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Autism 'Just Means Your Brain Is Wired Differently,' Student Says

By Phil Walzer

Dakotah Atkinson, a computer science major at Old Dominion University, likes to explain autism this way: "It just means your brain is wired differently. It doesn't mean your mind is broken."

About 1 in 68 people has autism. The developmental disability also is known as "autism spectrum disorder" because the type and severity of symptoms vary widely.

They can include sensitivity to noise, light and touch; the tendency to speak loudly, and awkwardness in social settings. But some people with autism also communicate in complex, intricately constructed sentences and register high ability levels in areas such as math and music.

Beth Ann Dickie works with students with autism including Atkinson as director of Old Dominion University's Office of Educational Accessibility. Her office meets with students and arranges classroom "accommodations" such as extended time for tests. She will begin teaching a University 100 orientation class geared to freshmen with autism in the fall.

"They're real people with real feelings, like everybody else," she said. "They just experience the world a little bit differently. They want to fit in, but they might not know how."

For Atkinson, the toughest part of life is "the social aspect."

"I can hold a conversation, but I can't really start a conversation," said Atkinson. "I freeze up at approaching somebody. My first instinct is to walk away."

He's made a couple of friends, though, at the game design club and his campus job as a network operations technician.

Autism "doesn't define me," he said, "It's simply a part of me. It doesn't tell you who I am or what I like."

His likes include watching anime and TV shows he can learn something from, like "House, M.D." He's attracted to fantasy games "that emphasize exploration and discovery as well as those that lend a feeling of statistical growth and progress.

"All in all," Atkinson said, "I'm drawn in by things that I can't predict, well-told stories and the worlds crafted in the minds of others."

After he transferred from Tidewater Community College, he was nervous going to ODU's Educational Accessibility Office. But "they were very open. They listened to me. They didn't judge me."

He receives more time for assignments and takes tests in a private area. "Sometimes when I'm really thinking, my foot starts tapping perpetually or I accidentally start talking out loud."

Atkinson's professors have been asked to give him lots of specifics and examples - "I'm not very good at theory." He appreciates the way Thomas Kennedy, a lecturer in computer science, has reached out to him.

"He's always willing to talk to me about my problems. I don't think I could have made it without his help."

To read more about students with autism and ODU researchers and alumni who are working to help them, go to the spring issue of Monarch magazine at www.odu.edu/monarchmag

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