Number of College Students with Disabilities Doubles in Five Years
As the recession drags on more and more budget-conscious people are asking for results from our large outlays for special education. But while not largely covered in the mainstream press, our increasingly successful early interventions have created a crop of college-bound students with disabilities; a group who a generation ago would never have had such an opportunity.
by Kathleen Wilson –
Kevin Rinaldi was so silent as a child that his mother studied sign language in case he never talked.
She didn’t expect he would ever go to college. But the boy who was diagnosed with autism at 3 and didn’t speak in sentences until he was 6 earned As and Bs as a freshman last year at California Lutheran University. He edged into the social life at the Thousand Oaks university, too, living with roommates and joining a club.
When it was time to move back to campus this month after a slow summer at home, he was more than ready. “It got a little boring,” Rinaldi said after staking out a bed near the window in his dormitory room. “I’m looking forward to the classes.”
The 19-year-old man is part of a wave of college-going students with autism disorders showing up at college campuses. Or as he puts it: “It feels good knowing there’s a lot of me.”
Around the nation, their numbers are growing at state universities, private colleges and community colleges. Locally, at least 50 have registered this year at Ventura College, 18 at CSU Channel Islands and 10 at CLU.
Total numbers are unknown because the only figures come from college offices where disabled students can register for assistance. But those enrollments are easily double what they were five years ago, and officials believe many more are on campus who don’t disclose they have autism or Asperger syndrome, which is included on the spectrum of autism disorders. Some consider Asperger’s a separate disorder, while others believe it’s high-functioning autism.
The trend has spawned books for students and parents, and business for private coaches who advise autistic students on how to navigate college life. Rutgers University, the Rochester Institute of Technology and CSU Channel Islands, among others, have developed special programs to help these students succeed.
It’s a dramatic change from the 1960s, when many autistic people were more likely to be locked in institutions in California. The college trend is driven not only by the growing number of diagnosed people, but by early intervention programs, educators said.
“Behavioral therapy at an early age has really opened doors,” said Ventura College teacher Steve Turner, who has worked with autistic people in various settings since the 1980s.
Autism is still a barrier to success in both college and the workplace, according to a national study published in May by the American Academy of Pediatrics. About 35 percent had attended college in the six years after high school, based on interviews with parents, guardians and young adults. Employment rates were higher at 55 percent, but still worse than any other group studied, including people with an intellectual disability, which formerly was called mental retardation.
Graduation rates for this new generation of students with autism are unknown. Research now underway should help answer that question, said Jane Thierfeld Brown, who has co-written a guide for parents.
Brown, who has noticed the trend for 15 years, said the numbers are definitely growing.
Their range of abilities is diverse, and many need help in adapting to a college environment, educators say.
They may struggle to work in groups, handle the noise from a fire alarm pulled in the middle of the night or deal with a change in the syllabus they have memorized. Students afraid of talking to a girl might be accused of stalking if they lurk outside a classroom or send repeated text messages, according to Brown’s book, “The Parent’s Guide to College for Students on the Autism Spectrum.”
Often, they don’t speak up in class or strike up conversations. Some struggle with expressions such as “What’s up?”, literally looking to the ceiling. Sarcasm may elude them.
Rinaldi’s parents said he eased into college pretty smoothly, starting out in summer school when there were fewer people on campus.
Kevin didn’t make any panicky calls to his parents’ home in West Hills.
“That was mostly me,” said his dad, Scott Rinaldi, an electrician. “Are you sure you can do this? I was a nervous wreck.”
Kevin’s mother, graphic artist Linda Rinaldi, said it took an array of interventions to get him to the point he is today. He needed speech and occupational therapy, special education and a reading program that helped him distinguish sounds. An aide helped him with social skills.
He was good at math, so she persuaded school officials to put him in regular math and science classes in middle school. By high school, he attended regular classes for the entire day, graduating with a B average from El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills. He became an Eagle Scout.
Kevin Rinaldi said no subjects were really hard, but that autism sometimes slowed the rate at which he learned skills.
“Once I get them, I get them,” he said.
Once autistic students get to college, they must meet the same standards in class as other students. But they may qualify for assistance, such as extended time to take tests, help with note-taking and special housing arrangements.
CSU Channel Islands, for example, allows students to move in a week early, avoiding the din on regular move-in day. Some students have problems with sensory overload, preferring to live in single rooms or at home.
Steven Kapp, a 26-year-old doctoral student at UCLA, decided to switch dorms.
“A lot of the students were in Greek houses and partying and running around,” said the man with Asperger syndrome, who is eyeing a career as a professor or research scientist. “I went to a more studious dorm.”
Inside the classroom, faculty members see a spectrum of students and behavior. Rinaldi said he’s not prone to any outbursts, but does find it hard to speak up in class.
“Usually I try to lay low,” he said.
Read more at Programs help autistic students succeed in college.