Over 1,000 people came together at Coolidge Park Saturday, April 15, to celebrate the 10th annual Chattanooga Autism Celebration Walk.
The Chattanooga Autism Center organized the event, its largest walk in support of autistic people and their stories. As part of the festivities, vendors set up booths and companies, schools and families formed teams.
One of the walk’s participants was University of Tennessee at Chattanooga freshman psychology major Ella Dunkelberger, who grew up in Johnson City, Tennessee, playing soccer, riding bikes and enjoying the outdoors.
Like most kids, Dunkelberger wanted to fit in. For her, fitting in wasn’t just a part of being human, but learning to accept living with autism spectrum disorder.
Diagnosed at age three, Dunkelberger said, “I was scared to advocate for myself.” However, in eighth grade, after reading an article about autism by Beth Hiatt, she started to see autism in a more positive light.
“After that (reflecting on the article), I thought there’s nothing really to be ashamed about,” Dunkelberger said. “Just because my brain doesn’t function in the norm of society, that doesn’t mean that it’s embarrassing or shameful; that’s just how I am.”
April is recognized nationwide as Autism Awareness Month, also known as Autism Acceptance Month—the preferred term according to students in UTC’s Mosaic program.
Mosaic, created in 2008, is a comprehensive program developed to support the needs of degree-seeking UTC students on the autism spectrum.
“When we’re accepting people, that’s an action to do that,” Dunkelberger said.
“I think it’s really important that we start doing acceptance because that’s the action we’re taking to acknowledge and learn more about this.”
According to Dunkelberger, autism is “a neurological disorder that basically means a spectrum, so everyone on the spectrum struggles in different ways and we also thrive in different ways.”
She compared autism to riding a rollercoaster, with each twist and turn quick and unpredictable. With sensory overload playing a significant role in autism, she described it as carrying bricks.
“It’s like having 10,000 bricks on your head at once with sensory overload,” Dunkelberger said. “Not many people understand that when you have 10,000 bricks, it’s really heavy—so your brain is getting overwhelmed.”
While Dunkelberger still struggles with sensory overload, she explained it was much harder growing up.
“I would try not to make a scene because I didn’t want people staring at me,” she said, “but in society, that’s how it works. We stare at things that may be odd.”
According to Dunkelberger, one of the biggest misconceptions about autistic people is the idea that they don’t have empathy for others.
“We care so deeply for people,” she said. “Maybe we show it differently than others, but I think we have a heart and we try to show that to others, but I think people kind of get that misconception that we don’t have any feelings and that we’re robots.”
Embracing her individuality, Dunkelberger is always encouraged to be herself in the Mosaic program. She said the staff provides support and resources for autistic students, encouraging and helping them succeed in college.
Dunkelberger referred to the staff as superheroes, always showing up for students when they need support.
“They just go above and beyond. They really care for every single student, which I think is incredible,” she said. “We are in a program with all sides of the spectrum, so they know how to…have conversations and be able to help us when we need. They’re such different people, but they’re able to do it all.”
Leading the UTC Au-some Mocs team, the Mosaic program participated in the Chattanooga Autism Celebration Walk.
Visiting booths with sensory toys and information on autism, Dunkelberger and other Mosaic students celebrated the day and month all about them.
“I think it’s important that inclusion is made, not just with autism but with every disability,” Dunkelberger said. “I think we should include and educate others about autism and other disabilities as well so that everyone can have a good sense of the world and know that not everyone is the same.”
Photo gallery by Bethany Cothran
Team UTC Au-Some Mocs