Recent Oli graduate Audrey Wolk has been educating herself about autism since she was diagnosed with the disorder at age three. For her senior project, she shared her experiences and expertise with the Oliverian community.
At Oliverian, senior projects offer graduating students a unique opportunity to investigate and explore a topic that is meaningful to them — and share their findings with peers and faculty alike. Class of 2018 graduate Audrey Wolk used her senior project as a means of educating the Oli community on a subject that has had a huge impact on her life: autism spectrum disorder. We sat down with Audrey to learn more about her project, and why it was so important to her to share her experiences with Oli students and staff.
Q: Tell us about your senior project.
A: I was inspired to do my senior project on autism after doing another project on autism for a class. That was my jumping-off point, and then I just did a lot more research, lots of reading, lots of writing, lots of checking different sources to make sure they were reliable. I already knew a lot about autism — and have researched ever since I was diagnosed with it at age 3 — but the project required doing an even deeper dive beyond what I already knew. The end result was a PowerPoint presentation that I gave in front of almost the entire school.
Q: What was the most important thing for you to communicate about autism?
A: I wanted people to know what autism is but also what it’s like to have autism. Those are two different things. The number of people diagnosed with autism is growing every year, so I felt like it was important that people know what it is and how it affects people. Because I’m diagnosed with autism, I’ve wanted to research it and know exactly what it is ever since I was old enough to understand that it was important to me. But a lot of people with autism don’t have that desire to research the disorder, so I wanted to be able to educate those people as well.
I also wanted to share strategies that I use to help with my social skills and sensory problems, like getting overwhelmed by lights and sounds. A lot of other issues come along with autism, too, like anxiety and depression, and I talked about that in my presentation as well.
Q: What are the biggest misconceptions about autism that you want to debunk?
A: One of them is empathy — that people with autism don’t have empathy. Sometimes I have so much empathy that it actually hurts — I just don’t know how to express it. Other times, I have to remind myself to be empathetic; it doesn’t come naturally, but once I realize that I should be doing it, I feel empathy very deeply.
As far as other misconceptions, there’s that stereotype that people with autism are really good at math. I’m terrible at math! It takes me almost three pages just to get a single problem right. So it’s annoying to me when people are like, “You must be a genius, you must be really good at math.” Autism and being a genius don’t coincide with each other; they’re two really different things. It’s unnecessary pressure on what’s already a really hard life to hear things like, “Oh, you have autism, you must be really good at something.”
Also, I hate it when people infantilize people with autism. When I was younger, kids wouldn’t hang out with me because they thought I would snitch on them or I would always follow rules. Those misconceptions are all very frustrating. I’m not some mix of a genius and a baby, and I do feel empathy.
Q: What was the response when you gave your presentation?
A: I got a really good response. Almost everyone in the class attended, which was really cool. And it wasn’t just for the snacks! I made sure they had to sit through my presentation before they got snacks. I wanted the presentation to be easy to pay attention to and something that people wanted to listen to, so I tried to make it both professional and entertaining. I also wanted to make sure that even people who didn’t know anything about autism would be able to understand the presentation and keep up with what was going on. Overall, it got a really good response.
Q: What was your experience like at Oliverian?
A: I haven’t had a super easy life; Oli was probably one of the first places where I felt safe, accepted, and loved all at the same time. I could just completely be myself without any infringements; I didn’t have to pretend to not have autism to please someone, I didn’t have to pretend not to have depression or anxiety. When I was there, people really worked with me and cared and understood. It was the first time in my life when I wasn’t bullied. Everyone was overwhelmingly supportive — and not just the staff, the students too. They were basically my family. It’s really helped me function and learn to like myself. Oli helped me learn how to be a person and understand that I can be me and weird and funny. I graduated high school, you know? I never thought that would be an option for me. I was runner-up for prom queen! For a girl with autism, to go somewhere where people actually liked me — that was a new and very, very helpful experience. I was understood and accepted. Oliverian was home.