'It’s About Turning Your Obstacles Into Opportunities'
Timothy Mikes is a graduate student in Kent State University’s College of Public Health with a specialty in epidemiology. He’s also on the autism spectrum and using his perspective to enhance the university experience for other students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
When Timothy Mikes relates the story of how he went from studying nursing as an undergraduate to becoming a graduate student in the College of Public Health, it unfolds as a logical progression from step-to-step. His interest in health took him from nursing, to biology and then finally to public health. Mikes used his knowledge of his own strengths and weaknesses to guide him to a field of study that intrigued him and allowed him to use what he knew to help create positive outcomes for people’s health.
“That’s the funny thing about public health,” Mikes explained. “I’m not a doctor, I’m not a nurse. I’m just a person that sees the bigger picture and has to implement different things.” He sees public health professionals as the people who figure out the logistics and build systems to guide people using public health services.
Recognizing ASD as an Asset
Mikes was diagnosed with ASD at the age of 21. He remembers his own reaction and his family’s. “Everybody kind of freaks out, right?” he said. “You start to see that you don’t see the world the same way. But it was also enlightening because aspects of my life that didn’t make sense to myself and my family started to make sense.”
Seeing his attributes as an asset helped Mikes realize that his unique perspective could be useful in seeing “the big picture” in widespread public health issues. Mikes shared an explanation he had heard from a noted psychologist who specialized in working with people with ASD. “She was saying,” Mikes said, “that people (with ASD) don’t look at things large picture. It’s like a mosaic; one little piece at a time. Then, they get the big picture.”
This ability, Mikes believes, makes the unique perspective of people with ASD an asset in collaborations. “People on the spectrum need neurotypicals as much as neurotypicals need people on the spectrum,” he said.
Bringing Together University Resources
As an undergraduate at Kent State, Mikes joined the Autism Task Force. He is also a founding member of Kent State’s Autism Connects – a student organization dedicated to providing a safe and comfortable social support network for students on the autism spectrum. The group also strives to educate non-autistic people about autism, promote autism acceptance and provide resources for pre-professionals on the spectrum.
Working on Kent State’s Autism Task Force, Mikes found that the university had many good resources for people with ASD existing in different parts of the university without knowing about each other’s work. The Task Force helped to bring everyone together. “Getting people in the same room collaboratively was very beneficial,” Mikes said. “It was very rewarding to see that shared knowledge.”
The result of getting everyone actually and figuratively in the same room was that people saw how everything interconnected and how it could benefit mental health throughout the university, especially in people with ASD. “The real-world application helped improve the health of students here at the university,” said Mikes. “It’s that continuous, collaborative effort that’s important. Recognizing that there are resources here on campus is important.”
Creating Services for Students
Mikes continued, “I think that Kent State University does an excellent job of getting people to see the potential in their obstacles.”
One of the people on campus who offers assistance for students with ASD is Lisa Audet, Ph.D., assistant professor in speech pathology and audiology. She runs a clinic to help people with social pragmatics and speech pragmatics. Gina Campana, assistant director, diversity assessment and research in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion uses her extensive knowledge about ASD to assist students on the spectrum as well.
One of the jobs that Mikes helped create through the Autism Task Force is in Student Accessibility Services. Zachary Stricker, M.Ed., serves as the university’s neurodiversity coordinator. He administers several programs on campus, including the PALS (Partnering for Achievement and Learning Success) mentorship program, Autism Advocates and Getting Off the Struggle Bus. In addition, Stricker helps students with ASD with the everyday parts of campus life. “I help all students who are neurodiverse with things such as picking a major, rough drafts on papers, cover letters and resumes,” Stricker said. “We talk about social anxiety, testing anxiety, time management and many other things that come up.”
There is also a psychologist here on campus who helps people with ASD who are college-degree seeking,” Mikes added. “I actually helped create that job, too.”
Working to Save Lives
As autism awareness grew across campus, the Autism Task Force helped different departments learn how to best assist people with ASD. Mikes worked with Audet and Dean Tondiglia, director of Public Safety and chief of Kent State Police, to train the university police force in how to respond with someone with ASD. Mikes explained, “Someone on the spectrum might actually act a certain way, but you have to be very cognizant: If you scare this person, they’re just as scared as you are.”
There are special procedures that a police force will want to have in place. Mikes gave an example: “The first thing you notice about interaction with police is that the sirens come on. If a person is having a sensory integration issue, a siren is probably the last thing you want to have involved.”
Mikes said that the university police were very receptive and he notes that helping to put this sort of training, and systems of training, in place is within his field of study in public health. “Because sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t,” he said.
Looking Toward the Future
After he graduates, Mikes would like to work in Nationwide Children’s Hospital, a facility in Columbus, Ohio, which specializes in people with ASD and their health outcomes. He admires their work and wants to add his contribution as a public health professional with personal experience living on the spectrum who has also worked to help others with ASD.
A desire to help is at the core of Mikes’ motivation, which goes against what he says is a common misconception -- that people on the spectrum are antisocial or that they are not empathetic. “I find that really, really disconcerting,” Mikes said. “For example: myself in public health. I do what I do for other people. You don’t do research for yourself. You do it because someone is in pain and the current things that are going on are not working.
"That’s how you change the world.
“At the end of the day, it’s kind of like turning your obstacles into opportunities,” Mikes said. He encourages people to realize that there can always be great potential in things that don’t initially appear to have potential. “Many different people on the spectrum have a lot to offer,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just about people on the spectrum; I think it’s about all different kinds of people. Everybody has an asset.
“Learning more about autism and trying to take it as an attribute is important,” Mikes said. "Because if you take it as what I can’t do, compared to what I can do, you start to change the perception within yourself of what you’re capable of.
"It’s part of who I am. It’s not the entirety of who I am.”