April’s National Autism Awareness Month brings to light the increasing rates of autism spectrum disorders in the United States and the challenges those children will face upon adulthood, like attending college.
About one in 88 8-year-olds in the U.S. has a form of autism, according to 2008 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in March. In 2006, that number was one in 110.
There was an even higher rate in Minnesota in 2008 when studies estimate that in the state’s public schools, one in every 67 eight year olds had a form of autism.
Though doctors do not know the exact cause of the increase, Donna Johnson, director of Disability Services at the University of Minnesota, said the possible increase could be a result of better diagnostics.
The American Psychiatric Association is looking at changing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to get rid of separate diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s syndrome, autistic disorder and others to group them under a larger umbrella of autistic spectrum disorders.
Autism is generally found in children before the age of 3 and affects their ability to communicate with others. There is no treatment for the condition, and many deal with the side effects their entire lives.
Even so, many people with some form of autism are attending college. Out of 2,100 students who have a registered disability at the University of Minnesota, 56 of them have a form of autism, including Asperger’s syndrome.
Jesse Saperstein, author of “Atypical: Life with Asperger’s in 20 1/3 Chapters,” has lived with Asperger’s syndrome — currently classified as a type of autism — his entire life. He graduated from college in upstate New York in 2004 where he struggled to make friends in the different social setting. He tried to continue his role as the class clown in college that he had in high school.
“I thought certain things were appropriate all the time,” he said. “I struggled to make first impressions.”
While he said there are more resources to accommodate students who have transitional and social problems in colleges today than there was when he was in school, he said there needs to be more programs and continued awareness.
“There are still more unnecessary failures than there should be,” he said.
Since graduation, Saperstein has hiked 2,174 miles of the Appalachian Trail as a fundraiser for children with HIV/AIDS and published his book. Currently, he travels around the country to teach people about bullying and the damage it causes.
Joe Timmons, a researcher at the University Institute on Community Integration, works to help students with disabilities transition from adolescence to adulthood. He said students with autism often have a hard time transitioning from high school to college.
“Kids with autism receive a lot of support while in high school, but in college, the support goes by the wayside,” Timmons said.
One difference is professors don’t have the patience like high school teachers do, he said.
Kids who have Asperger’s syndrome are often mistaken for tenacious children who are misbehaved, Saperstein said.
He said many people with autism have problems deciphering different social settings like whether it is OK to run inside. Because they sometimes do not understand certain social settings, they have had to deal with bullying and harassment.
“Kids with autism have often been bullied and picked on their whole life,” Timmons said.
He said it’s important to understand why people with autism act the way they do, not because they are obnoxious or want to, but because it is part of the disorder.
Students at the University who have autism are expected to get the same grades as every other student but have accommodations made for them to even the playing field, Timmons said.
“Nothing is done to tilt the playing field in their direction,” he said. “They are expected to perform the same as the other kids.”
Leveling the playing field includes accommodations like allowing the student to present a project in front of a few students rather than a full class and the option to conduct a group project individually.
Students may also receive extra time to take tests or note-taking assistance.
The accommodations are all situation-based.
“Students with disabilities meet the same admission criteria as any other University student,” Johnson said. “Reasonable accommodations level the playing field for students with disabilities to demonstrate their knowledge of the subject matter.”