Natalie Belton’s eyes lit up with excitement at the mention of film and animation. She rattled off dates and names, her words practically toppling over each other. As she demonstrated near-encyclopedic knowledge, her eyes — bright blue, striking in contrast to her dark brown shoulder-length hair — looked forward, making direct contact. Her hands flapped at the wrists with excitement.
But at the mention of large groups of people, those blue eyes shifted away. Her hands fumbled toward her hair, and she began to twirl a lock.
“I’m fine talking with a small group of people or one-on-one," she said. "But in large groups, I guess I get quiet and very, very nervous. I also sometimes talk a lot, like too much, when I first meet people, and that can overwhelm people a bit. But it’s funny because for me, when I’m talking so much, it actually means I’m comfortable.”
Still, she’s come a long way, she said.
“When I was younger, I’d share so much miscellaneous information. I would think, ‘Oh, I find this so fascinating. Everybody else must think so, too, right? Oops, I guess not, because they just left … Okay,’" she said. "But that happens a lot less now. I’m more aware of my actions and have gotten more control of that.”
Belton still freezes up in big groups, though.
“When there are a lot of people or things seem to be moving very quickly, I have slow reaction times, and it’s usually in situations where it’s very loud,” she said. “Like big parties or raves, a lot of people like going to big parties or off-campus raves or that sort of thing, but that would probably scare the crap out of me.”
Obsessive interests, discomfort in social settings and even Belton’s sound sensitivity are common traits often found in those on the autistic spectrum.
Belton, 21, was first diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 9 and self-identifies as having Asperger’s, although the term was recently folded into the umbrella definition of “high-functioning autism.”
During the past 12 years, Belton has come up with strategies to cope with her tendencies. She blogs about her passions to avoid overwhelming others, she heads off on runs when anxiety takes over, she pushes herself to join new clubs to create social connections.
Connections: Those are the goals behind a push within Cal Poly’s Disability Resource Center to help students on the spectrum meet and support each other.
That effort includes the creation of a peer mentor program and a social support club, said Vanessa Dominguez, the center’s access specialist and internship coordinator.
Belton is one of 20 Cal Poly students registered with the Disability Resource Center as having an autism spectrum disorder.
But for every student registered with the center, there are at least one or two more that have chosen not to disclose, Dominguez said.
That group of 20 also does not include five students registered with the center for other disabilities with traits commonly associated with autism spectrum disorders, she said.
Of those 25 students, five are female and 20 are male, she said. This corresponds with the national trend; autism spectrum disorders are almost five times more common among boys than girls, according to a 2012 study released by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
One in 88 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder by age 8, according to the study. That number represents a 78 percent increase in autism diagnoses over the past decade.
Cal Poly’s experience mirrors that trend. Cal Poly has seen a major increase in students identifying on the spectrum, Dominguez said.
Six years ago, only three students registered with the center.
A “giant leap” in those numbers, particularly over the past three years, Dominguez said, has led to the need for better support.
“This is the biggest resource we have on campus for these students, which isn’t good enough,” Dominguez said. “We need to be doing a better job, and that’s why we’re starting a program.”
This year, the center is creating an autism spectrum disorder program so students can receive support from Cal Poly peers in similar situations.
“We’re trying to create a program that entices these students to eventually better their social skills, that brings them together instead of letting them do what many students on the autistic spectrum prefer to do, which is stay in their own little silos,” Dominguez said.
The idea for the program has been around for the past five years. But the center never had the money. Student Success Fee funding helped secure interns who are helping organize the program.
The center will encourage students on the spectrum to join a peer mentor program, which was piloted last spring with 12 mentors of various disabilities.
Two mentors and five mentees who are on the autistic spectrum are participating in the first official cycle of the peer mentor program this fall.
A formalized support system is necessary because, at times, college life can be a challenge for this special population of students, Dominguez said.
“Sometimes, professors might get frustrated with a student on the spectrum because they don’t respond quickly enough,” she said. “So many times, the professors will either think the student doesn’t know the answer or wasn’t paying attention and will pass over them.”
The autism spectrum disorder program will also include the creation of Connections Club, a social support group for Cal Poly’s growing population of autistic students, said Nathan Billings, one of the center’s interns and the program’s coordinator.
“We don’t want to brand students, and we don’t want them to think they need the diagnosis of 'autism' to be included,” Billings, a political science senior, said. “There are many students who are borderline, who might have some kind of social or communication disorder, or who are neurotypical, who would find it useful or fun or enjoyable to participate in a club like this.”
Connections Club will primarily be a social support group that does activities like hike or play board games, but study and social skills workshops will likely be added in over time, said Billings, whose brother is on the spectrum.
Billings said the intense socialization inherent in dorm life can often be a difficult adjustment.
“When they come to college, they have the adversity of living in the dorms, which can be really difficult,” he said. “My first year, in the res halls, I had a student who was on the spectrum, and other students didn’t really understand that, and they would make fun of him and bully him and just sort of snicker because they didn’t understand that he thought of things in a different way.”
This sort of misunderstanding isn’t rare, said Billings.
“People will say that students on the spectrum don’t empathize well because many aren’t good with eye contact or recognizing facial expressions, but it’s kind of almost the opposite,” he said. “Neurotypical people — which is how we refer to people not on the spectrum — tend to just not have sympathy for people on the spectrum. It’s almost as if we don’t sympathize with them, not the other way around, when we don’t try to understand how each of their minds work.”
Connections Club will take influence from the Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center’s young adult support group, Billings said.
Kim Richards, coordinator of the young adult group, is excited by what’s happening at Cal Poly.
“I think it’s so great to see the Disability Resource Center ramp up support and try to improve the quality of life for young adults struggling with Asperger’s or autism,” she said. “The nature of being on the autism spectrum is that these individuals have so many strengths and talents, but one area most really struggle with is developing and maintaining friendships.”
What helps, she said, are organized activities or groups that help facilitate positive social interactions.
“Having a positive, safe space on their college campus where they have people to talk to, I think, has the potential to make these students a lot more successful, socially and academically.”
So when will the changes happen?
The peer mentor program is already in progress, and the center hopes to see the club have at least five active members by spring.
Belton, who is signed up to be a peer mentor, calls these new programs a step in the right direction.
“I’ve never met another girl with Asperger’s,” she said, “and I’d be really interested in meeting another girl on the autism spectrum.”