Coping with autism at college



NSU's program for students with autism spectrum disorder provides services to academically capable students to support their academic achievement, to live independently, and to participate fully in campus life.

For more information, contact, Susan Kabot, executive director of the Autism Institute at the university's Mailman Segal Center, at 954-262-7129, or

Special to the Miami Herald

From the list of David Taylor’s accomplishments, most people would consider him a success.

A junior majoring in music engineering at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, Taylor is a Stamps Distinguished Ensemble Scholar, which comes with a full scholarship and a coveted seat on a chamber music quintet. Graduating from American Heritage School with a 4.7 GPA, David also received an academic scholarship.

Taylor’s achievements are even more remarkable considering he was diagnosed with high-functioning autism as a child.

Yet, Taylor, 20, says he is struggling. Difficulties making friends, staying organized and approaching professors and peers have affected his academic performance and placed his academic scholarship at risk.

“For me, it’s been quite honestly a tough transitionit may have taken a bit more time than it’s taken other students to fully get acclimated at the school,” he says. “It’s been tough not letting one set of issues lead to another.”

If he could begin his freshman year over, Taylor says he would access services and accommodations available to students with learning differences. Taylor is part of a growing population of students with autism who have the grades and intellectual capability to secure acceptance into a university, but lack the social and problem-solving skills to transition to college life.

And while colleges and universities offers accommodations like extra time on tests and tutoring for students with documented learning and physical disabilities, very few offer specific programs tailored to students with autism.

“What we find is that many students need more support than the accommodations they may be entitled to at a typical university, as mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act,” says Diane Adreon, associate director of the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD).

More than 20 colleges and universities offer programs specifically geared toward students on the autism spectrum, according to Jane Thierfeld Brown, Ph.D, co-founder of College Autism Spectrum, an organization that provides support and training for students, parents and professionals. Brown, director of student services at the University of Connecticut School of Law, is co-author of The Parent’s Guide to College for Students on the Autism Spectrum.

This year, Nova is joining that short list with the launch of Access Plus, a pilot program to provide extensive support services for students diagnosed with autism.

“Being smart is not enough,” says Susan Kabot, executive director of the Autism Institute at the university’s Mailman Segal Center. “There are many smart people with autism who struggle with social issues and job issues.”

The main components of the program include a peer mentor, a two-hour monitored study hall, on-campus housing and weekly group counseling to address such topics as organizing your course work over a semester, joining a campus club and communicating effectively with professors and classmates. A key piece of the program is the peer, a graduate student in education or psychology who will provide about 10 hours of support per week, including helping the student develop a routine, keep a check list and make sure they are taking their medication.

Students would “graduate” from the program, becoming independent students. The cost, $8,000 per semester, reflects the level of services and training, which cover every area of the students’ lives, Kabot says.

This summer, Nova will complete a campuswide autism training program for faculty and staff from shuttle bus drivers and faculty to cafeteria workers.

Kabot says many people only think of those with autism as children. “They don’t understand that people with autism grow up. They thought it went away or disappeared. They had no picture that you could be an adult, and a competent adult particularly, and have autism,” Kabot says.

“Here at the CARD Center we tend to get phone calls when things aren’t going so well,” Adreon said. “Although most students have difficulty adjusting to the changing demands, our population isn’t necessarily as resilient when they miss a deadline or miss a class. It’s very common with students with autism spectrum disorders to become very anxious,’’ she said.

Mistakes feel like catastrophes, she says, and the student may be too embarrassed to attend the next class. Disagreements with roommates can become complex exercises in conflict resolution.

For students, including those with autism, who need an additional layer of support, UM developed the Independent Learning Initiative, now in its second year, says Mykel Mangrum Billups Ph.D., assistant dean, Academic Support Services, who created the program. Billups says the program’s goal is to foster independence.

“This program is geared for students who for some reason or another, disability or not, were previously dependent on a group or team of people in high school for their success — whether that be a tutor, a counselor, a parent, a guidance counselor or a group of teachers who are collaborating on how to work with the student,” Billups says.

The program tailors the support to the student’s needs, and includes help with time management, study skills, maintaining a schedule and faculty and peer communication.

While the program was not designed specifically for students on the autism spectrum, Billups says, “We were very aware that we were seeing more students with Asperger’s on campus and there was going to be that need…” as well as more students with psychological disorders, learning disabilities and attention problems.

The program, which costs $1,730 per semester, the cost of one college credit, will accept 30 students for the fall semester.

Many parents have a misconception that college life will include an extension of high school accommodations and processes, said Paul Hanson, Resource Adviser and Learning Disability Specialist at Miami-Dade College.

“Some parents think you’re going to have an IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting every year, and it’s just not going to happen,” Hanson says. Parents should be realistic about their child’s symptoms, he says.

“The student has to be able to stay in a classroom, control their behavior and emotions, and try to fit in.”

While Miami-Dade is not a therapeutic setting, Hanson says he and other advisors help students with autism and their professors resolve a variety of problems.

He says he once got a call from a department chair about a brilliant student, who was constantly correcting the professor and other students in class. Hanson says he employed role play and other strategies with this student and others, with good results.

Taylor says he has trouble starting conversations, and was reluctant to ask for help from professors and others, because of concerns about reactions to his diagnosis. Now, he is enrolled in UM’s Independent Learning Initiative. He says he hopes that talking about his experience will help other students and parents, and advises them to seek support.

“David doesn’t realize how far he’s come,” says his mother Pauline Taylor, who left her career as a pharmacist when he was diagnosed, to manage his care and education full time. She says she feels blessed that at each stage of his development the right teachers and professionals have appeared, starting with the doctor who diagnosed David at age 3, and suggested classical music to calm him.

“I know it’s very hard for him, and I sometimes wonder if I made the right decision,” she says. “As parents you want to protect them, but at the same time you know when they reach a certain age, you have to let them go no matter how hard you know it will be.”

Taylor says he is hoping for the best.

“I’m usually an optimistic person, but it’s been hard to stay that way,” he says. “I’m trying to persevere, and see that there are better days ahead.”

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