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Like many of his classmates, Central Washington University sophomore Robert Zingelman is a double major, active in several campus groups and lives in an apartment-style dorm.

And like about 100 Central students, Zingelman has autism. He was one of four past and current Central students who spoke at an autism awareness panel on Wednesday.

“Central has been incredibly supportive, at least of my efforts, to make it through and succeed in this world,” Zingelman said, citing support from student group Access, Belonging, Learning, and Equality (ABLE) and the CWU Disability Services office.

He said he feels there’s not much more Central could do to help out the autistic community, except perhaps better outreach to autistic students.

“Even with all those resources available, statistically there should be about 150 to 200 autistics on this campus. If that is the case, then very few utilize the resources on campus,” he said.

Reasons why people might not get involved include feeling stigmatized by being labeled as autistic. But every autistic person will have his or her own experience, just as “neurotypical,” or non-autistic, people will have in life.

“Autism is not homogenous,” Zingelman said. “Even though we might have a lot of thoughts in common, who we are as people is unique.”

Culture, acceptance

The panel drew a crowd of about 20 people, with more filtering in and out during Wednesday’s hour-long session in the SURC Pit. CWU’s Center for Diversity and Social Justice, ABLE, CWU Disability Services, and Central Washington Disability Resources sponsored the event.

Panel member Andy Pruitt, a youth counselor at Central Washington Disability Resources and a U.S. Army veteran, attended Central from 2002 to 2006.

He said autistic people gravitate toward one another to form a culture.

“In the Army, there’s a lot of people with ADD and autism,” Pruitt said. “We are just naturally inclined to go into a military system. People with autism, we have our own culture. It doesn’t matter where I’ve been in the world, whether it’s Afghanistan, Iraq, throughout Europe or Asia, if there were other autistic people there, it didn’t matter that there was a huge (cultural) difference or gap in where we were raised, we all thought very much alike.”

Women with autism

Another CWU alum, Devin Beach, spoke about autism from a female perspective. She studied communications from 2002 to 2008.

“A lot of times, people look at autism and think it’s a male disorder, something that only happens to guys,” Beach said, who has Asperger’s syndrome. “Female Aspies and females who are autistic do exist, they’re just really different in how they express themselves than their male counterparts. So they don’t get diagnosed as early, and so forth.”

She said she relied on her friends to help her study but also to act as protectors and social interpreters.

“For women on the spectrum, that’s especially critical,” she said. “Women on the spectrum do not see the red flags of anger and abusive people sometimes, so we sometimes need that other person to be our eyes and ears … because a lot of times, women on the spectrum are more likely to be victims of sexual assault or rape.”

Freshman Harry L. Engel said neurotypical people can work on acceptance of autistic people, get to know them and get to know what works for them and what doesn’t.

“We have made some progress, but we still have a little ways to go to finish the charge,” he said.

Staff Writer, covers K-12 education, health care, the city of Roslyn, and the arts.

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