How a TU project is exploring misconceptions of the autistic community

By Kyle Hobstetter on May 4, 2021

College of Health Professions research project provides insight into those on the autism spectrum 

Members of the ExpectabilityTU Research Project Team
#ExpectAbilityTU is a research project that addresses stereotypes and misconceptions about autism. The research project is led by (left to right) Kaitlyn Wilson, associate professor of speech-language pathology & audiology, student Kendell Adson '22;  Aaron Dallman, assistant professor of occupational therapy and student Emily Friesner '21. 

It all started with an idea: to build acceptance, awareness and positive expectations of neurodiversity, with a specific focus on autism, in the Towson University community.

To that end, Kaitlyn Wilson, associate professor of speech-language pathology & audiology, and Aaron Dallman, assistant professor of occupational therapy, partnered for a research project titled #ExpectAbilityTU.

Started at the beginning of the spring 2021 term, #ExpectAbilityTU addresses stereotypes and misconceptions about autism, by sharing social media content: photos, Twitter chats and filmed interviews with adults with autism who are members of the Towson University community, including students, faculty, staff and members of the Hussman Center for Adults with Autism.  

“This project is about highlighting and showcasing what autistic adults are doing,” says Dallman. “We’re letting others see that picture using what is working so well in the era of COVID—social media.”

The project team leveraged social media platforms in a targeted way to highlight their participants and their experiences. 

With help from the Faculty Academic Center of Excellence at Towson (FACET), the project used YouTube to provide a space for those who are verbal and comfortable speaking on camera. The videos showcase their interests and their hobbies and give them a chance to speak for themselves. 

#ExpectAbilityTU participants interact directly with the public using their Twitter, answering questions and sharing their opinions. Finally, the project has an Instagram account for participants to showcase their interests visually.

“Beyond being able to highlight the strengths of a lot of the participants, we have had the opportunity to interview them and get their take on what it is that autism means to them or what it means to be autistic,” says student researcher Kendell Adson, a junior majoring in speech-language pathology & audiology.

“For me, that's been an awesome experience to meet all of these different individuals and hear how autism is something that is past what you can see. It’s something beneath the iceberg, so to speak.”

He is one of two student researchers, along with Emily Friesner, a senior studying occupational therapy who will be entering TU’s occupational therapy master’s program next fall.

Adson, who is hoping to go into audiology when he graduates, admits he didn’t have much prior experience working with those with autism. He’s using this research to learn more and educate himself for his future career.

Friesner has a different reason for why she joined the project. She has a personal connection through her part-time work at the Hussman Center for Adults with Autism.

“I was talking with one of our participants, and they asked me to hang out in the fall and to be friends,” Friesner says, “And I was just like, ‘This is what I live for.’ It's not just a research project; you're making friendships, and you're finding common interests. I think it's important to remember, too, when talking to people with autism, you find that we have so much in common, and we shouldn't discount that.”

While it’s exciting to see their research project come to life, Wilson and Dallman are also thrilled that they have provided their students with first-hand research experience.

“One of the big goals for us was to shape student perspectives because that's our role,” Wilson says. “Seeing it first-hand has been really powerful. It's not about writing a paper; it's not about reading something. This is real, and it’s also their school and their career.”

“It’s been so encouraging because these students have been fantastic at taking over this project,” Dallman adds. “These interviews that they've done have been so empathetic and sensitive. And they've done fantastic at really keeping [the project’s] passion alive to make sure we're highlighting the strengths of these individuals and letting their voices be heard.”

#ExpectAbilityTU is sponsored through funding to the College of Health Professions and the departments of speech-language pathology & audiology and occupational therapy and occupational sciences through the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council.