Nation & World

Along the autism spectrum, a path through campus life at WKU

Crosby Gardner learned how to operate the self-checkout machine at Wal-Mart on a shopping trip.
Crosby Gardner learned how to operate the self-checkout machine at Wal-Mart on a shopping trip. NYT

Crosby J. Gardner has never had a girlfriend. Now 20 and living for the first time in a dorm here at Western Kentucky University, he has designed a fast-track experiment to find her.

He ticks off the math. Two meals a day at the student dining hall, three courses per meal. Girls make up 57 percent of the 20,068 students. And so, he sums up, gray-blue eyes triumphant, if he sits at a table with at least four new girls for every course, he should be able to meet all 11,439 by graduation.

“I’m Crosby Gardner!” he announces each time he descends upon a fresh group, trying out the social-skills script he had practiced in the university’s autism support program. “What is your name and what is your major?”

The first generation of college students with an autism diagnosis is fanning out to campuses across the country. These growing numbers reflect the sharp rise in diagnosis rates since the 1990s, as well as the success of early-learning interventions and efforts to include these students in mainstream activities.

But while these young adults have opportunities that could not have been imagined had they been born even a decade earlier, their success in college is still a long shot. Increasingly, schools are realizing that most of these students will not graduate without comprehensive support like the Kelly Autism Program at Western Kentucky. Similar programs have been taking root at nearly 40 colleges around the country, including large public institutions like Eastern Michigan University, California State University, Long Beach, the University of Connecticut and Rutgers University in New Jersey.

For decades, universities have provided academic safety nets to students with physical disabilities and learning challenges like dyslexia. But students on the autism spectrum need a web of support that is far more nuanced and complex.

Their presence on campus can be jarring. Gardner will unloose monologues — unfiltered, gale-force and repetitive — that can set professors’ teeth on edge and lead classmates to snicker. When agitated, another student in Western Kentucky’s program calms himself by pacing, flapping his hands, then facing a corner, bumping his head four times and muttering. One young woman, lost on her way to class and not knowing how to ask for directions, had a full-blown panic attack, shaking and sobbing violently.

Autism affects the brain’s early development of social and communication skills. A diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder can encompass an array of people, from the moderately impaired and intellectually nimble like Gardner, a junior majoring in biochemistry, to adults with the cognitive ability of 4-year-olds. Until 2013, students who could meet college admission criteria would most likely have received a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, which has since been absorbed into autism spectrum disorder.

The social challenges of people on the spectrum can impede their likelihood of thriving not only in college, but also after graduation. Counselors in programs like Western Kentucky’s not only coach students who struggle to read social cues, but also serve as advocates when misreadings go terribly awry, such as not recognizing the rebuff of a sexual advance.

When a professor complains about a student who interrupts lectures with a harangue, Michelle Elkins, who directs the Western Kentucky program, will retort: “I am not excusing his behavior. I am explaining his brain function.”

Breaking the Ice

At suppertime, the dining hall at Western Kentucky’s student union is crowded, clamorous and brightly lit. Students in the Kelly program, who often have sensory hypersensitivities as well as social discomfort, usually prefer eating alone in their rooms.

But one night this fall, some gathered for a weekly dinner with peer mentors — students hired by the program to be tutors and social guides. The Kelly students tentatively approached a meeting place in the lobby. As they recognized their mentors among the milling crowd, relief flooded their faces.

The meal began awkwardly. One Kelly student buried himself in a textbook. Another gazed around the dining hall, humming.

Gradually, the mentors drew them out. How was your day? Have you tried any clubs? Jacob, a freshman from Tennessee who is in a Chinese immersion curriculum and asked that his last name not be used to protect his family’s privacy, said he had joined the French, Spanish and German clubs.

“When do you sleep?” I inquired with a smile.

A few mentors laughed appreciatively. Jacob looked puzzled. “I don’t get the humor in that question,” he said.

When the topic shifted to a social event coming up at the center — a video game party — conversational buy-in was guaranteed. Even so, as various games were suggested, the dinner table exchanges were more proclamation than conversation:

“In my opinion, Pokemon Go is a stupid idea,” Gardner shouted.

