with the neurodiverse population.

“In Bridges, we like to say that ‘When you meet one neurodivergent person, you’ve met one neurodivergent person,’” said Damilatis-Kull. (For examples, see “Disabilities” in our online Guide to Inclusive Language).

Working with lead panelist Dr. Magro, Damilatis-Kull assembled the event’s panel with the goal of showcasing their individuality and how they each see the world in a unique manner, despite all being on the autism spectrum.

“For disabilities such as autism,” Damilatis-Kull explained, “the differences can be almost invisible. Some individuals have learned to mask and compensate for their areas of difficulty. Some may even struggle until they identify their best path to their own success.”

Panelist Sean Culkin said that, before attending Adelphi, he had issues communicating with others, organizing his time and approaching others for help. “I mostly ignored my autism diagnosis, so I did not seek out autism-specific resources to help myself cope with my issues,” he said.

Culkin and Dr. Magro engaged in a deep discussion regarding masking, or ways to hide their disability. They agreed they often hear the statement, “I can’t believe you are autistic; you don’t look autistic.”

Williams West said it is a misconception to assume everyone on the spectrum is alike because they share a disability diagnosis. “It is crucial that we listen to and learn from the various perspectives of neurodiverse individuals because everyone’s lived experience is different and unique,” she stated.

Damilatis-Kull, who began working with the Bridges to Adelphi program in 2007 and stepped into the director role in 2021, said that she has truly learned from the neurodiverse population through direct engagement and interaction, growing her own sense of awareness. She is passionate about hosting more workshops, panels and platforms for individuals in the neurodivergent community to be heard.

In 2021, Adelphi University earned our fourth consecutive HEED Award (one of six) for our innovative programs and initiatives that create a more inclusive and equitable space for individuals with disabilities, including our Bridges program.

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