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Autism, learning disabilities services grow on college campuses

Autism and learning disabilities no longer prevent students from attending college as schools offer more accommodations and private organizations provide additional support; however, cost of services still represent a barrier for many students.

By Justin PopeAssociated Press / September 16, 2013

Autism and learning disabilities are becoming more common on college campuses, prompting growth in university and private services. Callie Boik, College Supports Program Cordinator, left, sits with Tony Saylor, 22, in a classroom at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich., Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

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Allen Park, Mich.

As he sits in class at Eastern Michigan University, a flood of images streams from Tony Saylor's vibrant, creative mind down through his pen and onto paper.

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Often, his doodling features the 9-year-old character Viper Girl who battles monsters with her pet fox Logan. Saylor, 22, has even self-published three books of their adventures.

Saylor's professors didn't exactly welcome his constant drawing, but once he explained it was the only way he could hope to process their lectures – and even to stay awake – most let him continue.

For college students with autism and other learning disabilities, this is the kind of balancing act that takes place every day – accommodating a disability while also pushing beyond it toward normalcy and a degree, which is increasingly essential for finding a meaningful career.

But Saylor and a growing number like him are giving it a shot. Students who would once have languished at home, or in menial jobs, or struggled unsuccessfully in college, are finding a new range of options for support services to help.

"I knew I didn't want to work in the fast food industry my whole life," Saylor said, sitting at the kitchen table of his family's home in this Detroit suburb, where he lives while commuting to EMU. His mother, Angela Saylor, says a 3-year-old program at EMU that supports autistic students – a graduate student who works with the program attends all his classes with him – has been a godsend.

Such programs within traditional universities, offering supplemental support for additional tuition, are sprouting up around the country (Nova Southeastern University in Florida is among the schools starting one this fall). "The K&W Guide to College Programs for Students With Learning Disabilities or AD/HD" has grown steadily since its precursor was first published in 1991, and now lists 362 programs, the majority of them now comprehensive services.

Meanwhile, other parts of the landscape are also expanding. College disability service offices (whose help is usually free) are also improving. Care centers, often for-profit and unaffiliated with colleges, are popping up near campuses and offering supplementary support. Finally, institutions with a history of serving large numbers of students with learning disabilities are growing, some adding 4-year degrees.

"This is the best time ever for students who learn differently to go to college," said Brent Betit, a co-founder of Landmark College in Vermont, which opened in 1985 with a then-unique focus on such students and now has a range of competitors. Among those Betit mentioned: programs within the University of Arizona and Lynn University in Florida, plus Beacon College, also in Florida, which like Landmark has a comprehensive focus on students with disabilities.

"There are better programs available than at any time in history," Betit said. "I think that's in part because of the entrepreneurial nature of the United States. When there's a need out there, and a business market available, people respond."

But the new players also bring new challenges. Families who would once have struggled to find options struggle to choose among them. Some experts, meanwhile, are concerned about the growth of for-profit providers, sometimes charging $50,000 or more. There are also concerns some enrollment-hungry colleges themselves are starting these high-priced services to attract students with disabilities, but lack the expertise or financial commitment to offer what they truly need.

That's what happened to Saylor, who spent two miserable years at a design and technology-focused school in Flint before learning about EMU's new program from his sister, a student there.

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