By Cheryl Toomey, University Relations Graduate Assistant

Challenges faced by a person who uses a wheelchair are easy to recognize, but there are many disabilities that are less visible.  The UTC Disability Resource Center raises awareness and educates the campus community to interact with people who may be facing disabilities, invisible or otherwise.

“This is important because these students are here,” said Michelle Rigler, Director of the Disability Resource Center (DRC).  “We have 1200 students with disabilities registered with our department and probably many more that are not registered. That includes students with invisible disabilities, physical disabilities, vision, hearing – they’re here. They are a part of our diverse culture and the more people that become educated about to appropriately interact with them the better our campus will be,” said Rigler.

Not only students are served by the DRC—programs are also offered for faculty and staff.

October is Disability Awareness Month, the inspiration for Rigler’s campus presentation, “A Big Bang Approach to Autism.”

A popular television character was used to explore stereotypical Autism Spectrum Disorder characteristics and how these affect UTC students with ASD.

While The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper may not officially have an autism spectrum disorder, he presents with many of the characteristics commonly associated with ASD. Rigler incorporated clips from the show into her presentation, explaining each characteristic Sheldon displayed and how this relates to real UTC students with ASD.

“A colleague of mine from San Francisco had a similar idea, using the character of Sheldon in a presentation about ASD. I love the show, but I had never put the two ideas together, and I really liked it. When the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) was rewritten there was a lot of confusion about ASD. So I used her method and took it in a different direction. I’m just really passionate about this population and I wanted to educate people about autism and Asperger’s in a lighthearted way,” said Rigler.

Rigler used clips to illustrate common ASD characteristics such as a tendency to think concretely, resulting in difficulty understanding sarcasm and figures of speech, adherence to routines, ritual behaviors, and specific, intense areas of interest. She used these clips as a fun way to educate her audience about ASD and its effects on real people.

The program was sponsored by the DRC’s Mosaic Program.  Mosaic is a multifaceted and comprehensive program developed to support the needs of UTC students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). This program was created in 2008 at the request and expressed needs of students with ASD.

Due to Rigler’s experience with ASD and the drive to provide this population of students with the support they may need, the program has grown into one of the most comprehensive programs in the country.

“The Educational Advisory Board in Washington D.C. has identified us as a top tier program, one of the top five nationally,” said Rigler.

The Mosaic program includes a credit-bearing course with a fully established curriculum, academic/life coaching, peer/faculty mentoring, and supervised study hours. This curriculum is made up of four yearlong courses dedicated to the development of the social skills needed to navigate through a college career. Each subsequent year builds on the skills developed during the previous year. The curriculum is written and structured based on the latest research in the field.

“We have a lot of opportunities for people who want to get involved with the program. We are always looking for people to volunteers to be peer mentors, student leaders that have the patience to go through some training to be a mentor for a freshman or sophomore. We always need volunteers because that’s the only way we can keep the Mosaic program going,” said Rigler.

The Disability Resource Center has a number of programs and resources to aid students and faculty with disabilities. To find out more about Mosaic, see their website. You can also check out the Disability Resource Center website here.

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