Lessons Beyond the Classroom: What I Have Learned Through Finding my Home in Students for Autism Awareness at Yale

Written by Matthew Coffin ‘19

On Fun Fridays, The Wilbur Cross High School cafeteria is a buzzing bee hive, a precarious amalgamation of order and chaos. Teachers prowl between the tables like cheetahs, hunting for wayward wanderers, and student volunteers frantically attempt to reign in their groups, yet despite everyone’s best efforts, a few students inevitably seem to be running in every direction. But today, the atmosphere is melancholy, the deviation from norm nearly disconcerting. With the exception of one student, everyone is in their seats, organized neatly into their groups. That one student, Darrell, bounces from table to table, passing something from student to student, dutifully and solemnly making his rounds until he finally reaches my group.

The card was made from a piece of bright pink construction paper, with “Feel better soon!” scrawled above a big heart, all sketched in red marker. Inside, dozens of students have written their names, a hodgepodge of colors and sizes and varying degrees of tidiness.  ”What’s it for?” I ask Darrell, envisioning a typical high school breakup, a broken bone, or perhaps a bad bout of the flu. He looks around the room, and avoiding my gaze he sheepishly replies, “It’s for Trey. His brother was shot and killed in a drive-by yesterday.” I struggle to hide my astonishment. That, to say the least, was not what I had expected. I hastily grab the card and contribute my own note of consolation to the jumble.

TShirt art project with paint and stencils

Working with students with disabilities has been a foundational experience for much of my adolescence and adulthood. In high school, my background was primarily in working summer camps and events for special needs children of varying levels of cognitive and physical ability. Before college, I thought I’d seen it all - nonverbal kids with low-functioning autism, kids with cerebral palsy who had no autonomy over their own movement, mischievous “bolters” with down syndrome, and even a brilliant girl who was blind. However, though I’d worked with kids at basically every end of every spectrum, it wasn’t until I came to college that I realized just how limited my exposure was.

When I came to Yale, continuing my work with people with disabilities was not even a question, and I looked to Dwight Hall to see which service opportunities existed. At the Dwight Hall Fall Bazaar, I immediately found my home in Students for Autism Awareness at Yale. It’s a group that organizes weekly volunteer opportunities with students with autism spectrum disorder at several high schools in New Haven, focusing on developing communication skills through fun games and activities. It sounded like the perfect fit for me and very much within my comfort zone, and I eagerly signed up to volunteer each week at Wilbur Cross High School. 

However, despite my expectations, my work at Wilbur Cross not only consistently pushes me out of my comfort zone, but it also has fundamentally altered my conception of disability. Through four years of regular volunteering in high school, I assumed an expertise that I quite frankly hadn’t earned. I’d never considered that, despite the fact that my volunteer programs welcomed children of all ages and all levels of cognitive ability, I was volunteering within very exclusive spaces - summer camps, weekend programs, special Olympics, swim leagues - that all necessitated a parent with a car to drop off their kids and the resources to pay enrollment fees. I was working with the kids who had a speech pathologist since the age of 3, who had been in physical therapy for years, who had a full time professional caretaker or a parent who could care for them rather than working. 

I have learned that the experience of disability is incredibly intersectional. In most cases, the students I volunteer with at Wilbur Cross simultaneously inhabit multiple systems of oppression, disability just one among many factors like race and socioeconomic class. Their parents often work multiple jobs, and many of my students work jobs themselves to support their families. Some of my students have six or more siblings, forcing them into the role of caretaker. For my mostly first-generation students, graduating from high school is an immense accomplishment, and many of them don’t even have college on their minds. And, as that thoughtful handwritten card showed, for many of my students, physical safety is not a given. They navigate all of these already incredibly challenging situations – employment, caretaking, a lack of individual attention, and even danger and the loss of loved ones – as individuals with diagnosable deficits in social communication skills.

Wilbur Cross High School Students' artwork hangingMy work at Wilbur Cross reminds me that there is so much that needs to be done. Access to resources for people with disabilities profoundly affects outcome expectancies and life trajectories, and though my students still manage to thrive despite myriad obstacles, it is easy for me to imagine how different their lives would be if they’d had the same physical therapy, speech therapy, and professional caretaking that I had taken as a given for the kids with whom I worked back home. Nationwide, people of color are systematically underdiagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a disturbing phenomenon which begins in early childhood and continues through school, and to date no comprehensive studies have analyzed outcomes specifically for minority adults with ASD. This is a tragedy and an injustice.

My experience at Wilbur Cross wholly exemplifies exactly why service is so important to me. It’s a symbiotic relationship in which I truly gain just as much as I give. The lessons I have learned from service – about our city, about our society, and about myself – are things that a seminar or office hours simply cannot teach. Disability is a social justice issue, and I am incredibly grateful both to Dwight Hall and to SAAY for opening my eyes to this indisputable fact.

*Note: names in this story were altered to protect student confidentiality. 

Matthew Coffin ‘19 is heavily involved in many facets of Dwight Hall. In addition to his work with Students for Autism Awareness at Yale, Matthew has held leadership positions within Yale Animal Welfare Alliance, has been a leader for our pre-orientation program, FOCUS, has been a coordinator for our Freshmen-in-Service program, and is Co-Coordinator of our Student Executive Committee. He is also the 2017 Campus Compact Newman Civic Fellow representing Yale University. 

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