Joanne Baird had always known there was something different about her daughter. She had difficulty socializing, liked to watch movies over and over and from a very young age had an intense fascination with both Martha Stewart and the game Twister.
Sherry McLeavy's son hated thunderstorms and loud noises, had a tendency to repeat things and absolutely loved Snow White.
Last year, those children, Kelly Scott and Will McLeavy, started a club at Holyoke Community College for and about people like them -- Students on the Autism Spectrum. Earlier this month, the club held a panel discussion to increase awareness about the disorder and offer perspectives on what it is like to be a student with autism.
Joining Kelly and Will on the panel were their mothers, as well as fellow club members Dan Sandberg, Sapphire Atkinson and Marge Dziewit. During the hour-long discussion, moderated by Maureen Conroy, their club advisor and director of the HCC Office for Students with Disabilities and Deaf Services, they talked about being on the autism spectrum, common perceptions about the disorder and the unique challenges they face as college students.
Scott, for one, said she was angry when she was first diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome at age 19. "It made me feel like there was something wrong with me," said Scott, who is studying Culinary Arts. "For three years I was in complete denial."
Eventually, she made a poster to raise awareness about Asperger's and has used art ever since to help her express herself. The club, she said, has become another outlet, a way to learn about herself and help others like her.
"I felt like, if I needed help understanding this disorder then maybe other people did too," said Scott. "I'm learning about this with everybody else."
Will McLeavy was diagnosed with Asperger's when he was much younger, at age 8. When his parents realized team sports didn't work for him, they got him involved in tae kwon do and cross country running. He now holds a second-degree black belt and became co-captain of his high school cross-country team.
Sherry McLeavy said getting him a one-on-one aid at an early age was crucial to his becoming the successful adult he is today. He has a 3.7 GPA at HCC.
A common misconception is that people with autism are all savants. "We thing different and some of us are smart," said Will, "but not all of us are extremely smart."
He said his challenges are mostly social -- conversations, making eye contact, reading body language, time management. "But," he said, "I know enough about my disability to turn my weaknesses around when I need to."
Joanne Baird said an earlier diagnosis would have enabled her to seek more assistance for her daughter.
"I wouldn't want to change her for the world," said Baird, "but I would have liked to be a better advocate for her."
Sandburg, a liberal arts major, said people often misread his facial expressions and sing-songy voice. "Sometimes when I say, 'excuse me' I sound rude but I can only say it one way, it's a challenge," he said.
He said he always hated physical education classes but his constant smile gave people the opposite idea. "It was very stressful," he said. "They always thought I loved it, but I always wanted to run away."
Self-awareness, they said, goes a long way toward helping them manage.
Sandburg found a passion in music production.
"I know this may seem weird," he said, "but I don't mind having Asperger's."
Scott wanted people to know that certain behaviors people with Asperger's exhibit may seem odd, but are quite normal -- pacing, wringing hands, tapping feet. These behaviors are called "stimming."
"It's almost like calming," Scott said, "a release of excess tension."
Inability to make eye contact is also quite common among people on the autism spectrum.
"I used to walk around with my head down all the time," Scott said. "Asperger's people tend to be in their heads. A lot of times it's because that's where it's safe."
Photos: (Left) Sherry McLeavy, left, talks to panelist Marge Dziewit. (Right) Kelly Scott talks about what it's like being a student on the autism spectrum at HCC. (Thumbnail) Will McLeavy talks about his experience at HCC.