With the launch of the magazine Lunatic in 2013, autistic students at Collège Montmorency created a venue for expressing themselves. But for students who have challenges connecting with others, the magazine has proven to be much more than just a place to share their stories and display their artistic talents.
Like activities on college campuses across the country, producing the magazine gives kids a chance to meet, make friends, build confidence and even learn valuable workplace skills. “Lunatic helped me integrate into college,” explains science student Simon Lambert.
That’s exactly what Collège Montmorency guidance counsellor Émilie Robert was hoping for when she envisioned the publication. Robert, who provides vocational counselling and academic guidance to students with disabilities, began noticing an increasing number of students with autism spectrum disorder diagnoses arriving at the school about five years ago.
While typically academically successful, most had difficulty making friends and little experience with student activities or jobs. But with several students expressing a strong interest in writing and reading, she thought they would benefit from the chance to design, create and manage their own magazine. “The idea is to help them to make friends and to get more confidence in what they can do outside academic classes,” she says. “I also wanted to expose them to an activity that resembles a work setting, so they could develop skills of teamwork, of respecting deadlines and having responsibilities.”
Once students connected through the weekly magazine planning meetings, they launched a Facebook page and began gathering outside of school for social events. “For those who have taken part in the last few years, we have noticed an incredible development of their social abilities,” says Robert.
The original cohort of students that launched Lunatic has graduated, but the magazine continues to be enthusiastically embraced by current students like Pamela Déom, enrolled in arts, literature and communication. “Now that I’m part of Lunatic, I have more things to share with others,” she says. “I feel like I’m finally myself.” This year, about 10 students will transform the publication into an online offering that can showcase student photographs and videos, as well as stories and illustrations.
Collège Montmorency is developing a reputation for its work with autistic students, says Robert, who in 2015 published a book on strategies for providing vocational counselling to students with autism spectrum disorders. Last year, the school attracted 15 new autistic students, doubling its cohort of diagnosed students. Along with the magazine and specialized vocational counselling, the school has reserved a room for autistic students. While they can gather there to socialize and do homework, the room also provides a relaxing space where students can escape the sometimes overwhelming noise and bustle of the busy campus of 7,500 students in Laval, Que.
“They appreciate it a lot, especially the first years when they’re not used to such a big school,” says Robert. Inside the room, students know it is okay to signal that they just need to be left alone. They’re in a place they can count on being understood.