by Shannon Carr, Communications & Social Media Specialist
As part of the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, Dr. Ruth O’Hara, Dr. Sophia Colamarino and Dr. Joachim Hallmayer — professors in the Psychiatry and Behaviorial Sciences Department — teach a class about autism spectrum disorders. The class covers the latest research approaches and discoveries about autism. Lectures about the science are followed by discussions about the impact of the disorder for the individual with autism and their family, as well as for the entire community.
To help the students understand more about living with autism, Morgan Autism Center adults come and discuss their lives. Stanford students have the opportunity to hear first-hand about the day-to-day work, friendships, interests and challenges of an individual with autism.
“The visits started three years ago and have become one of the most beloved components of the class,” Joachim said.
The last Stanford visit was on November 19.
“Naturally, I brought the clients who like to talk and meet new people,” said Jennifer Sullivan, Program Specialist at Morgan Autism Center.
On the way there, Jennifer purposely drove on Central Expressway so they could pass the Caltrain tracks and light rail. This encouraged Chuck to share his interests with the students.
“We talked about trains and airplanes, too,” he said.
Chuck also took an interest in a historic building on the campus.
“They have Hoover Tower there,” he said. “It is 250 feet high. People can see everything a long way away.”
Wanda brought samples of note cards and postcards she has made.
“I talked to them about my hobbies, taking pictures and videos,” she said. “I love doing them. They thought they were really nice and liked them a lot.”
Jeff shared his insight about what a Tasmanian is along with how it was growing up with autism.
“I told them that I grew up with going to the Children’s Health Council even though that’s not a college campus, it’s a kids school for autistic children, because I have special needs and am autistic myself,” Jeff said. “And I’ve been coming to Morgan Center, which is another autism center school. I’ve been going there for 37 years.”
Jeff shared the knowledge he hoped to impart with those he talked with about having autism.
“Adults with disabilities are just as good as people that are normal, and adults with disabilities are normal just as well too,” he said.
Forming a partnership in ‘direct learning’
The partnership between the Stanford professors and Morgan Autism Center began from a relationship stemming nearly 10 years. Jennifer first met Sophia when she was lecturing at the Morgan Autism Center conference in 2005 and then again in 2008, before connecting with the others.
“A few years later I ran into Dr. Colamarino at a conference at the MIND Institute in early 2013,” Jennifer recalls. “She said she, Joachim and Ruth were doing a class for undergraduates about autism and I mentioned an interest in helping by bringing several of our adult clients to the class.”
Jennifer continues: “She jumped on the idea and for the last three years, I meet ahead of time with the Stanford students by guiding them in their research, explaining the global impact of autism and connecting them with resources. Then I bring three of our adult clients to meet the entire class.”
The professors explained that when they designed the class, the goal was to impart an understanding of the many ways autism is impacting and enriching our society as well as the opportunities for this generation to get involved in endeavors to facilitate the lives of those with autism.
“There’s nothing like having the students see and hear it for themselves to crystallize this,” Sophia said. “Indeed, a large number of our students have already told us they plan to become doctors, lawyers, educators, and/or researchers with a focus on autism because of their exposure through the class.”
They added that the visit is not only an enriching experience for the students, but also for them as instructors.
“We have learned the power of direct learning – these visits have no doubt become one of the class highlights,” Ruth said. “We have also learned about Morgan Autism Center and the role it’s played in these individuals’ lives. The fact that some of the clients have been with the center for more than 40 years is a testament to the quality of the organization and the need for more places like Morgan Center, places that can adapt with the changing needs of individuals and work with them across their entire lifespan.”