BRUNSWICK, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — Most college students feel like their days are plenty full between their school work, their work to pay for school, and their social lives. But Ben York, who just finished his first year at Bowdoin College, is on a mission. He wants to change the way people think about autism.
So even during finals week, he was giving a talk to teachers, case managers and therapists who work with Maine’s Child Development Services. “It is important to remember that for me and for thousands of other autistic individuals, the way that we are is just fine,” York said.
Occupational therapist Gayle Keeshen, who recently invited York to speak to the CDS group, said his perspective is incredibly valuable. “He is able to give a voice to those kids who don’t have a voice in that younger population, and to help us providers understand what the experience is like,” she said.
York refers to himself as “autistic,” not as a “person with autism.” Many people object to the term “autistic” because they feel it labels the person as their disability. York, on the other hand, fights the idea that autism is a disorder, a syndrome, or something that can be cured. “I consider this a thing that I am, not a thing that I have,” York said. “In the same way that you might say ‘a person with cancer.’ Autism isn't a cancer. It's an identity. So it's an autistic person, and a person with cancer.”
York uses humor to explain what it’s like to be autistic, both in his speeches, and in a column he writes for the Bowdoin College student newspaper, “The Bowdoin Orient.” Food, for instance, can be very tricky for him because complex flavors overwhelm his brain. “The concept of sour patch kids terrifies me because it’s this very sweet thing coated in pain salt!” he said.
But York also is very serious when he talks about how people’s fears of autism affect autistic youth. He finds it particularly troubling that some parents don’t vaccinate their children because of the myth that vaccinations cause autism. He said, “What I hear when someone says that is that ‘I would rather have a dead child than a child like you.’ And that’s not OK. That’s just not OK.”
York also mentors an autistic student at Woodside Elementary School in Topsham. He said, when he was a kid, there was little autism awareness. And he felt totally alone at times. “So I think – I hope – that’ it’s a powerful experience for them to know that there’s this person, and they understand what it’s like to be autistic, how difficult that can be. And yet, they are succeeding.”
For all of his passion to talk about autism, York does not study it formally. He’s going to Bowdoin College for math. He loves it because math problems have right and wrong answers and he likes that kind of certainty.
York said he knows he can't speak for everyone with autism, that for some, the disability is debilitating, or may not feel like an identity. But he said no one wants to be treated like a burden. And many children who cannot speak understand fully what is being said around them.