Colleges Seeing More Autistic Students

Experts work to accommodate growing number of autistic students

For years, the increase in autism diagnoses among young children has been reported, and now colleges and universities are seeing their first influx of autistic students.

"I was very different from the other kids," said George Mason University senior Alex Plank. "Very different."

He always knew that he wasn't a typical child, he said. He struggled to socialize with other kids his age. So when he was diagnosed with a form of autism called Asperger's Syndome at 9 years old, it explained a lot but left his future uncertain.

"I don't think they really knew at all what my future would be like, my parents or the professionals," Plank said. "Even in high school my parents didn't know if I would graduate, because I at the time, I felt so isolated that I got really depressed."

Plank is now 22. He'll graduate this spring. He's part of the first big wave of children diagnosed under the umbrella of autism who have moved beyond high school.

About one in 166 children has autism, experts say. That's compared to one in 2,500 a decade ago. Colleges are developing programs to accommodate their special needs.

"Typically these are very, very bright students, so typically the impact isn't in the academic arena, it's more in the social arena," said George Washington University's Christy Willis.

That's because Asperberger's affects a person's ability to socialize with others. Plank said he's had a hard time making friends and being in relationships.

"I don't know what the typical college experience is, but I probably didn't have the typical college experience," Plank said.

Willis works with students with disabilities at George Washington University, where there are about 10 autistic students enrolled.

Often they need to teach these students social cues, like how to interact with roommates.

It's important for parents to make sure a child is ready to be in a college environment, because students need to be independent, Willis said.

"The impact is that disabilities tend to be with the executive functioning area with the organization and planning areas of their lives," Willis said.

At GW, they tailor their programs for each autistic student, Willis said. But nationally, some colleges are developing larger scale programs that include extra help from advisors and special social activities.

Plank said he found college to be a better experience than high school. He felt his professors were more understanding of his issues, and since college classes are shorter than a day of high school, Plank said it was easier to focus. He felt less isolated from his classmates.

"I'm obviously at the same level as them in terms of classes and I'm obviously at the same point in life," Plank said. "So it's just one thing that makes me a more interesting person to other people."

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