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As Kids with Autism Mature, So Do Universities

Grace Hood
CSU peer mentor Jayne works with Mark, a student with Asperger's Syndrome.

As the number of people with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome grows, more are heading off to college. The influx is creating a demand for services to help students with the neurological disorder graduate, and find work. Colorado State University is one of the latest schools to adopt a transition program. And the school is wrapping up a two-day symposium on the topic today.


Peer Mentoring for Students

In many ways Mark is a typical senior at Colorado State University. But as a student living with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a high functioning form of autism, the everyday social interactions of college life can be awkward.

With more autistic students going on to college, universities like CSU have adopted programs to make the transition process easier. For Mark, one focus has been how to work in group situations.

“With Asperger’s it’s harder to negotiate terms of what each person will do and what each person is expected to do, and that’s lead to some trouble before,” he said.

…like when Mark and his work partner separately completed 90 percent of the project.

Called Opportunities for Post Secondary Success, CSU started the program in January. Director Cathy Schelly says professors and administrators were recognizing that more students with autism and Asperger’s were floundering in class. Or not understanding appropriate social behavior.

“It’s different for each person,” she said. “So we need to have the flexibility with our peer mentoring to meet that student where they are.”

Schelly says some students like Mark need pointers on how to interact with their professors and understand assignments, while others need a hand outside the classroom.

Learning to Do What College Students Do

One of the first programs in the country for autistic college students was started by Jane Thierfeld Brown, who works as Director of Student Services at the University of Connecticut School of Law.

“I like to talk about it as the inability to hang out,” she said.

The University of Connecticut offers a for-credit course for students with autism and Asperger’s.

“Now that the numbers have started exploding at colleges. People are saying this has to be the big end of the numbers,” she said.

But it’s only the beginning. That’s because autism rates have gone from 1 in every 10,000 children back in 1970 to 1 in 100 today.

Finding Work

While getting through college is important, so is finding work. At Boston University, Lorraine Wolf says the ultimate goal for their transition program is finding kids jobs.

“We want our college students to work while they’re in college, to have work study positions so that when they graduate they have those soft skills that are really what employers are looking for,” she said.

The issue is a professional and personal mission for Wolf and Thierfeld Brown. Both have kids who are autistic. They counsel other parents and universities through their web site www.collegeautismspectrum.com. Job skills are important, they say, because they help students develop their interests. They cite one example of a high school student who volunteered with his school hockey team as a water boy.

“They never had someone charting intake of fluids before,” said Thierfeld Brown. “But it made him a part of this popular hockey team at this high school.”

In other words, the student turned what made him different into strength.

A Future Professor

For his part, Mark has his sights set on going to graduate school, and he hopes to one day become a professor. That means there will be more group work projects ahead. They will get easier for Mark. But the challenge may never disappear entirely, says Director Cathy Schelly.

“That may follow him for rest of life, but that’s OK,” she said. “Because he’s going be a major contributor, whether it’s in chemical engineering, whether it’s in computer science.”

…and, Schelly hopes, in the everyday classroom called “life”.

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