Elkins fixed him with a look. “Good you added, ‘in my opinion,' Crosby,” she said.

The autism program’s home, a matter-of-fact clinical education building at the edge of the university, is a peaceful, dimly lit haven from the churning campus. The 45 undergraduates in the program spend three hours a day here, four days a week.

They study, meeting with tutors, and confer with counselors and a psychologist to review myriad mystifying daily encounters. The counselors maintain ties with dorm supervisors, professors and the career center, mediating misunderstandings.

By 2019, the program, which started with three students a little over a decade ago, anticipates being able to admit 77 students. Like most such programs on other campuses, it charges a fee; WKU’s is $5,000 a semester, much of which may be covered by federal vocational rehabilitation funds.

In addition to shoring up academic and organizational skills, the program aims to ease students into the social flow of campus. This year, group discussions will tackle topics that include sex and dating.

Some of these students have enough self-awareness to feel the excruciating loneliness of exclusion. “One student told me, ‘I was so excited about college because I hear you don’t get bullied there, and I don’t know what that’s like,’” said Sarah McMaine-Render, the program’s manager.

Out of the Shadows

It is hard to know how many students with autism attend four-year schools. A 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics found that about 50,000 teenagers with the diagnosis turn 18 each year and 34.7 percent attend college. Without support, though, few graduate.

That is in part because many students with an autism diagnosis do not step forward, fearing stigma. Some experts speculate that for every college student on the spectrum who identifies himself or herself with a diagnosis, there may be two more who are undisclosed.

Over the last decade, officials at mainstream universities began realizing that growing numbers of spectrum students were being admitted — and were foundering.

It was one thing for administrators to authorize accommodations like extra time on tests for students with dyslexia or attention deficit disorder. But how should they bolster students whose behavior was the primary expression of the disability — who could not stop shouting out answers in class and feared dorm showers?

And so the new autism support programs vary in emphasis. Some are based in disability resource centers, while others are in mental health offices, focusing on social skills and anxiety reduction.

With support, there are also those, like Ryan Hodges, who surpass expectations.

Hodges received his diagnosis at age 4. “In high school did we know he’d go to college? No,” said his father, Jeff, a Nashville businessman. “Did we hope? Yes.”

They set their sights on WKU because of the program. Now 23, Ryan has grown immeasurably in social confidence, his father said, and is on track to graduate at the end of this semester.

The Supercenter Challenge

Always with an eye toward life after college, the program encourages students to learn practical skills.

Hence Western Kentucky’s weekly trip to Wal-Mart.

One recent Friday afternoon, McMaine-Render drove seven students in the program’s van, which resounded with cheerful non sequiturs.

“I don’t mean to be rude but could you not talk now?” one student told another. “Your voice is very loud in my head!”

McMaine-Render pulled into the parking lot and nudged the students out of the van. They ambled toward the store, blithely indifferent to incessantly roaming cars. Then she waved and drove off, leaving them to tackle the Wal-Mart Supercenter on their own.

In a frenzy, the group scattered. Some boys barreled up and down aisles, flinging items at random into their clattering shopping carts. One boy decided he wanted to reheat chicken wings in his dorm. He needed a baking tin. But that meant locating the cookware aisle. Which meant finding an employee, then asking for directions. Scary!

Checking out was another challenge. For the students’ entire lives, their purchases had been paid for by adults. Now they were peering at register totals, fumbling for credit cards, swiping and swiping, then attempting the chip system, one way and then the other, forgetting PINs. Overall, they did just fine.

They reassembled outside, sweating and smiling, surrounded by the fruits of their considerable shopping labors.

Ramey, the student mentor, picked them up.

One by one, they unloaded their bags at their dorms and, without so much as a “thank you” or even “goodbye,” set off.

“Have a good weekend!” she kept prompting.

Startled, each boy looked back at the car, bewildered. Another missed social cue?

Oh, right! Jolted, some remembered to smile, and even to wave farewell.

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