Breaking Bounds: Many Schools Have Developed Programs to Help Students with Autism Gain an Education

By Hu, Helen | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, October 10, 2013 | Go to article overview

Breaking Bounds: Many Schools Have Developed Programs to Help Students with Autism Gain an Education


Hu, Helen, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Picking at a muffin in a campus cafe, Laura Mackenzie says she and her parents thought she'd go to college, "but pretty much everyone else didn't."

Cheerful and matter-of-fact, the 23-year-old recounts troubled years that included difficulty walking and expressing herself, tantrums, inability to interact with people and cringing from physical contact.

Mackenzie remembers seeing kids playing and not having a clue what to say to them, "although I wanted desperately to join them," she says.

She was diagnosed with autism at age 7. But she was obviously intelligent.

Armed with her own determination, her parents' enthusiastic support and some help from special programs in school and college, Mackenzie is now earning a bachelor's degree in behavioral science at Metropolitan State University in Denver.

"To put things into context, people thought I'd be in a mental institution." says Mackenzie, who says she processes information and expresses herself relatively slowly but now belongs to two honor societies. "Looking back on it, it's almost funny."

For the uninitiated, it's hard to understand how someone having trouble dealing with everyday life can achieve academically.

But it can happen with autism, and as a rising percentage of children are reported to have the disorder, a growing number of colleges and universities are offering programs to help them with the college experience.

"These are spectacular kids; they think about the word differently,' says Mitch Nagler, director of the Bridges to Adelphi program at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. "We have kids here who got 800s on their SATs, ... but they definitely have problems." One student at Eastern Michigan University has published three graphic novels but can get lost going from one of his classes to another--even though they're in adjacent buildings--without practicing how to get there.

"Without question, he will always be under the care of someone," says Dr. Patricia Lemerand, clinical director of the Autism Collaborative Center at EMU.

Getting extra help

Students with autism must do assignments and take tests, just like anybody else. But higher ed institutions are required by law to offer some academic accommodations, including note-taking services, longer times to take tests and separate locations for taking exams.

Some colleges go much further, depending on the needs of the individual. Their services can include frequent meetings with students, accompanying them or doing whatever else it takes to ensure they know how to get to class, plan ahead on assignments and tests, feel at ease socially and even eat and shower regularly. Staff members and peer mentors will also intervene with professors on a student's behalf about what the student needs. Some students get their own bedrooms because dealing with roommates can be too stressful.

The extra services can come at a cost. At Adelphi, for example, parents pay $2,620 per semester--on top of tuition--for what Nagler says is one of the most comprehensive programs in the country.

Fees for EMU's program, which can be very intensive, range from $4,500 to $7,500 a semester. Others are less expensive, including Colorado State University's, which costs $1,500 a semester.

Some parents and kids shop around for programs with the best fit, meeting with program administrators before applying to schools.

Just getting the kids to the college level can require a tremendous investment of time, money and effort, and with those extra fees, poor and minority kids can be left behind, program directors say. High schools in poor neighborhoods may have fewer services, leaving students unprepared to go to college.

The percentage of reported cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) among children has climbed dramatically, with cases reported in all races and ethnic groups. It's more prevalent among males than females. …

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