Redmond woman with autism helps others with disorder at Bellevue College

Redmond’s Sara Gardner is the program director of Autism Spectrum Navigators at Bellevue College. - Samantha Pak, Redmond Reporter
Redmond’s Sara Gardner is the program director of Autism Spectrum Navigators at Bellevue College.
— image credit: Samantha Pak, Redmond Reporter

When Sara Gardner was in high school, she did very well academically.

She was a member of the honor society and received a scholarship for college.

“I always considered myself really smart,” she said.

But when she got to college, Gardner found herself struggling. The Redmond resident attended three different schools in New York and “was kind of floundering.”


Many years later, Gardner’s son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when he was 11. As Gardner began reading up and learning more about ASD, she recognized some of the symptoms in herself. She said like those she read about with ASD, she did not have the executive functions and self-regulation to get things done, had trouble communicating and asking for help and often had trouble interacting with her classmates.

“Everything about my life started making sense,” Gardner said about how she felt when she learned about ASD. “This has been what’s ‘wrong’ with me all my life.”

She was 41 when she was diagnosed with ASD, saying she probably was not diagnosed earlier in life because when she was young, there wasn’t a name for what she had.

Once she was diagnosed with ASD, Gardner said she began to understand herself through a different life and understand that her difficulties were not psychological as she’d previously thought. And since she finally understood the cause of her issues, she also learned how to support herself so she could accomplish what she wanted to get done.


After the struggles Gardner experienced in college, the 52-year-old now runs a program at Bellevue College (BC) to help students who are in similar positions as she had been.

As program director of Autism Spectrum Navigators (ASN), Gardner works with students with ASD. The program has a four-pronged focus: executive functions so students can get things done; self-advocacy so they know how to ask for help; self-regulation so they can learn how to handle changes to schedules or plans and social interactions so they can interact with others.

Through ASN, students take one class per quarter with other ASN classmates. They also meet with a peer mentor once a week. In addition, the program also offers an opportunity for parents to participate and learn how to parent an adult child with ASD.

Gardner designed and developed the program in 2010. But before this, she was director of a pilot program for students with ASD, which was developed by Susan Gjolmesli, director of BC’s Disability Resource Center.

Gjolmesli said she saw a need for such a program when she began noticing a lot of students who were on the autism spectrum struggling with college life. She saw the pain the students experienced from feeling like failures for not succeeding.

“I just said to myself, ‘I have to do something,’” she said about helping the students.

Gjolmesli said that first year, the pilot program was not perfect but it was very successful.

“I’m so proud of these students and proud of Sara,” Gjolmesli said about ASN’s success.

The ASN will hold its third-annual Autism Acceptance Video Game Tournament from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on April 26 in the BC cafeteria at 3000 Landerholm Circle S.E. in Bellevue. Admission is free and entry into the tournament is $10. In addition to the tournament, there will be a kids’ game room, board games, a silent auction, speakers and a student panel, a quiet room and more.


For Leonard McCoy, ASN has helped him have a better college experience. The 21-year-old is in his third year at BC and acknowledged that if it weren’t for ASN, things for him at school would be “probably not so good.” He said in the past he has felt he had been treated like a “second-class citizen” because of his ASD. But with ASN, McCoy said he can enjoy being treated like a “normal person” and likes that the people in charge of the program do not belittle his intelligence. He added that the program’s navigation assistants — the peer mentors — are also helpful.

Shannon Jones, one of those helpful assistants, works with six students this quarter and said her job is to just support the ASN students and help improve their independence. She said they do not tutor students, but help them with skills outside of academics.

“It’s been an awesome experience,” said Jones, who attends the University of Washington and is studying to be a speech pathologist.

Jones said her time as a navigation assistant has also showed her that although people with ASD may share similar issues, they are also individuals.

“When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” she said. “They are definitely different and you should get to know them.”

As much as ASN assists students with the transition from high school to college, the program also assists parents with this change.

“It’s letting go and that’s scary for a parent,” admitted Carol Powers, whose son has been in the program for two years.

Powers said ASN has taught her how to back away from helping her son so much, adding that she has also seen a boost of confidence in her son since he’s been part of the program.

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