The Future Factor: The Influence of Spectrum Disorder Students in America’s Colleges

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Experts evaluate how more inclusive programs can not only improve conditions for students with autism spectrum disorders, but change prevailing perspectives on what it means to have autism in America 

“These are folks that are to wanting to go on to have a degree,” said Sheila Wagner, assistant director of the Emory Autism Center in Atlanta, “their strengths have been identified and the potential has been recognized.”

Wagner, also the program coordinator of Emory University’s MONARCH School-Age Program, believes that it’s difficult to estimate an accurate number of the students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in United States colleges, because such tallies require students to “self-identify” as individuals with ASDs. The term “autism,” she said, still comes with a lot of baggage for many young people.

“When we think of the term ‘autism,’ most people think of the more severe forms,” she said. “But the autism spectrum is an extremely broad category.”

Wagner said that the national trend towards inclusion in higher education settings for students with ASDs began in 1994, when Asperger syndrome was added as a spectrum disorder to the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). The update brought awareness to individuals at the upper end of the spectrum, she said, alerting people that ASDs weren’t just relegated to the most severe forms of autism. This awareness, Wagner said, “has changed the whole viewpoint of the autism spectrum.”

“Not everyone acts in the same way, and that doesn’t mean that they cannot make it as contributing members of campus and society,” said Jane Thierfeld Brown, director of Student Services at the University of Connecticut School of Law.

Like Wagner, Brown believes that many students with ASDs don’t want their parents to inform their colleges and universities of their disorders. She said she hears weekly incidents of students having difficulties on campus, while the disability office never knew that the individual required accommodations.

“There is some research that tells us that only about a third of students on the spectrum are actually identified by disability services offices,” she said.

Brown believes that getting students, staff and faculty familiar with young people with ASDs is vital in improving the overall quality of collegiate experiences for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. She said that orientation staff, such as student leaders that help out incoming young people, should have training in working with students with ASDs. Proper faculty training, she said, is also crucial in insuring that young people with autism spectrum disorders make the successful leap from high school to college.

“The best thing the family can do is to insure that the student is able to communicate their needs to the service providers of the college,” Brown said. “In essence, these are young adults now. They are no longer children and they are going to college, and like any other student that would go to college, they have to be treated like any other student.” 

Wagner said that students with ASDs are coming out of more inclusive school programs than ever before. “Colleges are now recognizing students that have these disorders and are starting to understand that they need to provide some services for them through the disability services department,” she said.

She believes that as the number of students with ASDs attending places of higher education increase, more and more colleges and universities are going to be placing a greater emphasis on disabilities training and understanding the “wide diversity” of autism spectrum disorders. “We’re certainly not where we need to be,” Wagner said, although she does believe that “we’re seeing more teachers coming out with a better knowledge” of the academic needs of students with ASDs.

Wagner believes that while the upper end of the spectrum has become more recognized and understood, there are still many young people not recognized as having spectrum disorders because they exhibit behaviors of “lesser intensity.” General viewpoints about ASDs, however, seemed to have progressed beyond most people thinking simply of autism, she said.

“The cognitive level can go all the way up to genius,” Wagner said. With the “back end” of the spectrum included, she said there are certainly going to be more students with ASDs that attend college, obtain graduate degrees and begin careers.

“These are folks that have been out there, they’ve been in our society all along,” she said. “It’s just that they haven’t been recognized as part of the autism world.”

“The numbers have gotten much bigger,” Brown said. Brown said she has noticed a marked increase in the number of college students with ASDs over the last 10 years. She believes colleges have improved drastically in the past decade, with staff receiving more training in order to meet the needs of students with autism spectrum disorders. She also believes that many more students with ASDs are “self-advocating,” as programs catering to the needs of college attendees with autism spectrum disorders are growing across the country every semester.

“Fifty years ago, everyone thought that a student with a learning disability couldn’t go to college,” she said. Brown remembers having arguments with the dean of a nursing school, who was convinced that individuals with learning disabilities couldn’t possibly succeed in the programs. The incident occurred, she said “only about 30 years ago.”

To Brown, the increase in students with autism spectrum disorders in colleges and universities indicates “a change of culture on campus” that represents the further diversification of American society. In another five to 10 years, she believes that another new group of young people will come along that likewise changes the way colleges, and in many ways, American culture as a whole, views its young people.

“There are many people with disabilities, and a lot of these students are not only capable, but they’re overqualified to come to college,” she said. “We need to find an appropriate environment for them to learn.”

Although Brown said she wasn’t quite sure what changes might transpire for students on the autism spectrum over the next few years, she senses that the overall impact on both higher education and American society will be for the better.

“The more people understand and become aware at colleges, the more our students are comfortable in broader society,” she said. “In my mind, we’re changing higher education because people are starting to see how much students on the spectrum can add to the academic environment and to the campus climate and culture in general.”