What better place to create an inclusive community than in a classroom.

Two years ago, using grant money from the Honey W. Nashman Institute for Civic Engagement and Public Service, Dr. Sean Cleary, Associate Professor, Director MS/PhD of Epidemiology Programs at The George Washington University (GWU), set about designing a college course to teach students about the lived experience of autism and its relation to the public health field.

Dr. Sean Cleary, Associate Professor, Director MS/PhD of Epidemiology Programs at The George Washington University

Although this course curriculum is impressive, it’s the dynamics of the classroom between professors, GWU students, and adults with autism that makes this experience so exceptional. In this integrated course, participants with autism partake in the class as both student and teacher ensuring GWU students learn about autism firsthand, and gain exposure to the reality of the diagnosis. Simultaneously, adults with autism who are non-speaking or minimally-speaking are given the opportunity to be part of an inclusive college experience.

To accomplish this unique classroom, Dr. Cleary collaborated with Donna Budway, Programming Director of Our Stomping Ground, a previous colleague from the Peace Corps where they both served as volunteers in Thailand,1985. 

On GWU’s podcast The Hive, host Jordana Rubenstein Edberg interviews Dr. Cleary and Ms. Donna Budway about this innovative course they’ve collaborated on.

Dr. Cleary describes some of their collective learnings, in particular, the stereotype that non-speaking and minimally-speaking people with autism have no desire for friendship and connection. “Just because they have autism doesn’t mean they don’t want connection. That is a false assumption that the general population makes,” he says.

By breaking down stereotypes and learning together, GWU students entering the healthcare field have said that because of this class, “they will never approach an autistic patient in the ER or clinic the same ever again.”

GWU students and OSG students enjoying lunch together

As for the students with autism, Mrs. Budway adds, “It’s been an amazing experience for these autistics who have never had anything like this in their life.” Typically non-speaking or minimally-speaking people with autism are excluded from classrooms and rarely given the chance to express their thoughts, especially in an academic setting – this often happens from the moment of diagnosis.

Mrs. Budway shares her own experience raising her autistic child who is non-speaking, and encourages parents in the same situation, “From the moment of diagnosis, just love your child, read to your child, do not limit your child with any limitation that any person may give you for that diagnosis. Because the future is bright and it is exciting.” 

She also provides listeners who may not have a direct connection to someone with autism with a still important reminder, “When you see a person with a disability, we do not know what gifts, what talents, and what potential they have.”

 Dr. Clearly stresses that “…they are articulate, they don’t just give you one-word answers, they ask phenomenal questions…[and] they’re on level with my college students.” 

GWU’s college class is truly a model partnership for other institutions around the country. Because of its success, they will continue their course for the third year this fall.

To learn more about this course and how you or someone you know can be involved, please contact donnab@ourstompingground.org.



OSG members standing in front of the GWU Milken Institute School of Public Health

*This collaboration was inspired by the seminar “The Science and Lived Experience of Autism” taught by Professor Vikram Jaswal at the University of Virginia in 2016. Learn more here.

Reserve Your Spot For: