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Hometown News: Students Find Help, Hope


By Jennifer Nessmith, Hometown News, Staff writer
Original article appears in Hometown News

Program Helps Those with Asperger's Syndrome

The word "autism" probably sparks a negative connotation in most people's minds, due in part to limited, and often atypical, portrayals in television and movies.

Until about 10 years ago, little was discussed about the disease, and many people were largely misdiagnosed. In fact, Asperger's syndrome, often described as a "mild form of autism," didn't appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV until 1994.

But autism has many faces, and thanks to Brevard County's branch of the College Internship Program, a post-secondary program for young adults with Asperger's syndrome and other learning differences, the new image is one of success, prosperity and achievement.

Asperger's syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder with classic diagnostic features, including impaired social interaction, unusual communication or language patterns, and repetitive and restricted interests, said Dr. Debra Sloane, staff psychologist and clinical coordinator for the College Internship Program, Brevard Center.

"(Those with Asperger's syndrome have a) tendency toward obsessive compulsive traits or an unusual preoccupation with certain topics, or a narrow comfort (level), so they restrict their behaviors to maintain a safe comfort zone," she said. "Another key problem is not picking up on social cues and not adjusting to social norms."

This syndrome also manifests through limited self-awareness and awareness of others, Dr. Sloane said.

"(And) while all of that sounds like similar challenges in the people who have autism, we always say if you've met a person with autism, you've only met one person with autism," she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of autism is 1 in 150.

Dr. Sloane, who received her bachelor's degree in psychology from University of Florida and her master's of science and doctorate in clinical psychology from Florida Institute of Technology, has a unique perspective in regard to autism. Her youngest son has an autism spectrum disorder as well as mild cerebral palsy.

"That's why I got into this sub-specialty in psychology," Dr. Sloane said. "I had a hard time getting my son diagnosed."

The program is founded

Dr. Michael McManmon, a licensed psychologist who was also diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, founded the College Internship Program in 1984 in Berkshire, Mass.

When he was looking for a spot to set up a second CIP location, a staff member with family in the area suggested Brevard County. After a visit to the Space Coast, Dr. McManmon fell in love with the area, in large part due to the access and convenience of apartment and office buildings across the street from BCC's Melbourne campus.

Eventually, when Dr. Manmon decided to open a third location in the Mid-west, his Asperger's syndrome creeped through in the decision to find a location that would continue the B-themed precedent.

Part of that fits with the obsessive-compulsive traits commonly associated with Asperger's syndrome, Dr. Sloane said.

There are now four CIPs nationwide, located in Brevard, Berkshire, Mass., Bloomington, Ind., and Berkeley, Calif.

CIP is a year-round residential program, which focuses on social, academic, career and life skills interventions. Besides the in-house curriculum specifically for Asperger's and learning differences students, academic services include tutorials, counseling, an academic liaison, study halls and study groups for those students on a college track.

Also included is career counseling, employment skills instruction, job coaching, internship/job support groups, social mentoring, social thinking and a social transition group for students transitioning to a college dorm or job. Residentially, students receive life skills support such as one-on-one cooking and cleaning instruction, food shopping and menu planning.

The criteria for admission include a documented diagnosis of a learning difference, Asperger's syndrome, high-functioning autism, and/or non-verbal learning disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or dyslexia; emotional, behavioral and psychological stability; a high level of motivation to meet program goals; and the potential to live and attend college or a vocational program independently. The typical age range for those in the program is 18 to 25 years old.

"The statistics are grim for those as far as functioning in the workplace, living independently and in maintaining relationships," Dr. Sloane said. "We're trying very hard to change that by promoting job skills, social skills and independence training. We provide as much or as little coaching support as needed."

Success stories blossom

David Kates, 24, has been enrolled in the program for five years. After receiving counseling for years for other issues, he was correctly diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome about 10 years ago. He moved from Houston to participate in the College Internship Program.

"Originally, my parents presented (the idea) to me," Mr. Kates said. "They've been really active in helping me since my diagnosis.

"They technically gave me a choice, but not exactly. They pushed me through the application process," he said with a chuckle.

Mr. Kates said that in addition to helping him successfully complete his associate's degree at Brevard Community College, the program has given him the opportunity to get a lot of extra practice on his social skills.

"I have always been pretty introverted," he said. "I still am, but I have (a) come a little out of my shell since coming to the program. We're required to participate in two social activities each weekend. For a while, I was helping plan those weekends."

Since entering the program, Mr. Kates has been active in CIP's student government association, of which he is now president. He also participates in several community presentations facilitated by CIP. His enrollment in the program gave him the confidence to succeed.

"I didn't have nearly the self-esteem that I do now, especially a few years before entering the program, because it was almost impossible for me to make and keep friends," he said.

Mr. Kates is now working toward an A+ certification, a generalized certification for computer repair, which he hopes to complete by the end of this fall.

Chris Kennedy, 25, entered the CIP at about age 22. At age 16, he was diagnosed with non-verbal learning disability, which is similar to Asperger's syndrome in regard to some degree of social impairment, and reading facial and body language cues. With NLD, there is a discrepancy between verbal IQ and performance IQ. The disability is also characterized by visual-spatial and visual-motor problems, such as difficulty in putting together puzzles and following visual/pictorial patterns; however, those with non-verbal learning disability usually have very strong language skills.

Mr. Kennedy said the program saved him from a grim, unsuccessful path.

"I was pretty much self-destructing, living in California, trying to work and go to school (at San Diego Mesa Community College)," he said. "I was on academic probation, on the verge of flunking out. I really had no social life, was living with my grandparents for a while. There was a time when I moved out on my own where I wouldn't talk to anyone outside of work for weeks at a time."

After his aunt learned about the College Internship Program, Mr. Kennedy's parents urged him to enroll.

"It was pretty much what my parents had been looking for since my diagnosis at 16," he said.

Since his participation in the program, Mr. Kennedy has been enormously successful in his academic career. A recent graduate of Brevard Community College, he now attends University of Central Florida in Orlando and is the first student at Brevard's CIP to move outside of the Brevard area to live in off-campus housing across the street from the university. He's pursuing a degree in clinical psychology, which he hopes to complete by the spring semester of 2010. In fact, right now, he's looking into potential graduate schools.

He said the program has been invaluable in helping him succeed in his academic endeavors.

"(CIP) provided a lot of support, helped me with personal management and becoming more financially responsible," he said. "Before, I was eating out all the time, buying a lot of books. Also, the social leadership aspect has really helped."

Autism speaks

Mr. Kates said he hopes that by speaking out about his own experiences and personal achievements, he can dispel some of the negative stereotypes associated with autism and Asperger's syndrome.

"Most people hear 'autism' and think of the most extreme cases," he said. "I'm really working on preparing for life after the program. (The staff at CIP) is really working on getting me to succeed because I want to succeed."

There are 20-25 students enrolled in the Brevard County branch, and the typical length of participation is two to four years. The program has been active in Brevard for about five years. CIP is tuition-based, but is open to practically anyone from anywhere. Most students enrolled in the Brevard County-based branch are from out-of-state, but students are accepted nationwide, and some students are from foreign countries.

For more information about the College Internship Program at the Brevard Center, call admissions coordinator Rose Dougherty at (321) 259-1900, Ext. 11 or visit www.collegeinternshipprogram.com.