People with Asperger’s syndrome, Nils Skudra said, do want to make friends. l They do want to make connections, and contrary to misperceptions, many have. l They may just not always know how. l A graduate student at UNC-Greensboro, Skudra recently helped found an organization at the school for students on the autism spectrum. l “A lot of people who don’t fully understand what being on the spectrum entails, may think of it as a handicap,” Skudra said. “That can lead to some marginalization. ... I want people to realize that being on the spectrum is not a handicap. But there are a lot of Asperger’s people who have social challenges.”
The group, called Spectrum at UNCG, had its first meeting last semester and has attracted about a half-dozen to a dozen students to each of its gatherings.
Skudra, 24, enrolled at UNCG last year to study Civil War history. He is doing an internship at the Greensboro History Museum, researching Guilford County’s World War I veterans. He also volunteers at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park.
Recently, he was one of four students with Asperger’s chosen to receive a scholarship from KFM Making a Difference, a nonprofit organization that promotes disability awareness.
People with Asperger’s have trouble picking up on social cues and trouble with nonverbal communications. The condition is one of several forms of autism.
“Being on the spectrum, it entails having certain social difficulties,” Skudra said. “It’s challenging making small talk with other people, making eye contact, just hanging out.”
According to the Autism Society of North Carolina, about 60,000 people in North Carolina are on the autism spectrum. Nationally, about 1.5 million are on the spectrum.
And in spite of their uneasiness with social interactions, many of those are looking to form close relationships.
“It’s not that they don’t want to be social,” said Judy Smithmyer, a resource specialist at the Autism Society of North Carolina. “There are certainly folks who prefer to be non-social, but for the most part, people on the spectrum are trying to seek out social opportunities. But because they have differences in understanding social boundaries and cues, they have difficulty with that.”
A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Skudra was given a diagnosis of Asperger’s when he was 10.
“My mom was shocked and frightened about it at first,” he said. “The doctors at that point didn’t really know much about Asperger’s, and they said I might have to be institutionalized.”
But in high school, he learned more about the condition and began attending social-skills groups. As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, he connected with some local autism groups.
“So I had a good support network in Berkeley,” he said. “But coming here, we found there’s not much for adults on the spectrum.”
His mother, Renee Skudra, who lives with him in a house near the UNCG campus, said they did find a local program run by the UNC School of Medicine but were told he would have to be put on a potentially years-long waiting list for services. Several other programs were aimed toward young children.
“In Berkeley, they have organizations that offer workshops, employment help, speakers, all kinds of stuff,” Skudra’s mother said. “But here, there’s no place like that to go.”
At UNCG, Skudra met history professor Omar Ali.
“I talked with him about being an autism student and about the support network I had in Berkeley,” Skudra said. “And he was interested in helping me start an autism student organization here at UNCG.”
Ali, who now serves as the faculty adviser for the group, said he wasn’t an autism expert but wanted to help Skudra and others on the spectrum “have a space.”
“There was a need to create some kind of place where people could just come together and be among like-minded people,” Ali said. “I think this is something that’ll be beneficial not just to this campus, but other campuses in the area. We’ve already gotten interest from other campuses, like Greensboro College.”
Asperger’s is not a debilitating condition, Spectrum vice president and UNCG sophomore Andi Jones said, noting that many students who have Asperger’s do well academically. But having a lack of community, she said, can lead to anxiety and depression.
“And we wind up isolating ourselves and not being the best people that we can be,” Jones said. “It can be very lonely, and that can cause much bigger issues in the long term.”
Skudra said he hopes to promote the group throughout the Triad, as well as do away with the stigma some people associate with being on the autism spectrum.
“Starting next semester, I’d like to do more organized activities, some fundraisers for autism awareness,” he said. “But we just want to grow, make more connections.”
“Really we want this to be for everyone, expand to include people’s family members, partners, anyone interested in finding support,” Renee Skudra said. “It’s about creating a community.”