Many surprised to find they must be their own advocates
By Melissa Kossler Dutton
When Dan Hackett started college, he didn't make the grades he knew he could.
Hackett, who has Asperger's syndrome, found at the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh that some of his symptoms were holding him back. He had difficulty organizing his time and managing assignments.
"I always knew I could do better," said Hackett.
His parents tried to help, but he wasn't comfortable with them intervening at college. He was relieved to discover Achieving in Higher Education with Autism/Developmental Disabilities, a group that helps college students like him.
After contracting with AHEADD, Hackett's grade-point average increased from 1.5 to 3.6.
"They kept me on track," said the now 21-year-old political science major. "They helped me manage my time."
colleges reach out
Many students with Asperger's or other autism-like disorders face new challenges in a college setting. The syndrome hampers communication and social skills, so along with difficulties staying on top of their studies, these students may struggle with making friends and living more independently. They also may be more reluctant to ask for help.
It's a problem colleges and universities are "very aware" of as the first big wave of children diagnosed with autism-related disorders moves beyond high school, said Gwendolyn Dungy, executive director of NASPA, a Washington-based organization of student affairs administrators.
"We've been very interested in it and finding out how ready colleges are for these students," she said. "We want to establish a climate for success."
While higher education institutions usually make accommodations for students with disabilities, the law does not require them to provide the extent of services that students receive in kindergarten through 12th grade.
College students must become their own advocates, a change that can take them and their families by surprise, said Donna Martinez, executive director of George Washington University's Heath Resource Center, an online clearinghouse for students with disabilities.
"It's night and day" from high school, she said.
Colleges are trying to educate faculty and staff about autism-related disorders and gauge how much services will cost, said Dungy. Most colleges already provide services to students with disabilities or special needs.
For decades, only children with severe language and social impairments received the autism diagnosis. In the 1990s, the autism umbrella expanded, and autism is now shorthand for a group of milder, related conditions, known as "autism spectrum disorders."
One in 166 children is now diagnosed with autism, compared to 1 in 2,500 a decade ago.
There has been a corresponding surge in special education services for autistic children in elementary and high schools. Now, some of these students are headed to college.
One college that has added services for such students is Marshall University, home to the West Virginia Autism Training Center. Through its College Program for Students with Asperger's Syndrome, graduate students help autistic students manage class assignments and develop social and living skills.
Students pay $3,200 per semester to enroll in Marshall's program. Advisers may speak with them several times a day, have weekly contact with their professors and help find them social activities. They might give guidance on dorm living or cafeteria food.
"Most classes are 50 minutes long, two to three times a day," noted program coordinator Marc Ellison. "The rest of the time, you're navigating the college community. My advice to students is to realize the least amount of time you spend in college is in the classroom."