Tailors a Program for Autistic Students
by Jennifer Bundy, Associated Press, May 2, 2004
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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Andrew Reinhardt is an 18-year-old college
freshman who aspires to study math and physics at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, yet his mother is afraid
to let him cross a busy street by himself.
Her fear is justified. Although Reinhardt is academically ready
for college - he scored a 27 on the ACT and had a combined SAT
score of 1140 - Asperger's Syndrome makes it difficult for him
to cope with daily life.
He doesn't like
crowded rooms. When he goes somewhere, he is single-minded,
walking quickly with his head down, body leaning forward as if
into a strong wind. He sometimes pays no attention to what's
going on around him, heightening his mother's fear of him
At Marshall University, Reinhardt has trouble taking tests in a
classroom because he is irrepressibly distracted by lawnmowers
outside and students who may finish before he does. He misplaces
things like books and pencils - he can go through dozens of
pencils in a semester. And he avoids working on projects with
other students because he thinks that they hold him back and do
He is able to attend college with the help of a program at
Marshall's Autism Training Center, which works with autism
spectrum disorders like Asperger's, a neurobiological condition
characterized by normal intelligence and language development
with deficiencies in social and communication skills.
Although many colleges have counselors and staff familiar with
autism, only Marshall has a program tailored for autistic
students. The program serves three of the university's 16,360
students and may eventually accommodate 10.
It will remain small by choice. The goal is not for all students
with autism to attend Marshall, but for the program to become a
model for other colleges, said Barbara Becker-Cottrill, the
"The true goal is for students to have the ability to attend the
university of their choice. Our work will be working with other
universities on how to establish a program such as this on their
It is not special education. Students must meet and maintain the
university's academic standards, and they're required to pay,
like everyone else, tuition of $1,630 for in-state residents and
$4,472 for those living outside West Virginia.
Reinhardt's goal is to develop an engine that operates faster
than the speed of light.
"I want to be the next Albert Einstein," he said with an
"I come up with all these physics ideas all the time. I know
they don't work because I don't have the education behind them.
I haven't taken the calculus-based physics yet."
He has wanted to go to college since he was in elementary
school. But, as he relaxed in the center's lounge, he said: "I
probably wouldn't go to college at a place that didn't have a
place like this."
The center offers tutoring, counseling, a quiet space to take
exams, and help navigating the bureaucracy and social world of
college: how to schedule classes, join clubs, buy books and
replace ATM cards that don't work.
As proof of the center's success, Reinhardt made the Dean's List
with a 3.6 GPA after his first semester. He has been hired as a
math tutor this spring.
There's no way to measure how many college students have forms
Many go undiagnosed or are simply perceived as "a little bit
strange," said Lars Perner, an assistant professor of marketing
at San Diego State University who has Asperger's Syndrome.
And no one knows how many people in the general population have
autism. Some studies suggest that it might affect at least 40
per 10,000 U.S. children.
That's 10 times higher than estimates a decade ago, which many
scientists think reflects better diagnosis. The exact cause is
unknown, although both genetics and environmental factors are
suspected of playing a role.
"Some of these students might be able to get into college
because of fairly strong academic credentials and a reasonable
academic showing. That may not mean they will be able to stay in
college," Perner, author of a guide to selecting a college, said
in a recent issue of the bimonthly Asperger's Digest.
Autistic students often drop out or do not attempt college
because they have difficulty with bureaucracy, time management,
and taking notes, tests and required classes not in their area
of expertise, Perner said.
Stephen Shore, who is finishing his doctoral degree in special
education at Boston University and has been diagnosed with
"atypical development with strong autistic tendencies," said
more programs like Marshall's were needed.
"I think they would do much better; there would be a much higher
rate of success if this type of program were available," said
As researchers learn more about autism and public school
services for autism improve, more autistic students are
graduating from high school academically prepared for college,
said Kim Ramsey, the Marshall program's director. "The problem
is, social and daily living issues are interfering."
The Marshall program was founded two years ago with a $75,000
donation from the family of its first student, Lowell Austin,
now a 19-year-old sophomore.
The family wanted to honor Austin's uncle, Howard Austin, who
spent his career trying to develop cognitive skills in machines.
Howard Austin, who died in April 2001, was fascinated that his
nephew could have both extremes of human intelligence.
The program has been a lifeline for Lowell Austin, who is
majoring in sports marketing, participates in clubs and lives in
a dorm, without a roommate.
"I have seen such a growth in him, his confidence, his ability
to face a situation, ... his conversational skills," said his
aunt, Ellen Austin Friend, of Athens.
Note: Dowling College and New York Institute of Technology
VIP (on LI, NY) also have college programs with special
attention to the needs of our children.
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