Monday, November 06, 2006

Going to College with Asperger's

Valerie is a math whiz who aced the SATs, but she has trouble picking up social cues, such as when her Carnegie Mellon classmates pushed her to the sidelines during a group project. (She received her Asperger's diagnosis while taking a year off from college.) But with the right supports, including a life skills coach her family hired as well as a supportive college administrator, Valerie earned her degree. She now has a retail sector job in Pittsburgh and still hangs out with her "nerdy" friends from college.

While acknowledging the big challenges facing students with Asperger's, this is a clearly drawn success story, the centerpiece of a New York Times "Education Life" magazine issue published November 5. The issue is headlined "A Dream Not Denied," and kids with disabilities including autism spectrum disorders take center stage. You can read about Valerie and other college students in the feature story "Students on the Spectrum" by clicking here. The story is about more than one young woman's accomplishments; it points out that colleges like Marshall University, Keene State College in New Hampshire, MIT, Boston University and a number of community colleges are hustling to figure out the best way to serve a growing number of students with developmental disabilities like Asperger's. For example, the story points out that:
"A top expert estimates that one in every 150 children has some level of [autism] spectrum disorder, a proportion believed to be rising steeply. With earlier and better intervention, more of these children are considering college, and parents, who have advanced them through each grade with intensive therapies and unrelenting advocacy, are clamoring for the support services to make that possible."
This article also notes that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires colleges to provide some supports, but that college educators and administrators are working to figure out how much and what exactly to do. One disability specialist in Minnesota says interventions to provide social skills training at college is the least they can offer. "We would provide an interpreter to a hard-of-hearing person. Why don't we provide an interpreter [of social situations] for somebody with Asperger's?"

Other stories in this special education section describe the architectural designs at St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a school that serves children and adults with autism spectrum disorders and mental retardation. See the slide show at The Times website by clicking here. Buildings on the campus are color-coded to help students know where to go; there's a lack of nooks and crannies for kids with autism to hide out, unproductively; a sensory room for children to relax when they get overstimulated; and residential programs that teach non-verbal kids to use signs to prepare meals and food shopping lists.

The third article of note in this issue is all about college students with the developmental disability of Down Syndrome; read it (here) to see how parents of these kids work, constantly work, to help their children reach their full potential. And how some colleges are opening their doors to them, providing supportive environments.

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