Psychology major Elizabeth "Jay" Eveson is one of Profiles of Excellence for Commencement 2018.
As she got older, the list of conditions grew longer.
Features of avoidant personality disorder. Schizotypal personality disorder. Complex post traumatic stress disorder. Dysthymia. Generalized anxiety disorder. Social anxiety disorder.
"I had been labeled with so many different mental illnesses that it seemed really burdensome and confusing to me," Elizabeth "Jay" Eveson says now.
In Hampton, Virginia, where she spent most of her life, she had struggled from an early age. "I really didn't feel like I belonged in a school setting," she says. "I didn't feel like I could succeed."
She received instruction at home for the last two years of high school and tried college but found services for students like her lacking there. Once her family moved to West Springfield, though, a psychologist finally confirmed what others had only suggested.
Eveson was autistic.
The diagnosis was a "bittersweet moment," she recalls. "I understood myself a bit better, but everything I'd ever heard about autism was really negative. I felt like I was never going to be able to go anywhere, that no one would ever hire me, that I wasn't going to be able to hold down a job, that I was always going to have these issues, and there's nothing anyone can ever do for me."
But there was.
Eveson chose to continue her education at Holyoke Community College and got involved with the Office for Students with Disabilities and Deaf Services. HCC learning specialists made sure Eveson got the accommodations she needed.
The other pivotal connection she made was joining HCC's Students on the Autism Spectrum Club.
"I saw how people in the club were getting through school and actually having relationships with other students – friendships and so forth," she says. "I realized that that was something I could do. Being autistic didn't mean you had all of these things holding you back. They taught me how to self-advocate and not be ashamed of who I am and that I can succeed."
On June 2, Eveson, 23, president of HCC's Green Key Honor Society, member of the Phi Theta Kappa and Psi Beta national honor societies, and an HCC Foundation scholarship awardee, graduated from HCC with honors and her associate degree in psychology. She is bound for Mount Holyoke College in the fall, where she plans to pursue her bachelor's degree in psychology.
Her ultimate goal is to become a psychologist herself and work with adults on the autism spectrum.
"There's really a lack of resources for adults on the autism spectrum, particularly women," she says. "I really think as an autistic person I understand the experience more so than somebody who is not and I think I will be able to work with them more empathetically because I understand what they're going through."
Eveson started as a business major but quickly turned to psychology, inspired in part by two Learning Community courses, one called "All Things Connect" that explored nature and the environment through the study of eco-psychology and eco-literature. The other was an honors colloquium called "Freaks, Geeks, Punks and Queers." That class introduced her to the "neurodiversity movement," the theory that neurological differences such as autism are the result of normal genetic variations.
"That really helped me understand myself and my community better," says Eveson.
For her honors project she explored the dialectic between people on the autism spectrum and parents who have children on the autism spectrum. "I was specifically defining them as two separate cultures that sometimes clashed," she says.
As the "unofficial official media representative" for the Students on the Autism Spectrum Club, Eveson became a vocal advocate on and off campus for the club and autistic adults in general. She helped organize information sessions and workshops about autism and autistic culture that touched on subjects such as stimming and the importance of objects like fidget spinners that help autistic people cope with stress. She was liaison to national and local community groups such as the Autism Self-Advocacy Network and Autism Connections and and was interviewed for a recent newspaper story about autistic college students.
In April, she was one of the speakers at a campus event for autistic high school students considering college and their parents.
As she always does, she talked about her own experiences, especially what she learned as a member of the club.
"Autism wasn't something I should be ashamed of," she says. "All these people in the SAS Club are amazing at what they do because of their autism, not in spite of, but because of it."
STORY AND PHOTO by CHRIS YURKO: Elizabeth "Jay" Eveson of West Springfield