By Raena Doty
Asst. Arts & Features Editor
The Chris Walsh Center hosted a screening of the documentary film “Autism Goes to College” and a subsequent question and answer session with Jan Blacher, the film’s executive producer and a UCLA psychology professor.
“Autism Goes to College,” approximately an hour long, follows five college students through aspects of their daily lives. The film gives insight to what types of strengths, struggles, and barriers they face because of their disabilities.
The film started with personal testimonials from the students about why they chose to go to college and how they cope with their struggles.
The students in the film showed varying degrees of enthusiasm for their new lives - some, like Jonathan, an artist, were very certain of what they wanted to do, while others, like Guillermo, were less certain and needed to explore their paths a bit more.
Aniella said she didn’t want to go to college at first, but said when she did, she got very involved in arts, theater, and other extracurriculars at her school.
She said she didn’t know when she wanted to disclose her autism diagnosis. Text on the screen of the film added that many autistic students don’t know when to disclose their diagnoses, and may wait until they’re in “crisis” to tell someone.
Jasmine, another student featured in the documentary, said no university accepted her as a student, so she went to community college instead while also working at a Chick-fil-A.
She said college was more “mature” than high school and she had to worry less about bullying, but also that certain environments in college were hostile to her. She added test taking was hard for her because other students made noise and it was hard to concentrate.
Caroline was more confident as a student in her ability to access support from her school’s disability support services. She was an older student who started out going to community college for eight years before transferring to a university.
Many of the students and their parents mentioned the difficulty of transition involved in going to college. Some services were difficult to access, especially when considering the challenges created by a student’s autism.
Jasmine’s mother said because students over the age of 18 need to sign a waiver for parents to access medical or academic records, it can be particularly hard for parents to provide support.
Day-to-day classroom struggles were another major focus of the film.
One of Jonathan’s art professors said Jonathan was an exemplary student who was able to apply complicated concepts based on minimal explanation.
He also said some students were bothered by the way Jonathan would stand up to pace or stim - though, he added they became more accepting when they learned he was autistic.
Jasmine said getting a notetaker or extra time on tests was especially hard, and often the struggle of getting the accommodations was more difficult than she thought was worth it.
Many student struggles could be traced to early childhood.
Jonathan’s mother said he took longer than expected to begin acquiring language, but she was able to communicate with him by putting signs on objects with the name of the object written on it.
Aniella’s father said she was held back after first grade, but she struggled to get an individualized education program (IEP) because she scored too highly on tests.
Most of the students expressed pride in being autistic - though not without anxiety over the future, especially for students who were graduating, like Guillermo.
“The future is looming over my shoulder - I don’t know what to do,” he said, but the documentary showed shortly after filming wrapped up, he had graduated and done well despite all his nerves.
After the film wrapped up, the question and answer session began.
When one audience member asked about how one could view the film or present it at another event, Blacher said it could all be done through the website www.autismgoestocollege.org, and added accommodations could be made to make it available as much as possible.
“Bottom line,” she said, “we will make it accessible.”
Another audience member asked how the production team chose the five students to be the stars of the film.
Blacher said the project started out as a study at her university called “Autism 101,” and when students came to her department looking for support, they began interviewing faculty and autistic students.
She said the original project was filming a few of the students to be put on UCLA’s website, but when she began filming the project with the help of Erik Linthorst, he wanted to expand it into a longer project.
“Like 10 minutes in, he stopped the film, told his cameraman, his lighting people, ‘Whoa, stop,’ and he turned to me and said, ‘This is a full-length documentary,’” Blacher said.
She added, Guillermo and Aniella were part of the original filming project.
Other students applied to be part of the project through advertisements on social media and Blacher interviewed all of them before giving Linthorst the final say on who ended up in the project, Blacher said.
One attendee asked Blacher whether she is available as a speaker, and she said yes. She also added that the students in the film are available as speakers, though they have other responsibilities, so they may not be as available as she is.
She said the student stars of the film were involved in the production of the documentary, and what the final film ended up looking like.
“I particularly urged Erik, the director, to make sure that the student had a say - that the students were driving,” she said. “They set the path of the film. They had some concrete intellectual contributions to the film.”
Several audience members had questions about how to best support an autistic student.
One attendee asked how to know how accommodating a university will be to student disability before accepting an offer to go to the school.
Blacher said it can be difficult for families with fewer resources, but she recommends visiting the disability services center before sending in an application.
She added students who don’t want to disclose their disability may still be able to get aid through the disability services center, and visiting the center before making a decision can provide insight.
When students choose to disclose they are autistic came up several times throughout the documentary and in the conversation.
Jonathan mentioned difficulty getting along with his roommates in his first two years of school, and text on the screen added that roommates are not informed of student disabilities due to confidentiality reasons.
However, when asked, Blacher added many autistic students don’t want to have roommates at all - which is in line with non-autistic student preference about having roommates.
Blacher said she would try to compile resources for people who want to do further reading on this topic and Therese Ajtum-Roberts, coordinator of the Chris Walsh Center, would try to send out the resources to people who want them.
She also said there’s a sequel to “Autism Goes to College” currently in the works, tentatively called “Autism Goes to Work.” Blacher said it will hopefully have a more diverse range of people in it who will represent more autistic people across the country.