Colleges cope to accommodate surge in autistic students

NBC aired an episode of the sitcom “Scrubs” in the spring of 2005 in which regular character Dr. Cox was visited by a longtime friend named Ron.

Cox and Ron had competed at everything in life since their college years. Both now had two-year-old sons, whom they began to use in competitions, still vying for superiority.

Ron’s son, Nathan, quickly assembled Lego sets into towers with perfect symmetry and color-coordination while Cox’s son, Jack, made a sloppy tower more like what is usually expected of a two-year-old. Ron thought the perfect Lego towers proved his son’s dominance, but Cox realized the toddler was showing classic signs of autism.

The TV show was fictional, but it did a good job conveying the real traits of autism: social impairments that include an unwillingness to make eye contact, limited speech and feelings of discomfort from physical contact with strangers.

It also demonstrated that people with autism are not dumb. They can even be quite intellectual and attentive to detail.

While the show gave an optimistic outlook for Nathan, it never mentioned that he may even be able to attend college in spite of his cognitive disorder.

Colleges are now reporting rising numbers of entering students with disorders in the autistic spectrum. The autistic spectrum, also known as the autism spectrum, contains a range of developmental and behavioral syndromes.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies autistic spectrum disorders as pervasive developmental disorders. Autism is the most common among these, but others include Asperger’s and Rett Syndrome.

There is not a cure for pervasive developmental disorder, although medications can be used to address certain behavioral problems. Many children with PDD go through therapy which is specialized to an individual’s needs.

Asperger’s syndrome was named after Hans Asperger, who described his patients as “little professors”.

Unlike autism, people with Asperger’s generally have no significant delay in language or cognitive development, but they do have impairments in social interaction and other important areas of functioning.

They may have difficulties in communicating emotions, as well as noticing non-verbal communications of others. They also take words literally and may not notice nuances and subtexts in spoken communication.

But people with Asperger’s often have above-average intelligence, and many have received perfect scores on standardized tests such as the SAT.

An expert in psychological disorders estimates that one of every 150 children has a type of spectrum disorder.

In recent years, more and more people with such disorders have made the decision to go to college. While many are reluctant to attend four-year universities, an increasing trend is to attend two-year community colleges. Going to a community college can benefit students who prefer to stay close to home.

Even many students without any learning disorders can have difficulty adapting to life at big universities, and the social impairments that are common effects of spectrum disorders can make adaptation even more challenging.

By being closer to home, students can be supported by their families, and it can be easier for them to set up personal guidance with advisers.

Some community colleges, such as the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, are hiring special-education teachers to meet with students with spectrum disorders.

These advisers will help students with organization skills which can be applied to schoolwork as well as time management.

The teachers will also work with students to help them improve their skills in social interaction.

Other schools are setting up peer mentoring programs. Student leaders at New Hampshire’s Keene State College act as “social navigators,” welcoming students with spectrum disorders into their world and helping create friends.

Some institutions have specially designed training centers for students with autism and Asperger’s, where graduate psychology and sociology students work with students both in and out of the classroom.

Mentors help with management and studying skills and take students on trips to social environments such as restaurants and stores for practice in everyday situations.

Quintin Doromal, the manager of Health and Wellness for Academic, Student and Community Development for the American Association of Community Colleges, said that the AACC currently does not have any national data on accommodations for students with spectrum disorders.

However, he said that the AACC is conducting a national online survey and hopes that they will have information when the survey is completed in coming months.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.