Autistic student Liz Howell flourishes at Holmes From meeting new people and adjusting to a new environment to dealing with academic pressures and learning the art of time management, the college years can be tough for anyone: and even more so for those who have an autism spectrum disorder. While autism brings about its share of challenges that might impede college success, this has not been the case for Holmes Community College student Elizabeth "Liz" Howell.
The 19-year-old daughter of Michael and Sarah Howell of Kosciusko, Liz is a sophomore English major on the Holmes Goodman Campus. Not only has she made it through almost two years of college; she has gone over and beyond expectation.
"The first psychiatrist that I talked to about the possibility of me being autistic said that autistic people, on any point of the spectrum, won't graduate high school," Liz said. "That's just an example of how much we are often stigmatized against. Now, here I am today; I made a 29 on the ACT, earned a full ride to Holmes and I'm doing well in school."
Liz attended public school from kindergarten through third grade, but then her parents decided to homeschool her and her younger brother. Upon earning her high school degree in 2016, she enrolled at Holmes and immediately earned a spot on the President's List for academic excellence. A unique aspect of Liz's journey is that she didn't grow up getting special support or working with a specialist to help her navigate the ins and outs of autism. In fact, it was only a year ago that she was officially diagnosed as level one on the autism spectrum disorder scale [which formerly would have been referred to as Asperger's syndrome in her case].
"I've always had trouble communicating with other people and ever since I was a kid, I've had this weird thing where when I walk, I always have to step over a crack with my right foot first," Liz said. "It's just little things like that, things I've done since I was growing up, that made it where I didn't fit in very well and didn't have a lot of friends. There were a lot of miscommunication issues.
"When I was 16, something happened and I got really, really stressed out. That was the first time I went non-verbal. The best way I can describe what it felt like is that it was like having white noise in my head. I couldn't even understand my own thoughts because they were moving so fast. I started doing some research, for about a week or so, and everything I found pointed to autism. I was confused because I thought that if I was autistic, I would know by now. At that point in my life, I didn't know much about Asperger's syndrome, only about the stereotypical autism symptoms you hear about, like not being able to communicate at all.
"For a while it scared me because I thought, wait, I might have something seriously wrong with me. The more I've learned and gotten used to it, I've realized, there is nothing really wrong with me. It's more like the difference in someone using an iPhone and an Android. There are a lot of communication differences, but I'm still just a person. A lot of times we are looked at as less than human because of communication differences that people just don't understand."
Although she had a few bumps in the road her freshman year and still faces some struggles, Liz has excelled as an English major and made a name for herself on Holmes' campus.
"My love of writing started when I was 8," Liz said. "There was a competition with the National Anthology of Poetry by Young Americans. A bunch of us entered and three of us were accepted and published in the 2007 Anthology of Poetry. After that, my love for writing grew."
As a freshman at Holmes, Liz won first place in the poetry category and third in creative nonfiction in the Goodman Campus Creative Writing Contest. This year, she won two first place awards in the literary essay and drama categories and second in drama on the state-level competition.
Not wanting to miss an opportunity to help others, Liz serves as head tutor for the Writing Center and has also taken on various leadership roles on campus. She is editor of The Growl student newspaper, president of the Gaming Club, an officer for Phi Theta Kappa honor society and was even voted Miss Holmes Community College for the Goodman Campus. On top of all that, she is a member of MOSAIC club and Baptist Student Union, is employed with the book store and is in the Honors Psychology class.
Outside of Holmes, Liz is an active member of Zama Baptist Church in Kosciusko where she teaches Sunday school for children ages 3-11. In her free time, she enjoys writing, drawing and playing video games. Following graduation from Holmes in May, Liz says she'll most likely attend Delta State University to pursue a B.A. in English.
"I'd like to get certified to teach while working on my degree," Liz said. "My goal is to obtain an M.F.A. in creative writing and a Ph.D. in American Literature. I hope to both write and teach either at a small university or a community college; somewhere that I can get to know my students. I want to be for other students what some of the teachers at Holmes have been for me.
"When I first came to Holmes…well, I'm autistic and I was homeschooled for nine years, so I had basically no socialization skills. My first week here I called my English teacher a two-year-old in the middle of class. I found out that week you're not supposed to call your teacher a two-year-old in the middle of class. The instructor didn't get mad at me, though; he grew to understand that I have some communication differences, and I struggle to communicate the way most people do."
That same instructor can attest to Liz's growth since she first began college.
"Liz really has changed a great deal over the last two years," said Holmes English instructor Chad Moorer. "The old stereotype of 'coming out of one's shell' hardly covers it. I have seen her grow not only intellectually but also emotionally and socially. But Liz has also put in the hard work to make those changes in herself."
During her freshman year, Liz was fondly referred to as "Cape Girl" since she often sported a royal blue cape on campus. She said that it gave her confidence and she enjoyed the funny reaction she got from people.
"I don't wear the cape much anymore because now I feel confident without it," Liz said. "That, and it doesn't work out very well to wear a cape under a backpack!"
Liz is just one of the many young adults with an autism spectrum disorder who has proved that autism is not necessarily a limiting factor, but rather a unique way of viewing and navigating the world. As April is National Autism Awareness Month, Liz encourages people to take the time to better understand those with autism.
"It can be really hard for us to fit in…I have a notebook that I've been keeping with notes on how to communicate with people. There are all these rules that normal people don't have to think about that everybody follows…people like me – we have to work really hard to figure out what those rules are.
"Even though people don't think about it, who knows where we'd be if autism didn't exist," Liz continued. "Some of history's greatest minds were believed to have been autistic like Van Gogh and Einstein. Einstein did not even begin to talk until he was three. Most of us who are autistic, we really don't want a cure. We just want people to understand us enough to where we don't have to pretend to be like everyone else."
Embracing who she is, endearing quirks and all, Liz has found a place where she belongs and made friends along the way: not always an easy feat for those with autism spectrum disorders.
"I've really flourished here [at Holmes]," Liz said. "I went from this shy little girl who sat down in front of McDaniel Hall every day in between classes because I didn't know what to do with my life to Miss HCC, president of the Gaming Club and a tutor for the Writing Center, to name a few. I don't know where I'd be right now if I'd never come to Holmes."
For more information about Holmes, visit www.Holmescc.edu.
For more information about how to support and celebrate National Autism Awareness Month, visit www.autism-society.org/.
IN THIS PHOTO: Pictured is Liz Howell of Kosciusko, a sophomore English major on the Holmes Community College Goodman Campus. Liz, who was diagnosed with level one autism spectrum disorder, has flourished at Holmes and serves as Miss Holmes Community College, among other leadership roles.