Autistic and neurodiverse support: Square Pegs at UW Tacoma
Founder, Organizer, and Event Host Heather Dawn Swanson speaks about the importance of Square Pegs on campus.
The Ledger spoke to founder, organizer and event host of Square Pegs, Heather Swanson. Square Pegs is a social group for those who are Autistic or neurodiverse. She spoke about the group coming into fruition after seeing the lack of support for Autistic and neurodiverse individuals over 18.
“The struggles that my child faced while transitioning from insurance-covered Autism services during childhood/adolescence to no available insurance-covered Autism services during adulthood showed me the glaring gaps in our medical and social model systems,” Swanson said.
To Swanson, this was not only evident in our healthcare system. When she became curious about Autistic or neurodiverse-specific services or resources available to students on the UW Tacoma campus, she was disheartened by her discovery of finding no Autistic specific services.
With these disappointments in mind, an online venture helped Swanson find an adult Square Pegs meetup group in Tacoma. This finding gave her the idea to create a Square Pegs group at UWT.
“I introduced myself to Zack Siddeek at the UW Tacoma Autism Awareness and Acceptance Day Colloquium. Then, I met up with Zack on Dec. 26, 2019, to discuss my passion and goal of establishing Square Pegs at UW Tacoma,” Swanson said.
Now established at UWT, the Square Pegs group is open to all Autistic or neurodiverse students. Their meetings are currently online due to COVID.
“The main purpose of these peer groups is to provide a nonjudgmental space for Autistic adults to make new friends, socialize, share lived experiences, and be part of a community,” she said.
Although this is the first group on campus, Square Peg groups reach far beyond the boundaries of Tacoma located in King, Pierce and Thurston counties. Here, these groups are equally open to all Autistic and neurodiverse people.
The basis of this group is to provide social support. Swanson emphasizes that this support is vital to interpersonal life.
“We want to improve inclusion, sense of belonging, equity, acceptance, and academic and interpersonal success of all Autistic students/students on the Autism spectrum, self-diagnosed or professionally diagnosed,” she said.
Swanson also emphasized the importance of recognizing those without an official diagnosis due to issues like lack of health insurance, sexism and/or other barriers.
“Due to barriers, not all Autistic students have received an official ASD diagnosis, which is a requirement for receiving academic accommodations. So, there are Autistic students not receiving important accommodations while attending UW Tacoma,” Swanson said.
Currently, a barrier that Square Pegs faces is the impact COVID-19 has had on the group. The inability to meet in person, and navigating an online space, can be challenging. However, after figuring out how to set up and utilize Zoom as a meeting space, Swanson saw the positives from the transition, which has allowed members without prior access to transportation to be able to attend.
Furthermore, Square Pegs groups were able to expand to many people outside of Tacoma; another additional benefit of implementing the online space into their agenda.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic and Square Pegs expanding to virtual meetings, individuals living in other states [for example] Maryland and Pennsylvania and countries [such as] Canada and the UK have attended Square Pegs,” she said.
These were all accomplishments in the eyes of Swanson. However, her personal accomplishment comes from what Square Pegs provides for those who attend it.
“Square Pegs brings together individuals from different backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, genders, classes, beliefs, etc. They finally experience feeling like they belong, are accepted for who they are, and can be themselves without the need to ‘mask’ their authentic self,” she said.
With these positives in mind, Swanson looks toward the future. Specifically, a future outside of the online space they have had to use along with more frequent meetings and events within the community.
However, coming back to campus means interactions with students, staff and faculty that may not or choose not to understand Autistic or neurodiverse students. Swanson spoke about the misconceptions that Autistic or neurodiverse people face.
“Autistic and neurodiverse people are people. I have been included in numerous conversations that revolved around the misconception that Autistic and neurodiverse people do not like or want to socialize, or they prefer keeping to themselves,” she said.
Furthermore, Swanson discussed how these misconceptions don’t reflect reality. She emphasized the importance of not looking at Autistic and neurodiverse students in a monolith but instead seeing how we all relate to one another and spoke about the harm neurotypical students, staff and faculty can have on Autistic or neurodiverse students.
“Autistic and neurodiverse people have feelings and emotions (many have intense feelings, emotions, empathy) just like neurotypical people. When a neurotypical person excludes, bullies, or makes fun of us, that person is causing harm,” she said.
So, Swanson recommends not taking the typically skewed media portrayals of Autistic or neurodiverse people literally for neurotypical readers. On a personal note, Swanson spoke about specific Autistic or neurodiverse characters on television, that although she enjoys the content of the shows, don’t reflect reality.
“I personally do not know anyone who speaks or behaves like Shaun Murphy in ‘The Good Doctor’ or Sam in ‘Atypical’ on Netflix. These shows and the inaccurate portrayals have been the focus of conversations during Square Pegs meetups,” she said.
From acceptance and understanding to awareness and education, there are various ways that neurotypical students, staff, and faculty can support Autistic or neurodiverse students on the UW Tacoma campus.
To Autistic or neurodiverse students at UWT, Swanson, and Square Pegs at large, extend an invitation to join their group online and in-person when events occur.
“We look forward to meeting people on all parts of the spectrum, including neurodiverse people,” she said. “Supportive adult family members and friends are welcome to accompany Autistic and neurodiverse members if invited by the Square Pegs member.”
Square Pegs resources:
Square Pegs meetings take place on the second Wednesday of each month from 6 to7:30 p.m.
Zoom Meeting ID: 945 2550 5629 https://washington.zoom.us/j/94525505629
Questions: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Square Pegs Adult Autistic Meetup Group (Seattle, WA): https://www.meetup.com/Squarepegs/
Square Pegs On-Campus – UW Tacoma, Wed, May 12, 2021, 6:00 p.m.: https://www.meetup.com/Squarepegs/events/dpftgsycchbqb/