SMC for the Spectrum seeks to foster acceptance, support for community members with autism
Genevieve Coleman | Wednesday, September 2, 2020
In 2018, Saint Mary’s established the Master of Autism Studies program, allowing Belles to gain a deeper understanding of autism science and intervention in a multi-disciplinary program. Students from the department recently created a new campus club called SMC for the Spectrum to provide support and educate the community about the autism spectrum.
Saint Mary’s alumna and club president Emily Bednar (‘20) explained how the club has been in the works.
“SMC for the Spectrum was an idea that my fellow board members and I have been thinking about for about a year now,” Bednar said. “We are all members of the first cohort of the Master of Autism Studies Program, and we wanted to come up with a way to expand our passion for autism past the walls of our classroom and integrate it within the Saint Mary’s community.”
Bednar also described SMC for the Spectrum’s mission as focused on education and acceptance.
“As a club, SMC for the Spectrum aims to educate students about autism spectrum disorders, create an accepting culture at Saint Mary’s regarding autism spectrum disorders, and provide support for the wider autistic community and culture in the greater South Bend area,” Bednar said.
Saint Mary’s alumna and club vice president Catherine Coggeshall (‘20) stated that in addition, the club seeks to correct common stereotypes about people on the autism spectrum.
“There was a realization that students and faculty members at Saint Mary’s College know autism exists, but they do not know what autism actually is, which leads to issues like misinformation, stereotypes, an inability to support those with ASD and their families and poor interactions with those on the spectrum,” Coggeshall said.
Coggeshall encouraged all tri-campus students to join the organization.
“The club is targeted towards students at Saint Mary’s College, Holy Cross College and the University of Notre Dame who are interested in learning about autism, raising awareness and acceptance of autism, or those with autism who are looking for an accepting group of peers to interact with on a regular basis,” Coggeshall said.
Bednar reiterated this point, emphasizing the importance of building community among members.
“Our aim is to be as inclusive as possible and make it known to our members that we want them there and to be enjoying themselves while they are attending our meetings and events,” she said.
Bednar also hopes that students learn about how to be allies for individuals with autism spectrum disorders.
“Overall, we would like students to walk away from our club with a greater understanding of autism spectrum disorders and with skills that will help them to promote and support neurodiversity in all aspects of their lives,” Bednar said.
The club is planning to begin events in September.
“We have meetings prepared for the second Sunday of each month, beginning on Sept. 12,” Coggeshall said. “While meetings will be conducted in person with safety precautions in place, there will also be a Zoom link provided for those that would like to participate virtually.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, SMC for the Spectrum has had to adapt their original event plans, but is eager to share them with the community.
“We also have a number of student and community events planned but need to make adjustments due to COVID-19 and the safety precautions set by the College,” Coggeshall said. “Some of these events include movie nights, a sensory night and a walk/run to raise awareness for ASD. While these do not have a set date, we are determined to make them happen this semester despite the pandemic.”
Coggeshall expressed why autism awareness is important for people to understand.
“According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, it is estimated that an average of one in  children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in the United States,” Coggeshall said. “This high percentage of prevalence means that at one point or another everyone is going to come in contact with someone that has ASD, whether it is a relative, classmate, family friend or complete stranger. By creating an awareness and acceptance of autism, these interactions will become natural and beneficial for both parties.”
Though autism awareness is important, Bednar argues that people need to take further action to truly advocate for individuals with autism spectrum disorders.
“Personally, I think that awareness for ASD is awesome, but I think that it is only a small step in the right direction,” Bednar said. “Instead, I think that we should be focusing on acceptance of ASD because to me acceptance goes further than awareness does. … [W]hen people begin to have acceptance for a situation it shows that they understand. With that, as a club we decided to focus on three major points: education which leads to acceptance which leads to support.”
Coggeshall stressed the value of individuals on the autism spectrum.
“As a previous special education teacher, it hurts me to hear about those with ASD being misunderstood, written off or completely ignored by teachers, family members, doctors and others they come in contact with,” Coggeshall said. “Those with ASD are important and loved, and add a unique perspective on life. They matter and deserve the same respect that everyone else does.”