In many ways, Mark Heim is a typical senior at Colorado State University. He has the kind of smart humor you'd expect from someone who excels in computer science, engineering and math; his T-shirt reads, "Department of Redundancy Department."
But as a student living with Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, the everyday social interactions of college life can be awkward. Heim is part of a new influx of kids with autism who are heading off to college, creating a new demand for college services to help students with autism fit in, graduate and find jobs.
Colorado State is one of a handful of schools that have adopted programs to help ease autistic students' transitions in and out of college. For Heim, that means meeting with his peer mentor, Jayne Mohar, to practice the very social interactions that can be so challenging for someone with autism — things like working in groups.
"With Asperger's, it's harder to negotiate the terms of what each person will do and what each person is expected to do," Heim says.
Opportunities for Postsecondary Success, Colorado State's program for autistic students, was launched earlier this year in reaction to an increase in the number of students with autism and Asperger's who were floundering in class or unable to understand appropriate social behavior.
"Some people really struggle with a roommate situation if they're living in a dorm," says Cathy Schelly, director of the program.
Jane Thierfeld Brown, who started a program for students with autism and Asperger's at the University of Connecticut, says she likes to talk about it as "an inability to hang out."
"Now that the numbers have started exploding within the colleges, people are saying this has to be the big end of the numbers," Thierfeld Brown says.
In fact, colleges are likely to see even more kids with autism in the coming years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism diagnoses have gone from an average of one in every 2,000 children before 1990 to one in every 110 in 2006.
Thierfeld Brown says a key part of working with that increasing population is developing kids' interests. She points to one example in Tennessee of a student who thrived as a water boy for his high school hockey team.
"They never had someone charting intake of fluids before," Thierfeld Brown says, "but it made him a part of this very popular hockey team at this high school."
The so-called "water management consultant" was a success story, she says, because he turned a difference into a strength, and turning a difference into a strength gets students closer to that ultimate goal of finding a job, says Boston University Disability Services Director Lorraine Wolf. Wolf and Thierfeld Brown both have autistic children and together started the website College Autism Spectrum to help counsel other parents and universities.
"We want our college students to work while they're in college," Wolf says, "to have a work-study position so that when they graduate they have those soft skills that are really what employers are looking for."
Back at Colorado State University, student Mark Heim is preparing for a job interview at a software company. He and his peer mentor practice introductions, shaking hands and answering questions.
Heim says he hopes his prospective employer will see beyond his diagnosis to all of the things he has to offer: a passion for computer science, math and engineering; a clever sense of humor; and, now, a really firm handshake.
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