Autism Spectrum Navigators: Sara Gardner

“The navigator’s primary responsibility is to be aware of ship or aircraft position at all times…[to] plan the journey… and ensuring hazards are avoided.” This quote is printed on the bottom of the official handout of the Autism Spectrum Navigators at Bellevue College. It represents the club and association’s mission of guiding and assisting BC students diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder throughout their academic career at BC. The program is headquartered in B-132 where Sara Gardner works as the program’s adviser. Students enrolled in the program are paired with peer mentors or “Navigators,” who help guide the students through their experience here by fostering four essential skills: study skills, social interaction, self-advocacy and self regulation.

Gardner recently attended the second annual “Autism Day WA,” which is held in Carnation, WA, on the second Saturday of August. Since its inception in 2001, the event has served as a networking fair for autism service providers in the northwest. Besides just serving as a forum in which to speak about issues in the field, the event also helps link autistic students with programs that fit them. “We get a lot of referrals from Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington Autism Center,” said Gardner. These referrals, along with other BC students, are paired with a navigator here on campus.

The navigators are undergraduate students from local colleges and universities who come from a variety of related fields of study, including – sociology, psychology, and speech/language instruction. They come to the campus to have weekly one-on-one meetings with their assigned students where both navigator and student go over a checklist to assess the student’s current academic needs. “The checklist is very specific, because we want the navigators to follow a very prescribed method when working with the students,” said Gardner, who advises the navigators. “The reason for this is that we want the students to rely less on their individual navigators and more on the program itself.”

The checklist includes going over the course syllabi and assignments to  insure that the student clearly understands what is being communicated with these documents. “Autism is, at its core, a communication disorder,” says Gardner. “[so] we sometimes have trouble understanding what people are trying to say. So the navigators who are more, neurotypical thinkers as we say, help interpret what is being said on course material.” Gardner herself has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, one of the five currently diagnosed types of Autism Specturm Disorder. Generally speaking, the Autism Spectrum is an umbrella term used to cover a group of neurological disorders that effect both communication and social interaction skills.

ASN currently offers a two credit course instructed by Gardner that serves as an introduction to the program for prospective students. More courses are in the works, including an executive functioning class. “We currently have 43 students, divided into two sections. As we grow, we plan to expand our offerings in the course catalog,” added Gardner. The program also hosts major events on campus to promote both awareness and recreation. “I know it’s a little in advance,” said Gardner, “but on April 13 we’ll be hosting our second annual Autism Awareness Video Game Tournament.” The tournament takes place in the cafeteria and all students are welcome. Last year, Nintendo lent all the systems and games to the program for the event. Several other local video game companies got involved as well, with Xbox and ArenaNet giving away $3,000 and $2,000 worth of merchandise respectively.

Students are encouraged to visit the program’s facebook page at!/ASNavigators?fref=ts for more information.