For graduating student, autism has been a blessing
When sophomore Emily Edmonds, 19, of Boiling Springs, walks across the stage to receive her college diploma Saturday, she’ll leave Spartanburg Methodist College with a long list of achievements, including membership in three national honor societies, college awards for achievement in academics, history and writing and a research grant won during her freshman year.
Receiving an Associate Degree in Arts is just the beginning for Edmonds, who plans to continue what will likely become a career in academics by completing a bachelor’s degree at North Greenville University and then moving on to graduate school. “Cambridge University in the UK has an Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Studies program that sounds extremely interesting; it would be cool if I could do that someday!” she said.
By any measure, Edmonds’ accomplishments are outstanding. But for a young woman who never planned to go to college, they’re even more significant.
Edmonds has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a condition characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication that can make daily interactions with others difficult.
As a child, Emily was first diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, said her mother, Cindy Edmonds. But as Emily got older, that diagnosis didn’t seem to fit.
Although she was remarkably intelligent, school wasn’t easy for Emily, Cindy recalled. She struggled with uncontrollable anger and had trouble making friends. Her parents noticed their daughter had a sensitivity to noise and crowds that made being in boisterous classrooms and public places distracting and, at times, even terrifying. Her elementary and middle school classmates behaved in ways she didn’t like or understand, so she preferred solitude or the company of her parents and older teenagers.
Emily was 13 before she was finally diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, the name for a “milder” form of autism that has since been dropped in favor of the more general ASD. By that time, she was being home schooled – an arrangement that reduced her anxieties while providing the intellectual stimulation she craved. When she wasn’t studying, Emily enjoyed video games, watching movies, playing with her dog and reading (the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter books are particular favorites).
“Emily could read at a third-grade level when she was in kindergarten,” said Cindy. “She’s had her nose in a book ever since.”
Her daughter’s lifelong obsession with language, words and reading is not only typical of the kinds of extreme interests experienced by people affected by ASD, but also one of Emily’s great strengths, Cindy said. “She learns languages incredibly fast and has taken Latin, taught herself German and is interested in Arabic.”
Cindy and her husband Karry were devastated when Emily announced, during her last year of high school, that she wasn’t going to college. “I thought to myself, ‘You’re going to let that brain God gave you go to waste? Not if I can help it,’” Cindy said.
When a former baby sitter mentioned Spartanburg Methodist College to Cindy, she made an appointment for a campus visit the very next day. “I don’t know why I was thinking only of a bigger school for Emily,” she said. “She’d never have survived there.”
Emily and her parents visited SMC while students were on spring break – which turned out to be a stroke of luck, Cindy recalls. “I didn’t plan it, but with no students around, Emily could see the campus and classrooms and layout without the distraction of other kids.”
Cindy admits to surprising her daughter with the visit, something she doesn’t recommend that parents of children with ASD do. “Any change in Emily’s life – moving the furniture, changing things in the bathroom – she needs to process it. It’s better if you tell her several days ahead of time.”
Not surprisingly, the visit didn’t go well. Although Cindy fell in love with the campus, Emily was overwhelmed.
Thinking back, Emily remembers being skeptical about the value of a college education. “Anything I wanted to learn, I could learn by myself like I’ve always done,” she said. “I was also worried that the workload would be too heavy, coming as I was from a home school setting where I did everything at my own pace.”
The social aspects of college, inside and outside of the classroom, were also worrying. The pressure to speak up in class and to participate in group activities and clubs can be difficult for students without ASD, but excruciating for students with Emily’s sensitivities.
So no one was more surprised than her parents when, a few days after the visit, Emily announced she’d submitted her application to attend SMC.
“SMC is a small campus, so I likely wouldn’t be late to my classes,” Emily reasoned. “It’s a small student body so my crowd anxiety wouldn’t be as bad; small class sizes for the same reason and also for increased personal contact with professors.” Commuting to the campus from home was also a big plus for her.
After being admitted, Emily and her mother worked with SMC staff to ensure Emily had access to services that could help her be more successful academically. To ease the anxiety of taking tests in a room full of distractions, Emily is allowed a quiet room to herself for exams, says Sharon Porter, a disability counselor at SMC. Because fine motor skills can be a challenge for students with ASD, Emily is also allowed to type notes on her laptop during classes rather than hand writing them.
“Besides , it just really helps to have friendly, understanding professors who are mindful that some people might need to do things a bit differently than normal, and who are happy to explain something in a different way if I have trouble understanding the way they put it at first,” Emily said.
Rather than feeling limited by ASD, Emily embraces it. “Overall, I like having Asperger’s. “I think I wouldn’t be as successful a student if I didn’t have Asperger’s—it means that I have a great passion for my obsessions, which happen to be mostly academic subjects, and that I have accumulated insane amounts of knowledge about those subjects over the years.
As an SMC student, Emily’s interests helped her make a strong impression on history professor Dr. Cole Cheek, who taught her in several courses and also mentored her through a grant-funded summer research project in 2016. “I’ll never forget the first class Emily took with me,” he recalled. “I’m not a specialist in Egyptian history, but she knew so much that when I was lecturing about it in class, she asked questions I couldn’t answer and knew things I didn’t.”
For Emily, what stands out the most about college so far are the relationships she’s made with professors and staff, like Cheek, and her academic achievements. “Getting a research grant and a history award as a freshman, honors that typically go to sophomores or higher, make me feel very proud,” she said.
For students struggling with the decision to attend college, whether or not they have ASD, Emily offered some advice: “You can do it. Focus on your strengths and not your weaknesses. Don’t find your self-worth in the opinion of your peers. Apply yourself, even to the classes you aren’t interested in, which is hard, I know, but it pays off.”
For Emily’s parents, they’ve seen their daughter overcome her fears to take the first steps into the world without them. “It’s hard for me to even put into words the changes that we’ve seen in her,” Cindy says. “She’s matured not only in her academic responsibilities but socially and spiritually as well. She’s really found who she is, where she wants to go and who she wants to be as an adult.”
– Written by Lisa M. Ware
“You can do it. Focus on your strengths and not your weaknesses. Don’t find your self-worth in the opinion of your peers.”Emily Edmonds