Originally published in the Orlando Sentinel
September 12, 2009
By Linda Shrieves
Most parents dream of sending their kids off to college someday. But for parents of children with autism, even high-achieving kids with Asperger's syndrome, college often seems like the impossible dream.
Dave and Kim Kennedy thought they would have to support their son, Chris, for the rest of his life. Diagnosed with a form of autism in high school, Chris fought bouts of depression. Though academically he was a high achiever, he didn't like to talk to others, preferring to hide in books rather than socialize.
Now 25, Chris is finishing his undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Central Florida and is headed for graduate school. He's well-spoken, polite and funny.
And his parents credit the College Internship Program in Melbourne, one of four campuses across the nation that help students with autism spectrum disorders, or ASDs, prepare for college — and for life.
Students — most of them high-functioning and with disorders such as Asperger's and some other forms of autism — live in two-bedroom apartments and attend classes at nearby Brevard Community College. They also take classes at the program in social skills, organizing their time and schedules, while learning how to fit into society.
Getting Support to Succeed
The program was created eight years ago by psychologist Michael McManmon, after he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. After a career spent running group homes for learning-disabled students and emotionally disturbed students, he changed his focus.
"I thought, 'What would someone with Asperger's who's going to college need to be able to function in life?'" said McManmon. "That's why we came up with our comprehensive curriculum."
Now College Internship Program — with campuses in Massachusetts, Indiana, California and Melbourne — is among a handful of places where young people with Asperger's can attend college while getting the support they need to help them succeed. Another, called the College Living Experience, has five locations around the country, including a program in Fort Lauderdale.
The 14 students currently enrolled in Melbourne hail from around the country — Texas, South Dakota and Washington state. The program, like autism itself, is disproportionately male. Of the 14 students in the program, 13 are boys.
"Typically, when a student comes in, they've gone to college somewhere else and failed," said Joan Williamson, director of CIP's Brevard campus. So they start off slowly, taking one or two classes at Brevard Community College while taking a variety of classes inside CIP.
Every day, for instance, students attend an 8 a.m. class to mentally prep them for the day ahead. Twice a week, they meet with academic advisers to discuss upcoming projects, homework, tests and how to manage their time.
And, because those with Asperger's syndrome are often socially handicapped, the staff spends months teaching them how to navigate social situations — how to look at someone when speaking to them, conduct a conversation and pick up physical and verbal cues. They take field trips to restaurants where they practice talking to waitresses.
They learn life skills as well, including how to balance a checkbook, cook and clean for themselves and do laundry. And although social mixers might be a part of typical college life, it's new to most of these students. So their advisers set up a "grill and chill" happy hour every Friday afternoon, where the students cook dinner and learn to mingle.
For a group more comfortable playing video games and avoiding eye contact, happy hour is hard work.
"Most of our students will never be social butterflies," said psychologist Debra Sloane. "But they'll be able to say good morning when they see their colleagues at work."
Intensive, Expensive Counseling
This intensive residential-counseling program isn't cheap. Depending on how much help a student needs, it ranges from $30,000 to $40,000 a year. Some scholarship money is available, but many parents say it's an expense they pay willingly.
"My son is getting his inheritance now," joked Kim Graham of Daytona Beach, whose 18-year-old son Matthew joined the program this summer.
Originally diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, Matthew did well academically in elementary school, but his behavior and outbursts became a problem. As he grew older, it became more apparent that Matthew was different. Kids picked up on it — and began picking on him. After he was beaten up in a bathroom in sixth grade, his parents began home-schooling him.
Two years ago, a neurologist diagnosed Matthew with Asperger's, and the pieces of the puzzle began to make sense to Graham.
The Grahams were sold on CIP after attending an open house and meeting the president and vice president of the small Student Council. "You could tell these kids had the same difficulty my son had growing up," she said. "But they seemed very well adjusted. They were very happy there."
Some of the students, she said, didn't want to go home — even on school breaks.
And for a kid like Matthew, who has always struggled to make friends, that's an answer to prayers, said Graham.
"Finally," she said, "he is not the odd man out."