Elon University junior Ryan Campbell wakes up at 7 a.m. each day and eats breakfast at 7:30 a.m. On March 28, he ate eggs and sausage at McEwen Dining Hall, but on some mornings, he just eats at his apartment in Oaks.
Campbell always has a banana with breakfast.
Campbell was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. He’s never thought to ask his parents as to why he was diagnosed in the first place.
After eating his breakfast, he logs what he ate into MyFitnessPal. He said he started doing this when he arrived at Elon because he was worried he was eating too much. Campbell transferred from Wake Technical Community College in fall 2022, and is a Cinema and Television Arts major.
Campbell then hangs out in the dark upstairs of McEwen Building in the School of Communications. With the lull of 8 a.m. classes in the background, Campbell clicks away at the keyboard of a public iMac, catching up on homework. A timer beeps on his watch after 20 minutes and he pulls out his phone to play the daily quest on Genshin Impact.
April marks Autism Acceptance Month, previously Autism Awareness Month, a month dedicated to education and raising awareness for the disability. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 2.21% of adults in the United States have autism. About 3.62% of male adults and about 0.86% of female adults have autism.
The Autism Society of America suggested the shift from the word “awareness” to “acceptance” in 2021 because it wanted a focus on inclusion of autistic people rather than education on autism alone. The organization distinguished awareness from acceptance through action; awareness is simply knowing an individual has autism while acceptance makes efforts to include and uplift autistic people.
Campbell said while he doesn’t really celebrate the month, he sees why other autistic people would.
“They probably don’t get the same accommodations or the same support as others,” Campbell said., “Sso ensuring that a lot more people can get that and just being aware, like, ‘Hey, we have these sorts of things that we could use help with,’ definitely has value.”
In regards to acceptance versus awareness, Campbell said determining wording is difficult because everyone could interpret those words in their own ways — that there’s not one answer.
“For one person, awareness could be similar to acceptance,” Campbell said. “But for some people, they also may see them as two separate things.”
Another timer beeps after five minutes and he is back to work. This cycle repeats until he has to go to class down the hallway.
Campbell’s first class of the day is CTA 3160: Writing for Cinema and TV with professor Brandon Booker at 10:30 a.m. He said he enjoys the class because it gives him practice with something he’s interested in and he likes how it’s different from writing for prose.
Fitting for the class, Campbell said one of his special interests is storytelling as it is present in many of his enjoyments like books, anime and movies. A special interest is “a highly focused level of interest in particular topics,” according to Ambitious about Autism, and people with autism commonly have at least one.
Ambitious about Autism also said special interests have positive effects on autistic people, such as helping them develop friendships with people who share the interest. They can also guide an autistic person’s study or career path. In Campbell’s case, his major in film directly correlates with his love for storytelling.
Campbell uses academic accommodations, such as extended time on tests. He is also allowed to go to a separate room to take tests but he said he sometimes forgets to ask for it. On top of autism, Campbell has auditory processing disorder, so he usually tries to sit near the front of the classroom.
APD means that even though Campbell can hear, he sometimes has difficulty understanding what has been said, whether that’s not distinguishing between sounds or struggling to tune out background noise. According to the National Institute of Health, most people with autism have some sensory issues relating to auditory processing.
Campbell is also sensitive to high pitched sounds, though as a child, he was sensitive to most loud sounds. He used to plug his ears at high school pep rallies because the sounds were too much for him.
Occasionally, Campbell talks to himself in a tiny whisper. He wears the same earbuds every day draped around his shoulders. He usually wears some sort of a polo shirt, and a pair of black Vans he had to buy for a past job at a movie theater.
After class, Campbell grabs a quick lunch of spaghetti and meatballs and then heads to his next class. ENG 3150: Intermediate Creative Writing: Creative Nonfiction with professor Cassie Kircher is for his minor in creative writing.
Though he doesn’t remember why he was diagnosed with autism, Campbell recalls as a child, he had difficulty with socializing and often kept to himself.
“I would sometimes play with my friends,” Campbell said. “But then there would also be times I would just bring out a book and read.”
One of his difficulties with socializing is struggling to look people in the eye. According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, one of the required criteria for diagnosis is struggling with socialization and reading social cues.
Another required criteria for diagnosis is repetitive behaviors, such as rocking back and forth, twitching hands and echolalia, the action of repeating words and phrases heard. This manifests in Campbell through the bouncing of his legs.
When his creative nonfiction class ends, Campbell usually goes back to his apartment to unwind from the day, but before he can go home Tuesday, he meets with a student from Cinelon, Elon’s student-run film production company, where Campbell is a film editor. In the meeting, Campbell gives an update on a short film he is editing.
Once the meeting ends, he says goodbye and goes home to relax and play video games until it’s time to sleep.
Campbell is proud of his autism and said it makes him unique.
“I personally highly value my individuality in some way,” Campbell said. “So learning I have something that other people don't have, I was actually kind of happy to hear about that.”
Yet at the same time, Campbell said he doesn’t feel that different from other people, and didn’t realize he was autistic until later in his adolescence. This is combined with the fact that his brothers also have their own diagnoses of color blindness and dyslexia, a disability that makes it difficult for somebody to read.
“I guess it would be a bit more apparent if I knew from the perspective of someone who isn't autistic,” Campbell said.
Campbell said he had a good support system growing up, whether it was from his schools, family or peers. But many autistic people aren’t so lucky. According to a study from Sage Journals from 2017, students with learning disabilities such as autism report greater rates of bullying than their peers without disabilities.
And even after an autistic student graduates, their time in the workplace can be difficult or nonexistent. A Harvard Business Review article said that even though autistic people can be 140% more productive than the typical employee in the right workplace, the unemployment rate in the U.S. for autistic people is 85%. Across the ocean in the U.K., 50% of managers admitted to choosing not to hire neurodivergent candidates.
Campbell hopes Autism Awareness Month can educate others on the fact that autistic people are like everyone else — just with some quirks that may require support.
“Some things are probably going to be different for us, we may interpret things differently, or we may look at things differently,” Campbell said. “We may need something to help us out in ways that non-autistic people may not need.”
On par with the meaning of the month, Campbell made one thing very clear.
“We exist and we are out there,” Campbell said.