SALT LAKE CITY — Brooks Donaldson is just like any other Westminster College student, except he's different.
The 24-year-old has Asperger's syndrome. Being "on the autism spectrum," he admits to needing extra understanding in many social situations.
But other than that, he just wants to fit in.
After a year at Westminster, Donaldson decided he was alone in his struggle, that no one else was like him and he wanted to try something new. He sought refuge at a university in Hawaii, but encountered similar issues there.
"There's a lack of awareness about autism everywhere," he said. "I think it makes people feel better to have a place where they feel like they belong. I wanted a place where I belong."
With the ever-increasing prevalence of autism in Utah, more people are encountering individuals with various developmental disorders and many don't know how to receive them, said Shamby Polychronis, a special education professor at Westminster's School of Education.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in 47 Utah children is identified as having autism spectrum disorder, which is the highest rate in the country. Nationally, one in 88 is diagnosed and it is most common among boys.
Polychronis said the rate might be higher in Utah because of larger family sizes, which means there are more children, and also the fact that doctors are good at diagnosing it in the state. The University of Utah also houses a premier research facility that helps put the condition at the forefront of people's minds, possibly leading to even more diagnoses.
But just as Donaldson said of Westminster four years ago, Polychronis said many schools — including teachers, students and administration personnel — face a problem of making everyone feel welcome.
"They just do not understand how to interact with people who have autism, they don't want to do the wrong thing," she said, adding that people falsely assume that individuals with autism always need special treatment. "At the end of the day, don't be afraid. Don't hold back. Chances are, they are just like everyone else."
Polychronis teaches a spring course on autism awareness that boasts a wait-list every year. Students who sign up for the class, she said, hear a lot about autism in the media, might have a personal connection with someone who has been diagnosed, or, there are some who just want to know more about it. The course final involves hosting a carnival-type event for families with autism and learning what amenities and activities are most appropriate to offer.
The class and its popularity also helps to decrease the stigma associated with autism and other disabilities, Polychronis said. She met Donaldson in the class four years ago. At the time, she said he was shy about telling people he had Asperger's.
"How he'd explain his differences would run the gamut," Polychronis said, adding that "Brooks had the vision and personal drive to make a difference to an institution and he has definitely left his mark here."
Upon returning to Utah and to Westminster, Donaldson wanted to start a support group to help raise awareness about autism and other disabilities, to teach others about the conditions and how to accept it better. He said he has always had trouble fitting in with his peers, but he has fought through it and wants others to know they can do the same.
"The more people know about, the less judged the people with disabilities will feel," Donaldson said, adding that sometimes there are signs to help people recognize those with autism. He said some suffer from a lack of social cues or understanding in social situations, but also might have a noticeably clumsy walk.
His desire to advocate for autism was the impetus to annual events that have grown popular across Westminster's campus and within the community. In its second year, the school joined with several other iconic buildings throughout communities across the globe, illuminating its Converse Hall with blue lights.
Organized by international advocacy group Autism Speaks, "Light It Up Blue" is a global campaign designed to increase autism awareness around the world. Approximately 7,000 buildings in more than 750 U.S. cities and 90 countries are planning to participate in the April 2 campaign, to shine a light on autism as a growing public health crisis, according to the organization.
Last year, Utah's governor's mansion was part of the cause.
Dorothann Dinas, who is also a student at Westminster, has enjoyed the camaraderie found in the Westminster Exceptional Griffins student organization. She also has Asperger's and said other Donaldson has taught her that "it's cool to be different. People are starting to be more accepting of that."
"People need to know we are still normal," she said. "You just have to help us out sometimes."
Dinas, 23, said things take a little more explanation for her sometimes. She graduates this year and wants to continue pursuing her fitness goals and a career in advertising.
Donaldson is also graduating from Westminster this year, but isn't leaving behind advocacy work for autism. He's joining efforts with the Utah Autism Coalition to help even more people understand him and his autistic peers.
The public is welcome at Westminster College's Light It Up Blue event tonight, April 2, 7:30 p.m., at Richer Commons. There will be food, prizes and other activities.
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