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Class on the Spectrum: MayX immerses students in autism community

Gray Bradach ’26 talks with a resident of Mary Sunshine House during the MayX Autism in the Community.

Last updated June 4, 2024

By Clinton Colmenares, Director of News and Media Strategy

Gray Bradach ’26 takes a break from a noisy atmosphere in a Furman University North Village pavilion to talk about autism. Before this summer, she didn’t know much about people with autism, and was unsure even how to interact with them.

But it’s a cool, cloudy Friday afternoon, and soon four young men with autism from the Mary Sunshine House in Central, South Carolina, will arrive for tours of Furman, a little pickleball and some grilled bratwursts with students in the MayX course Autism in the Community.

The course introduced Bradach and 12 other students to life on the autism spectrum. More importantly, it made them more aware of jobs available to new college graduates that are desperately needed in the autism community, positions such as behavioral therapists, early interventionists and others, said Erin Hahn, professor and chair of psychology at Furman.

“There’s a huge need in our community for people who understand autism and service providers. There are long wait lists, and families cannot get services,” said Hahn, who co-led the MayX with Anne Kinsman, a psychologist who co-directs the South Carolina Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities program, or SC LEND.

The need is greater for teens, young adults and adults, Hahn said. “There’s a lot of interest in working with the really young kids, 3 to 5 years old. But autism doesn’t go away. It’s a lifespan disability,” Hahn said.

“We want to build awareness, but we really want to build a workforce,” Kinsman said.

Each year, through SC LEND, Kinsman and Hahn send two to three Furman undergraduate students to advanced training for working with people with autism. Furman is the only university allowed to send undergraduates through the program. The MayX gives more students a shorter version of this the type of training.

This hope is this course can become a model for other universities across the country to reach undergraduates.

Over the three-week MayX, students visited the Mary Sunshine House in Central, South Carolina, several times, as well as the Trailhead Community Farm School near Furman’s campus and Hope Academy in Greenville. They also met with someone from the state’s Department of Disability Services and participated in a family panel that featured a man in his 20s with autism, a mother and her son who has autism, and a student in the class who has a brother with autism.

Students were nervous about interacting with people with autism, Hahn said. But soon, the students recognized how much in common they had with those individuals so that conversations and understanding might emerge.

While it’s nice to imagine Furman students going on to make big policy changes or opening funding for people with autism, just knowing the students will take awareness and understanding into whatever careers they pursue is progress, said Hahn.

And even if they’re at the grocery and a toddler has a meltdown, “maybe there’s a flicker of awareness that, ‘oh wait, maybe this child has autism.’ In that pause, in that moment, there’s a different level of compassion toward the parent and the child.”

In the pavilion, students and one of the men from the Mary Sunshine House fill the breeze with bubbles. Another man with autism joins a pickleball game. One Mary Sunshine House resident went inside, the excitement, crowd and noise too overwhelming.

Another young man, dressed in a western belt and big shiny buckle, cowboy boots, jeans and a short-sleeve shirt, works a pipe he’s smoking. His glossy black hair is perfectly combed and sideburns hug his face, a la Roy Orbison. He turns sausages on a flaming grill.

“It’s been surprising that my eyes haven’t been as open before. I’m definitely more aware than I was before. I came in wondering how I was going to interact with them,” Bradach said, before picking up a paddle and hitting the pickleball court.

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Clinton Colmenares
Director of News and Media Strategy