FACE IT: Sheridan’s initiative to support students with Autism

By: Kawther Ramadan and Somer Slobodian

Sheridan’s FACE IT Club hosted a webinar to celebrate World Autism Acceptance Day. World Autism Month occurs every April, and April 2nd is the United Nations-sanctioned World Autism Awareness Day. Advocates at Sheridan have suggested changing the name to Autism Acceptance Day.

Past and present members shared their lived experiences as autistic students at Sheridan College. The virtual event was a cooperation between the FACE IT Club, Sheridan’s Social Change Ambassadors, and Sheridan Student Union (SSU) representatives.

FACE IT is an SSU club for students and Sheridan alumni with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The Club empowers members by providing a safe space to self-advocate, promote independence and develop social and academic skills that enable them to thrive.

“Now you might be wondering why we’ve called the day World Autism Acceptance Day, rather than World Autism Awareness Day as known by the United Nations,” says Jacinda Frazer, Accessible Learning Advisor at the Hazel McCallion Campus. “We made this change intentionally as a response to feedback that we received from students with autism that they wanted to move from a place of awareness to one of being understood, accepted and included in all aspects of society, including education.”

According to a report published by Sheridan college titled Insights and Strategies to Support Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Postsecondary Contexts: A Canadian Perspective, the number of students with ASD entering postsecondary institutions has been increasing steadily over the last three years. In 2018, 169 students registered at Sheridan with ASD as a diagnosis, the most of any college in the GTA and the second-most in Ontario. By 2020, Sheridan had a 15% increase in the overall students that registered.

For those with ASD, social interactions can be difficult. But Sheridan’s FACE IT club helped many open up.

“When I went to college, I learned about how to reach out, which was really hard. It took me like months to reach out to the Student Success,” says Jordana Goncalves, FACE IT President.

“And it was only because I needed my accommodations, and I knew that that’s something that certainly that would make me successful in college so reaching out to Students Success made the biggest difference for me. They got me in my accommodations; they got me into Face It Club.

They got me into other things like the Athletic Center, which was huge for me,” Says Goncalves.

The severity of Autism Spectrum Disorder can range from mild to severe. Social interactions become a challenge, and in most cases, it takes a bit longer to grasp a certain task.

“You constantly feel misunderstood,” says Sarah Shahid, who is currently a student at Ryerson University.

For Greg Lowenthal, a Sheridan Journalism graduate and past FACE IT president, he wasn’t able to graduate high school until he was 21 because he needed the extra year.

“All the steps that I had taken up until that point really did help me understand that. I may have Autism, but it’s not a hindrance. It’s just something I have to live with,” said Lowenthal.

Greg’s story was inspiring. His optimism was felt through the screen as he talked about his struggles and accomplishments.

 “As I got older, I started to realize that if this is what I have to live with, then I might as well make the most of it and be able to help myself understand, okay, you’re feeling this way because this happened or you’re starting to get emotional because of this,” he says. “You need to calm down; you need to focus because if you don’t, then you’re going to be completely irrational. No one’s going to understand what you’re talking about.”

According to a report published by the National Autism Spectrum Disorder Surveillance System, about 1 in 66 children and youth are diagnosed with ASD in Canada.

 “I think for me that diagnosis did change my life. It also means to understand that there were other people again, going through the same thing I am,” said Lowenthal.

Sheridan’s FACE IT Club has worked hard to make those with ASD feel safe and included. It’s a space where you can be yourself, chat with friends or just listen. The club is one of Sheridan’s many inclusive groups.

“Even if you want to just come in and sit in the back turn your camera off and just sit in and listen to us, you’re completely welcome to do that,” says Goncalves.

The club meets every Thursday online from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM and their virtual doors are always open.