How to Help Autistic Students Thrive: Professor Kristen Gillespie-Lynch Involves Autistic Students in Study that Bucks Conventional Thought

Professor Kristen Gillespie-Lynch

By Beth Harpaz 
Editor of SUM 

It’s a classic piece of advice for success in any endeavor, from sports to job interviews: Play to your strengths. A similar approach to higher education — focusing on students’ strengths, rather than their challenges — could be particularly beneficial to autistic students, according to recently published research co-authored by Professor Kristen Gillespie-Lynch (GC/CSI, Psychology). 

Gillespie-Lynch spoke with The Graduate Center via email about the study’s findings; about her work with autistic students (two of her co-authors are autistic); and about why the term “autistic person” is preferable to saying “person with autism.” 

Collaborators on the study included three Ph.D. graduates of CUNY’s developmental psychology program, Emily Hotez, Ariana Riccio, and Danielle DeNigris, and three College of Staten Island alumni, Naomi Gaggi, now a Graduate Center doctoral student, Bella Kofner, now a CSI graduate student, and Kavi Luca. Kofner, who is autistic, also made a video explaining the study. 

The Graduate Center: How would you summarize your findings in this study? What's the takeaway here?

Gillespie-Lynch: The key takeaway of this study is that autistic university students may have academic strengths relative to their non-autistic counterparts. Writing is a skill that many autistic university students may be able to use to succeed in college. Our findings also show that autistic students may be better at identifying patterns (e.g., nonverbal intelligence) than non-autistic students. These strengths are important to highlight because most discussions about autistic university students have tended to focus primarily on challenges they may face. 

GC: Based on the findings of this study, do you have specific recommendations for fellow professors, particularly CUNY professors? 

Gillespie-Lynch: I would recommend that professors look for and build from the strengths of all of their students. One of the best ways to learn about students' strengths in order to teach them more effectively is to create fun opportunities for students to share things they are interested in, to collaborate in choosing what to focus on through their academic work, and to practice exploring academic questions through different lenses (e.g., theater, art). CUNY has always been an institution that has prioritized helping diverse students succeed. There are many autistic students who add to CUNY's diversity in invaluable ways. As discussed in the limitations section of our paper, with support from larger, more representative studies, autistic students of color and autistic students who are poorer often face more barriers entering college than autistic students who are not minorities in other ways. The CUNY community should work together to help people who are diverse in multiple ways transition successfully into university. 

GC: Describe your collaboration with two autistic students in carrying the study out. How did that collaboration impact the study?

Gillespie-Lynch: Most of the work in my lab is participatory, meaning that it is developed in collaboration with autistic people. We think it is very important to involve autistic university students in research about autism in college because they are experts about their own experiences. As we found in the study, autistic students often have particular strengths in writing and research, so they often notice things that non-autistic collaborators may overlook. For example, our autistic student collaborators decided it was important to see if the writing samples produced by autistic and non-autistic students differed in how creative they were, a very important dimension of writing that all the non-autistic authors had overlooked. 

GC: You've been working with autistic students since before you pursued your Ph.D. What drew you to working with them? 

Gillespie-Lynch: Autistic people are often some of the most creative, unique, and genuine people I've ever met. I started out working as a caregiver for non-speaking autistic people and was fascinated by the depths of thought that were apparent in the eyes of people who weren't able to share what they thought through spoken language. So I was drawn in by curiosity about and appreciation of people who seemed more fully themselves than most people. 

GC: One thing we learned working with you on stories about your research was that it's better to say, for example, "autistic student" rather than "student with autism." Why? 

Gillespie-Lynch: The best way to understand this is to think about how odd it would seem if people called themselves "someone with a female gender" instead of "a woman." The former phrase and the phrase "person with autism" implies that autism is something, like a bag, that can be taken away from someone, rather than "autistic," which implies that autism is central to who a person is. Many clinicians were taught that "person with autism" was the preferred term because that is the preferred term in some disability communities. However, a number of studies, including an early study we published in 2013 about the neurodiversity movement, show that most autistic people prefer identity-first (autistic) rather than person-first (person with autism) language. When you are unsure, the best thing to do is to ask a person what term they prefer and to use the term they prefer. 

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

Submitted on: AUG 27, 2020

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