Before the pandemic hit, Aaron Allen, a rising computer science junior, was making great strides in an area of college life that can be more daunting than the most challenging upper-division course.
“Remote schooling impacts me in a weird way,” Allen says. “Before COVID, I was learning how to make friends and to be social in general. All that progress has been stripped away, and when I get back on campus, I will have to start all over again.”
Diagnosed with high-functioning autism at a young age, Allen often deals with an additional layer of stress in social settings. What may feel like second nature to most people—making eye contact, reading social cues and engaging in small talk—can be mentally draining, he says.
“With my autism, I have a hard time socially, and as a result it’s difficult making friends—but the friends I make are the ones I have for life.” Allen says. “It’s a struggle, but once I have a bond with someone I really blossom.”
Although the prospect of rebuilding his momentum is overwhelming, Allen is confident he will hit his stride once again—thanks to support from the many students, faculty and staff he’s met along the way at UT Austin. He’s especially grateful for the help he’s received from supportive faculty and staff within Longhorn TIES, Services for Students with Disabilities and the Longhorn Center for Academic Equity.
“UT is such a big part of my success,” says Allen, who was recently named a finalist for the competitive Lime Connect Fellowship, which is offered to accomplished rising juniors with disabilities. “So many people here have helped me grow so much—and this is just the beginning.”
Determined to make the most out of his undergraduate experience, Allen participates in several academic success and career-readiness programs within the DDCE including XP3, Gateway Scholars and the College-to-Career UT Co-op Internship program. Empowered by his progress, Allen looks for opportunities to share his story with his fellow students with the goal of instilling a sense of hope—even in the darkest times.
“In middle and high school, I was bullied to the point where I started having suicidal thoughts,” Allen says. “In those moments, it would have helped so much to have someone tell me, ‘I understand what you’re going through.’ I’ve always wanted to be that person to help someone get out of that dark place.”
Another reason for sharing his story, he says, is to educate the university community about people with physical and invisible disabilities.
“There’s a common saying, ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.’” Allen says. “I just want people to know that no two people with autism are the same and their experiences are different depending on where they are on the spectrum. As for people with disabilities in general, no matter how they identify, they deserve to be treated with fairness and respect.”
Impressed with Allen’s accomplishments, Devin Walker, Gateway Scholars instructor and director of Global Leadership and Social Impact, invited him to speak at his large virtual undergraduate Gateway Scholars class last spring. The experience, Allen says, was both frightening and exhilarating.
“It wasn’t easy speaking to a big class, but it felt really good afterwards,” Allen says. “I got some great feedback from the students, many of whom wanted to share their stories with me as well. If I could change just one life, that would be like gold.”
With the fall semester around the corner, Allen looks forward to being back on campus and looking up at the tower while walking to class—a sight that brings back fond memories from his childhood years when he first fell in love with the university.
“Back when I was a kid, I was involved in a program called UT Autism Project that helped me learn how to socialize with friends at fun events on campus,” Allen says. “I’ll never forget the time when we all ran to the tower when it lit up after the big UT-Oklahoma game—then afterwards we fed the turtles. Now I feel like I’m living a dream being a student at UT because it has always been my dream school.”