Bluefield University in the News

BU Student Michael Vichiola Leads Conversation on ASD for Autism Acceptance Month

by | May 8, 2023

“Regardless of whether or not they have autism, are you going to look somebody in the eye—past their social difficulties, past their issues with living—and say, ‘I see you for you, and no matter what social difficulties you have, I’m going to love you and I’m going to appreciate you because that’s what Christ did for me’?” student Michael Vichiola asked.

Vichiola is a junior majoring in Christian Studies and minoring in Biblical Greek. An active and valued member of the Rams community, he is Vice President of the Missions Club, Treasurer and Historian for the Student Government Association, and an Elevate volunteer for BU Student Ministries. He also has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Around Easter, Vichiola reached out to Emily Cook, BU’s Director of Counseling Services, about commemorating Autism Acceptance Month, which is celebrated nationally in April. He planned a discussion about ASD awareness and acceptance, held on Thursday, April 20.

“Michael and I collaborated with different ideas and finalized the details of what it would look like,” Cook shared. “He researched and sent me information that he had found that he wanted to share. He deserves the credit because he did a great job organizing this event. I am very proud of him.”

Vichiola and Cook began the event by sharing research on ASD and discussing the Autism Society of America’s shift from emphasizing awareness to acceptance, which began in 2021. Christopher Banks, President and CEO of the organization, explained, “While we will always work to spread awareness, words matter as we strive for autistic individuals to live fully in all areas of life. As many individuals and families affected by autism know, acceptance is often one of the biggest barriers to finding and developing a strong support system.”

Students, faculty, and staff then engaged in conversations about striving to meet the needs of relatives with ASD, connecting with autistic classmates, and combating bullying toward those that exhibit behaviors commonly associated with ASD.

“Just to have the event itself and to know that almost everyone has had one encounter with autism in some form or fashion, that I think was the highlight,” Vichiola said.

Cook added, “I loved the openness and vulnerability that was shared between the attendees, especially Michael. It takes a lot of bravery to open up like that, and everyone was very brave. I love how Michael reiterated the strengths and capabilities of people with ASD, and I loved the questions from different people about what they could do to be more accommodating to people with ASD.”

When asked how people could be more considerate of others with ASD, Vichiola urged those in attendance to be patient with autistic individuals and keep in mind that they experience social difficulties. He encourages everyone to put themselves “in the shoes of somebody that has autism” and remember that everyone has emotions, even if they have trouble expressing themselves or express themselves differently.

“Just because we break eye contact, that doesn’t mean we’re not interested. Just because we don’t talk to people as much doesn’t mean we’re not capable of making connections. I think because of our social difficulties, we’re not given enough chances to grow and thrive,” Vichiola said.

Given the chance, those with ASD can develop and offer their unique skillsets and perspectives. Vichiola highlighted Bill Gates, a co-founder of Microsoft, and Temple Grandin, who designed humane livestock facilities, as two people on the spectrum that have made extensive contributions to society.

When people are unsure how to navigate a situation that may involve an individual with ASD, they should “reach out for support to help gain insight,” Cook shared. Many online resources are available, including the Milestones Autism Resources website.

“Everyone has different strengths, interests, needs, and challenges,” Cook said. “I am by no means an expert, but with my experiences working with students with ASD, I would say the best thing to do is show kindness and practice patience. I would recommend those two things for interactions with anyone, not just interactions with people with ASD, though.”

Quoting Genesis 1:26 and Ephesians 2:10, Vichiola emphasized that each person is made in God’s image and called His workmanship, and this should be the basis for how we see others, not their social difficulties or assumed inabilities.

“Don’t be surprised if the coworker next to you in your office or a friend sitting right next to you in the cafeteria or in the park has autism,” he said. “Sometimes the signs are not always as obvious, and behaviors that connect to the social difficulties get misunderstood.”

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