Autism panel enlightens MU community

Bella Lee, Staff writer

For Autism Acceptance Month, the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM) program does a variety of events to raise awareness of the month and es- pecially the condition. On April 13, AIM teamed up with the Council of Exceptional Children to conduct the Brad McGarry Autism Panel.

The panel, conducted by Brady Esham, consisted of alumni Ben VanHook, graduate students June Durkee and Chris Streibich, senior Nico King and juniors Nate Wooten and Nash Jones.

The questions in the panel ranged from their transitions from living at home to living at school to how their social skills changed over the course of their time at Mercyhurst. “We have brilliant neurodiverse students and alumni that are chang- ing our world,” said Amanda Mulder, director of AIM. “I’m proud of them every day. I’m thankful these students shared their experiences so we can learn, grow, and better embrace neurodiversity everywhere.”

Sadly, it is common for neurodivergent people to be silenced or outcasted due to the discomfort many hold towards them. However, there is much to learn from the neurodivergent community, and it is in Mercyhurst’s mission to uphold the dignity of each person.

Durkee, a graduate student in Organizational Leadership, has participated in discussions about autism in the past, which inspired her to be a part of this one. “One panel discussion I was fortunate to serve as a student panelist was with the National Association of Colleges and Employees (NACE) organization during my gap year where I got to share my education background and journey of how I am continuously learning about my autism,” Durkee said. “I also wanted to help tell my story since I had only discovered that I am autistic prior to my senior year in high school. So, for me, I’m constantly seeking ways to learn and explore what autism means to me and how I can become an advocate for oth- ers. This is what ultimately led me to this desire of participating in student panels like this.”

The work that AIM has done to help Durkee succeed during her time at Mercyhurst is what makes it so important to her that others are aware of autism and Autism Acceptance Month.

“It is very important that not just the Mercyhurst community, but society in general should start to express appre- ciation, acknowledgment, and acceptance that neurodivergent people are like everyone else,” Durkee said. “I feel it is essential to move away from all the stigma labels that constantly downplay neurodiverse individual’s capabilities to succeed in the real world. The biggest label I feel strongly is eliminating the phrase or narrative that ‘students have a learning disability.’ That is not the right message because it makes it sound like employers would not want to hire someone if they were ‘disabled’ and per- haps unable to perform certain tasks in the workplace.” Durkee then went on to talk about how it sends a negative message and is discriminatory.

Instead, the AIM program should focus on peoples’ strengths and how those can be used to benefit them personally. Durkee mentioned how she prefers to say “we as students learn differently than others.” This is quite different from everyone assuming those on the spectrum have a learning disability.

There was much to learn from this panel, but the main thing everyone should take away from it is that neurodivergent people are worthy of equal treatment and equal opportunity, and that their condition is not a hindrance in life but rather equips them with unique gifts to succeed in the world.

The panel was named after Brad McGarry who is dedicated both personally and throughout his career to helping those with neurodivergence after his son was born with Angelman Syndrome.

This sparked a passion in McGarry to help those with any sort of developmental disabilities, specifically in education. McGarry is the former director of the AIM program at Mercyhurst.

He has an impressive background as he has testified before Congress and has served as a source for notable news networks. Because of this, the panel was named after him due to his great impact on the neurodivergent community, both on a smaller scale at Mercyhurst, and on a larger scale around the country.

McGarry, whose appearances on campus are limited due to his battle with ALS, was able to make an appearance at this panel, much to the joy of everyone in attendance.

He had a huge smile on his face during the entire program, especially when a video created by Esham and VanHook included messages from several alumni and current students.

The panel was a great success, and everyone involved had the opportunity to learn a lot about how impactful AIM can be. Brad McGarry has made many impactful choices in his life that have changed students’ lives forever.

Even looking at it from the small campus of Mercyhurst, it is remarkable to reflect on how many students in the AIM program were given opportunities to advance their education.

There are not many colleges with a program as unique as the AIM program at Mercyhurst, which is something education is falling short on.

Those with autism deserve an education just as much as those without a neurodivergence do, so hopefully this panel helped people see that.

Be sure to support those on the autism spectrum during April and every other month of the year.