Letter to the Editor: Jesse Nelson

Jesse Nelson, Associate Dean of Student Achievement

I have long thought the theme song for the Autism community ought to be Five for Fighting’s first hit, Superman.

I’m more than a bird,
I’m more than a plane,
I’m more than some pretty face beside a train;
It’s not easy to be me.

Though the number of individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder continues its rapid rise, mischaracterizations and misunderstandings of those on the spectrum are as prevalent as ever. As the father of a teenager with autism, I’ve experienced first-hand our son’s uphill battle to be understood and appreciated.

Recently, The Observer ran a front-page and center-spread story about an unfortunate assault between a CWU student with autism and a CWU employee. My heart goes out to both parties identified in the article. In my opinion, both Mr. Yancy and Ms. Chrismer are victims.

Society, including school, community, and state organizations, is guilty of negligence in its feeble attempt to support individuals on the spectrum. Mr. Yancy’s many accomplishments are a tribute to his resilience, character, and talents. Ms. Chrismer is a victim of violence and the nightmarish recurring trauma that often results.

Notwithstanding the events of the isolated incident, the tragedy will be compounded and exacerbated if popular opinion labels Mr. Yancy and those with autism as “dangerous.” Perhaps the most unfortunate autism myth is that individuals on the spectrum are more likely to commit violent acts. In fact, research has repeatedly shown that rather than perpetrators of violence, those with an autism diagnosis are far more likely to be victims of violence.

One of the great opportunities of our day is to expand our understanding of humanity through the lens of autism. Autism is not a disease to be cured. It is not a disability that incapacitates its host. It is not a disorder to be feared.

If we will sincerely seek to understand the diverse wonder of the autism spectrum, we will find that autism holds the power to help us more fully appreciate what it means to be human and to open our eyes to new ways of thinking, doing, and living. If you have a loved one with an autism diagnosis, you know what I mean.

Unfortunately, our most common societal response to autism is to otherize autistic individuals and to mock, bully, or shield ourselves from that which we don’t understand. The norms of the neuro-typical world can be harshly unbending. Isolation, misunderstanding, and negativity are frequent social realities for those on the spectrum.

The autism conversation, therefore, is fundamentally about social justice, human rights, and equity. Our societal experience with issues of gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation provide apt parallels. As a society, are we willing to set our assumptions, biases, and fears aside in exchange for a greater appreciation of neuro-diversity?

The incident between Mr. Yancy and Ms. Chrismer is highly unfortunate. Nevertheless, it is possible to have deep compassion for both parties. In our quest for understanding, we can also observe our own emotional reactions and, if necessary, challenge our own assumptions about the individuals involved and autism in general. Browsing the Autism Society or The ARC webpages may provide a helpful starting point for this important effort.


It is important to recognize that the topics raised by the Observer are inherently complex. Exploring the balance between individual rights and community well-being is complicated. Doing justice to neuro-diversity is not feasible in sound bites or sensational headlines.

We should not expect media to neatly package topics like autism and violence into easy to swallow, one-dimensional stories. Instead, we should be prepared to do some mental heavy lifting by expecting balanced reporting and multiple perspectives.


In our current case, we might ask why certain statistics were selectively and strategically displayed while the most prominent research on autism and violence was omitted. Regardless of the rationale, we have the opportunity at CWU to provide a welcoming community for our increasing numbers of students with autism – CWUwill be strengthened in the process.


Our willingness to build inclusive communities and compassionately learn about others different than ourselves remains the primary catalyst for positive social change. After all, each of us can relate at some level to Five for Fighting’s Superman symbolism.