April is known for springtime, rain and Easter. It’s also known as Autism Awareness month, a time to come together and raise awareness for autism.

The IDEAL (Igniting the Dream of Education and Access at Lipscomb) Program was founded by Misty Parsley in 2014. It strives to help students with special needs at Lipscomb get the most out of their college experience, including those with autism.

Parsley was an autism consultant in her previous line of work, and she has been working with students with autism for most of her career. She now works as the director of special education programs and as a faculty advisor for IDEAL.

Parsley said the program strives to individualize how they help students with their needs, everything from their schedule, to finding ways to motivate them to get their work done.

“When working with those with autism, you have to somewhat learn as you go,” Parsley said. “You have to be willing to make changes and implement strategies as issues arise and be willing to meet the students where they are. We really just individualize based on their interests, their needs, what’s worked in the past and what we can implement here at Lipscomb.”

One student with autism in the program, Cooper Everitt, said the IDEAL program has benefited him, and he enjoys being a part of it.

“Lipscomb is a very nice school, and I love doing the IDEAL program,” Everitt said. “It helps me become a better person, to be more flexible and more responsible.”

Parsley noted that autism is a constant struggle with social situations and sensory input, and those with autism often show signs of communication difficulties, meaning they struggle to communicate as well as others.

She added that college can be difficult for many students with autism. High school is much more structured, which works well for these students. On the contrary, college is much more laid back and flexible.

“We take for granted the ability to be flexible,” Parsley said. “When we see a student gain flexibility…that’s a win for us. That’s huge.”

Lipscomb’s IDEAL Program has seven students with autism, although Parsley says there may be many students on campus who have it as well.

“Autism is a spectrum,” Parsley said. “There are a lot of students that may have spectrum-like characteristics of autism that are not in the IDEAL program.”

Parsley said she wants to encourage students to seek to learn about autism and better educate themselves on the different signs of it to be able to recognize it and know how to communicate with them. She also recommended interacting with those with autism.

“I really encourage students on campus to interact with our IDEAL students in the way you would interact with any of your friends,” Parsley said. “We want them to learn what is socially appropriate, and we want them to learn how to be around other individuals.”

Everyone with autism is different, and according to Parsley, not every diagnosis is the same.

“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism…people shouldn’t assume that they understand what autism is like after talking to one person.”

File photo of IDEAL Commencement Ceremony by Erin Turner

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