At age 8, Christiana Koch was diagnosed with autism, but she felt different from her peers before then. She didn’t understand why the classmates avoided her, and felt being homeschooled already made her strange enough.
“I was the weird one among the weird ones,” Koch said. “That says something.” Koch, a senior sociology major, has only recently began sharing her story. Before, she was afraid of what people would think of her after they found out she’s autistic. She hopes to inspire other students with disabilities and show them they deserve the same opportunities as everyone else.
To better connect with the disabled campus community, Koch served as Associated Students Inc.’s commissioner of disability affairs from fall 2017 to spring 2018, and recently founded the organization, Students with Disabilities at Large.
Koch prefers to be called an autistic person, rather than a person with autism, saying she doesn’t feel the need to separate herself from the developmental disorder; It’s her identity. She also doesn’t use the terms “high-functioning” and “low-functioning,” because she finds it demeaning to consider someone to be functional or dysfunctional.
Although Koch has her daily struggles, she said she doesn’t see being autistic as anything to dislike about herself.
“I’d be an empty shell of Christiana, and it’s so funny because people say that autism makes people empty shells of themselves, but I think it’s the other way around,” she said. “It’s a part of who I am and I should not see that as negative.”
Around Koch’s 21st birthday, she decided she wanted to advocate for people with disabilities. On July 26, 2016, she heard news about a massacre that took place at a center for the disabled in Sagamihara, Japan. The sadness she felt for the victims ultimately inspired her to spread awareness and advocate for people with disabilities.
Koch said she felt if she didn’t decide to become an advocate, she’d “never sleep again.” She wanted to change attitudes and prevent injustices toward people with disabilities.
This led Koch to take up her position with ASI last year. As commissioner, Koch put together events and created opportunities for students with disabilities to gather and make connections. Some of the events Koch set up in ASI were a Disability Empowerment Week, Disability Day of Mourning and Deaf and Disability Tabling day.
After her yearlong commitment with ASI, Koch decided not to re-apply so she could focus on writing her thesis this semester for the Sociology Honors Program and devote time to her new role as president of Students with Disabilities at Large, a club that was revived this semester.
Junior sociology major David Nguyen, the secretary of SDAL, met Koch at an Active Minds meeting, an organization dedicated to raising mental health awareness on campus. The meeting led to Koch recruiting Nguyen to become a board member for SDAL.
“My favorite thing is definitely her ability to empathize and her flexibility,” Nguyen said. “Working with her has never brought up any significant problems and differences.”
Koch said she chose to start up SDAL because of the current “political turmoil.” She said she was particularly impacted when President Donald Trump made fun of a New York Times reporter with a disability.
“It’s time for us to make sure we stand our ground and make positive changes for us when we can,” Koch said.
Claire Viers, a speech pathology assistant, first met Koch in eighth grade. They have been close friends since high school.
Viers said that not a lot of people liked hanging out with Koch because she was “a lot of work.” She said Koch had a hard time understanding sarcasm and figurative language, so their friends had to be cautious with what they said around her. But Viers never considered Koch work, and was willing to explain whatever her friend needed clarification on.
“She would be impulsive in the way that she would make a joke and laugh at you right in your face,” Viers said. “Her conversations wouldn’t be as natural as everybody else.”
Viers said that Koch’s social skills have greatly improved over the years.
As an autistic person, Koch said her biggest daily struggle is dealing with people’s perceptions of her.
When she’s walking to class, sometimes Koch talks to herself about her schedule and the tasks she has to complete. She said that people look at her like she’s crazy and she worries that they’re afraid of her.
Another struggle Koch has is that loud noises impact her concentration at school. She faces anxiety when passing by noisy construction projects. When she goes to the restroom to calm down, the sounds of hand dryers and flushing toilets can make her anxiety worse.
“When I’m sitting in class and people are talking, I don’t just hear the sound. It feels like I feel the sound,” Koch said.
Koch doesn’t let these obstacles stop her from pursuing her goals. In the future, she wants to go to graduate school to get a master’s degree in disability studies and become a researcher or professor for sociology and disability studies.
Viers jokingly said she could see Koch as President of the United States.
“I know she’s going to be the head of something, some nonprofit organization or make her own nonprofit organization,” Viers said. “She has the power and ability to influence a lot of people.”