In honor of Autism Awareness month, we would like to recognize the accomplishments of one of our alums, Thomas Shaner. Thomas is more than an individual with autism. He is a artist, muralist, and a disability activist.

Thomas graduated from SEMO in 2003 with a degree in art. During his time as a student, he was a cartoonist for the student newspaper, the Arrow. Thomas is an advocate for people with disabilities and his passion for this is clear in the way he talks about his experiences. He shared that many people throughout his life told him he wouldn't graduate from high school, let alone attend and succesfully earn a bachelor's degree. But he did. In a way, he described, one of the biggest motivators in his life was proving to anyone who doubted him that he was more than just an autistic person.

Thomas received a lot of support from SEMO when he was a student. He said that for someone who has autism, it can be hard to talk about your feelings or describe your disabilities, but he found art as a way to express himself. Thomas showed us some of his pieces of art, and as he describes it, you can see pain in his work - a pain that has come from years of rejection. He went on to talk about the importance of bringing awareness to the discrimination people with disabilities face.

You have likely been in Burritoville, a Cape Girardeau staple. Thomas is the artist behind the big mural we all know and love. With everything from Browser the dog, to a snake named Hannibal, and even a small portrait of Thomas himself, every detail was meticulously planned out.

Last year, to raise awareness for people with disabilities, Thomas wrote and illustrated a children's book called "The Adventures of Pizza Dog." The book is about a three-legged dog who wears a pizza cape and has to overcome the struggles of being bullied. With the help of the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri, "The Adventures of Pizza Dog" has been published, and a portion of the proceeds raised will go towards a sensory inclusive classroom at the Arts Council.

(The Adventures of Pizza Dog illustrated by Thomas Shaner)

University Autism Center
We also caught up with the Director of SEMO's Autism Center, Dr. Renee Patrick. Dr. Patrick shares a little about what the Autism Center does both locally and regionally for early diganosis and treatment of individuals with autism. The Center is also proud to serve as a network for SEMO students who are able to receive hands-on educational opportunities by interning and completing clinicals on-site. In 2020, the Center celebrated it's 10th anniversary and is the only comprehensive diagnostic center specializing in autism in the area.

I think there are a lot of stereotypes about people with autism. Autism awareness is very important because people with disabilities have big disadvantages. There are about 80% of people with autism who don't have jobs, and that just stings. It hurts. If they're able to do the job, they in society, they shouldn't be discriminated against.

Thomas Shaner, Southeast Alum