THIS IS A FABULOUS ARTICLE! Growing number of autistics want to complete college education.
By SHAYA TAYEFE MOHAJERThe Associated Press
March 4, 2007
The Associated Press
Stephanie Hurley, right, a Marshall University senior from Portsmouth, Ohio works with David Massey an autistic student from Woodstock, Ill., Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007 at the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. The ever-increasing number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders has spawned a new challenge: parents and autistic students want improved access to college.
HUNTINGTON - The ever-increasing number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders has spawned a new challenge: parents and autistic students want improved access to college. Before the federal government mandated specialized educational plans for autistics from kindergarten through 12th grade, a high school diploma was a rare achievement. With high school diplomas becoming more common, a college education is now the next frontier for autistic students.
"Autism is an emerging issue," said David R. Johnson, director of the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition. "There's an enormous job to be done here in terms of the post-secondary programs in training faculty and staff and disability staff."
It's unknown exactly how many will attempt college or how many colleges offer programs for students with the neurological disorder. What is known is that one in 150 American children have an autism spectrum disorder, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released last month.
Autism is a neurological disorder wherein a child falls within a normal range of intelligence -- and sometimes excels in certain areas, such as rattling off sports statistics. However, many struggle with even the simplest social interactions, such as the correct degree of firmness for a handshake. Many autistics have rigid views that frustrate them in a classroom settings and they can become easily distracted during tests.
"Most parents will tell us that they never even dreamed of college for their child because of the problems in high school, their social difficulties," said Barbara Becker-Cottrill, director of the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University in Huntington. Marshall's program is believed to be the first of its kind and likely wouldn't have existed without $75,000 in donations from Arlington, Va., lawyer Larry J. Austin, who was desperate to find a college program for his autistic son, Lowell.
When Lowell was 4, his parents were told he should be institutionalized.
"They wanted us to send him away," Austin said. "I couldn't."
Under Marshall's guidance, Lowell plans to graduate with a degree in sports management this year. He will be the third student to complete the five-year-old program.
Clad in a giant green Marshall jacket, Lowell looks like most college students. There are small cues he is autistic: he doesn't maintain eye contact, he fidgets a bit as he speaks. But this is a vast improvement from how he began, administrators say. Lowell agrees.
"This process has helped me a lot with my classes," he said. "When I first came here, I thought it was difficult trying to communicate with others." Now he enjoys performing karaoke, and has friends who like pro-wrestling, just like he does. "It's like a collection of miracles," his father said of Lowell's progress. It actually may be a collection of federal mandates for equal rights that have been enacted for the last three decades.
Laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandated individualized education plans for K-12 students that many autistic students used to maneuver the social hurdles of public education, earning grades and test scores that entitle them to advanced education.
Marshall's program works to extend that individualized attention through the college years by holding daily meetings, keeping tabs on their classrooms and helping them stay organized.
Those accepted pay $3,100 a semester on top of normal tuition and housing costs. The program receives about 40 queries a month. Lowell is one of 10 students currently enrolled and there are only two openings for the fall semester. The program began in 2002.
Marguerite Kirst-Colston has a 6-year-old son who is autistic.
"We have a lot of great information from adults who have autism and who have gotten through the system alone and what they would say is give these kids a chance," said Kirst-Colston, spokeswoman for the Autism Society of America. "Many of these kids are so bright and have such an intellectual curiosity. Colleges are potentially some of the best areas for our children."