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.
(Page 2 of 3)
"We were led to believe there was more support than there was" at the previous institution, said his mother, who found herself having to constantly help Tony from afar. Tony says simply: "It was horrible."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"There's really no standards" for such on-campus programs, said Jane Thierfeld Brown, a longtime educator in the field and author of three books, including a college guide for autism spectrum students. Some "are just seeing dollar signs."
Another problem: These highly personalized services are expensive. Unlike in K-12, there's no legal right to a free college education for disabled students. So far, the expanded options mostly benefit those who can afford to pay out of pocket.
A study last year in the journal Pediatrics found about one-third of young people with autism spectrum disorders attended college in the first six years after high school, and the numbers are certainly growing. About one in 88 children is diagnosed with a disability on the autism spectrum, according to the advocacy group Autism Speaks. More broadly, federal data show more than 700,000 US undergraduates with some kind of disability, including cognitive and physical impairments, on college campuses (about 31 percent with specific learning disabilities and 18 percent with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
Virtually all colleges now enroll at least some students with learning disabilities – 56 percent have students with autism spectrum disorder and 79 percent with diagnosed ADHD.
But the transition from high school can be rough. Federal law requires K-12 schools to provide customized support that will help students succeed. College students enjoy a vaguer right to "reasonable accommodations" that requires less of institutions. And college students have to ask for their help — a challenge for many because poor self-advocacy skills are part of their condition.
As success stories, schools point to students like Katie Fernandez, who struggled desperately through high school in Connecticut with what was eventually diagnosed as an information processing disorder.
"I studied and studied and nothing was happening," she describes it.
Still, Fernandez cried when she first visited Dean College outside Boston, a school where the president estimates close to half of students arrive with either a diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disorder.
"I said, 'I'm not coming here, I'm not going to be labeled one of those special ed kids,'" Fernandez said.
But she did come, and after one semester felt at home. The prevalence of students facing similar challenges made for an accepting atmosphere. A supplementary academic coaching program helped, and while the coursework was all college-level, many classes were taught in small settings tailored to students' particular challenges.
The professors were also used to working with such students, and were familiar with the new technologies that are starting to transform teaching students with cognitive impairments (for Fernandez, one of the simpler ones was among the most helpful: a "pulse pen" that records audio as you write and lets students later sync their written notes and the teacher's accompanying words when they review).
In 2012, her senior year, Fernandez was retested. She was stunned by the results, and a little scared: She no longer showed a learning disability. That meant no more extended time on tests, which left her fearful for her upcoming GRE exams. But she was accepted into a graduate program in higher education administration and is now pursuing an advanced degree.
"I basically learned how to compensate for my weaknesses and my learning differences, which was the goal all along," she said.
Dean says about 75 percent of its associate's degree students persist to a degree at Dean or after transferring; the rate is slightly lower for bachelor's students. Landmark says roughly 80 percent persist to graduation there or elsewhere. Such figures are better than the national averages for all students. Experts say students with disabilities often take substantially longer than the traditional 4-year target, but they are remarkably persistent.
Still, there are no illusions the work is easy or success guaranteed. "College is not for everyone," says Dean's president, Paula Rooney. She recounts difficult conversations with parents up front about what's achievable. Still, she says, Dean is full of students on whom the system would once have given up.
Jim Meinen, a management consultant from North Oaks, Minn., whose 20-year-old son Will has struggled with ADHD since elementary school and now attends Landmark, says the family was "passionate about getting him a higher education."