Overcoming Obstacles With a Dash of Humor

In many ways, Nicole Ihler is your typical Stephens College student.

The Kingdom City native is active with campus groups and works hard to achieve the college’s “Dream Up” slogan, maintaining a high grade point average, working steadily at an internship in her chosen field of marketing and looking forward to graduating in December.

What might set Nicole apart from her fellow Stephens women is the fact she has Asperger’s syndrome — and her refusal to let that mark her as different from her classmates or anyone else she interacts with.

Asperger’s is a developmental disorder on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

“Honestly, she never even talks about it. She wants to be recognized for the work she does and the contributions she can make,” said Maureen Bernath, director of internships and career events at Stephens. “She wants to do great work, and she wants to be successful, and she doesn’t want (Asperger’s) to stop her,” Bernath said, “and she does a good job of that.”

Ask Nicole what challenges she has dealt with, and she will mention subjects like math and science, and she concedes her graphic-design skills could use some work. Though a diagnosis on the autism spectrum might be seen by some as a disability or an obstacle to overcome, to Nicole it’s just part of who she is and has never held her back.

“People with autism are expected to be having meltdowns and not be able to have a job and be non-verbal, while there actually are a lot of people like me,” she said.

Nicole said she would rather be known as someone who is outspoken about her principles — she was the alternate delegate for Bernie Sanders in Callaway County — and handles life with a healthy dash of humor — she enjoys performing comedy and makes regular appearances during open mic nights at Eastside Tavern in Columbia.

That said, in a way, Asperger’s brought Nicole to Stephens. She had visited a number of area schools and had narrowed her choices to Stephens or Westminster College in Fulton. When she discovered Westminster would charge her a learning disability fee — one of the only concessions to her diagnosis Nicole makes is that she needs extended time for taking tests, especially if they are heavy on writing — that was all it took to tip the scales.

“I chose Stephens because I liked their program a lot, it felt welcoming, I found scholarships and I liked the women-only atmosphere,” Nicole said.

She has thrived since making that choice. A combination of working with the school’s mentorship program, taking advantage of student resources and forcing herself to get involved around campus have all worked to boost her confidence and her people skills.

Levering her sense of humor as a tool to work on those skills has also played a big role.

Nicole got her start in comedy in high school, where she first did a routine at the school talent show that “got roaring applause.”

When she reached Stephens she became involved in the sketch group Sketchy Business. When the group went defunct, she decided to make the leap to stand-up.

“I wanted applause. I wanted to see if I was actually funny or if I was just funny to Stephens people,” Nicole said. “I tell jokes about my mom, animals, just whatever I’m doing today, just general experience — I look at what’s going on.”

She said the comedy performances have boosted her confidence in speaking in front of others, with the added benefit of being an attention getter on her resume.

Although comedy has been a fun outlet and growing tool, Nicole’s career goal is to work in marketing, preferably for a not-for-profit organization, because she wants to help people. She said her experiences as an individual with Asperger’s have made her uniquely suited to such a role.

“I’m able to understand more where other people are coming from,” Nicole said.