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Dr. Fred Volkmar, an autism researcher and psychiatrist who is the director of the Child Study Center at the Yale University School of Medicine, has found that people with high-functioning ASD miss about 90 percent of what happens in a social interaction. "These kids are setups for bullying," he says.
Lori Shery, the founder of the group ASPEN, a New Jersey–based advocacy organization for people on the spectrum and their families, tells of a male college student with Asperger's who went to a party, left for another party, then returned to the first at the same time as two female students. When they arrived, the women complained to one of the other men that the student was acting strange. The man asked him to step outside. The student, not understanding the subtext of that phrase, followed him and was beaten by both the man and the host while other students watched. He ended up in an emergency room.
To avert such misunderstandings, program directors are working to raise awareness about autism on their campuses. Two years ago, for example, CUNY launched Project REACH, an initiative with the twin goals of developing programs for students on the spectrum and teaching the larger university community about autism.
Most programs include individual counseling, and many also offer group counseling, seminars on topics like dating, and social activities. Lubbers recalls a student who attended his first meeting of one of Rutgers's clubs for anime, which tends to be popular with people on the spectrum: "He called his parents and said, 'For the first time in my life, I walked into a room, and I met a whole bunch of people like me.'"
Another key is peer mentoring, which can offer students with ASD a way to build relationships. "Sometimes people on the autism spectrum need to have interpreters of the neurotypical world," explains Ernst VanBergeijk, executive director of the Vocational Independence Program at New York Institute of Technology, which offers life-skills training as well as a choice of a vocational track or a college-preparation track with credit-bearing courses.
Because of a lack of government funding for studies on adults, research on autism vanishes once people with ASD pass college age. Anticipating that students with ASD may have particular difficulty transferring the social skills they've acquired in college to a job, many programs offer seminars on workplace social guidelines; at Adelphi, Nagler has developed ongoing relationships with organizations that help people with ASD find and keep jobs.
Experts recommend that parents of students with ASD should start preparing them for college years in advance. VanBergeijk recommends summer camp or summer bridge programs, like NYIT's, where students can experience staying away from home — something that parents of kids on the spectrum may be less likely to consider because the adjustment can be difficult. Children should also get jobs, even if it's just volunteering a few hours a week, says Yale professor Jane Thierfeld Brown, co-director of the group College Autism Spectrum and the author of three books about college students with autism. (NYIT's summer program includes jobs that carry stipends, which helps students learn budgeting skills.)
In choosing a college, Shery and Brown say distance from home is an important factor; even the most independent students with ASD can benefit from being near their families for the first year or two. Parents also need to consider a student's abilities: Some people with ASD may be better off starting with a non-college residential program such as Chapel Haven in Connecticut that focuses mainly on life skills. Costs of these can be pricey, however: Whereas most college ASD programs cost up to $8,000 and CUNY's are free with tuition, Chapel Haven's is closer to $65,000 a year.
Regardless of which path students choose, experts and program directors are heartened by their increasing numbers, and their increasing success.
"For this generation, people on the spectrum are going to be your neighbors and parents of their kids' friends," Brown said. "They're going to be people that you meet at the dry cleaner. They may be the person who fixes your computer or does your mortgage. They're part of society."