By Belle Martinelli
Freshmen Aaron Freedman and Sammie Terpening have turned their passion project into a reality: Autism Acceptance Club, new to Purchase this semester.
“It started with a joke, pretty much,” said co-president and sociology major Aaron Freedman.
The idea was initially developed by other co-president, Sammie Terpening, a creative writing major and vocal minor, after talking with other autistic students on campus. Terpening is a part of Cornerstone Connect, an organization on campus through the Office of Disabilities, where need-based students meet with their respective learning specialist for support in executive functioning and social-skill building to integrate into a larger campus community. Because Cornerstone Connect is fee-based, costing an extra $1,000-$2,000, it is not available for all students.
“Cornerstone is great, but it’s not for everyone and it doesn’t always help, and it’s not accessible for a lot of people,” said Terpening, “and I was like ‘What if I did that, though?’”
“It was kind of like a ‘what if I do... I probably won’t...” said Freedman.
With the seed of an idea, Terpening went to Lizz Elvira in the Multicultural Center.
“During orientation, Liz said if you have a multicultural club idea, you can come to the Multicultural Center,” said Terpening.
She put Terpening in contact with Red Addis, president of the PSGA, and plans were set in motion – now Terpening needed to assemble a committee.
“Sammie made the mistake of telling me about this club and idea, and I said I was the president of my school’s GSA [Gay Straight Alliance] for four years, let’s do this,” said Freedman.
The two neighbors got to talking by chance, after Terpening was getting grief from anonymous students on campus for misinterpreting a social situation at the Hub. Terpening made a comment regarding a person screaming, which they had instinctually interpreted as a different situation. Freedman offered Sammie the frosting they had in their fridge, and the rest was history.
Lavender Bloom, a freshmen math/computer science major, filled out the initial Google Document the co-presidents shared on their Instagram account, and took on the role of Treasurer. Bloom is currently working on financial training to secure funding for the club.
“I trust Lavender with my life,” said Terpening, “and then I had to beg my friend Bella to be secretary and they were very cool about it.”
“Sammie was, back then at the beginning of the year, talking about how they wanted to start a club for this, and how it was a necessary space for autistic people and for allistic people for allyship,” said the group’s secretary, freshmen art history major Bella Spence, using the increasingly popular term “allistic” to refer to non-autistic people. “So, it’s been in the process of being created since the beginning.”
Terpening recruited Spence at the start, so they could get all the grunt work done in fall semester so that after winter break, everything would fall into place.
“One of the ideas behind the club is helping teach allistic people more about autistic people; the way we function, the way we go through the world,” Terpening said. “The thing is, with an autistic brain, especially with autism being a spectrum, all of us are different.”
Freedman and Terpening encourage all students to join the club, whether they are on the spectrum, or allistic allies wishing to learn more.
“This is a place that you can come, you can unmask, you can stim,” said Freedman, “and then for the allistic people who chose to join, it’s a hangout spot, you get to make friends and you get to learn about this hidden world.”
Their plans for club gatherings toggle between meetings and social events. One event in the works is “info-dumping power-point" night. According to Freedman, info-dumping is when an autistic person, or otherwise neurodivergent person, discusses their special interest or hyper-fixation. They said special interest or hyper-fixation is “an interest that is very very extreme, like the kind of interest that becomes part of you, it is a core part of your being.”
“Talking about your special interest, especially to people who you know are listening, is such a lovely feeling,” Freedman said.
Very commonly when autistic people discuss their special interest, they are met with annoyance and disinterest. “It perpetuates the feeling of we’re not supposed to be who we are,” said Terpening, “so we want to give a place where you can info-dump and nobody can say shit about it!”
Also in the works is a meeting centering on alternative communication methods that non-verbal people might use. Freedman wants to teach a mini-sign language lesson, show different communication cards, and teach autistic and allistic students alike how to be allies for their non-verbal peers.
When it came to the mechanics behind the club, Terpening and Freedman had a lot of conversations.
“We’ve taken measures while building the club to make sure people are not uncomfortable and people aren’t harassed,” said Terpening, when discussing their “three-strike” policy; that is, if three or more people come to the officers because someone is making them uncomfortable, they will investigate the situation and take appropriate action.
“We have a very wide range of people,” added Freedman. “We have to be careful because autism is so wide and there’s so many different symptoms from person to person.”
Careful consideration was taken in choosing the meeting place. The room is equipped with chairs on wheels, so they can be moved around to make sure there is room for people to sit, stand, and move around in the back. There is a space outside the room available to anyone who becomes over-stimulated or needs quiet time.
“You have to be careful to make sure you’re keeping everybody safe but not accidentally excluding people,” said Freedman. “We can’t make a rule that you have to stay quiet because we can’t control our volume, vocal stimming, Tourette's, etc. We recognize that our club isn’t just autistic people, it's people with other neuro-divergencies and we need to make sure to watch out for that as well.”
“And no one is judging you for it,” added Terpening.
Their first meeting will be held in RX0137 in Fort Awesome, Wednesday night at 8. Their plan is to introduce the officers and goals for the club, and send the meeting into a social time, for people to chat and get to know one another.
Following the club fair, they are expecting a good turnout. “We got people who reached out for doing art infographics for the Instagram and social media,” said Spence.
“Our silly little dream is working out very perfectly, and it’s very exciting,” said Freedman. “We get to take care of our baby.”