When Kerry Magro was growing up, he didn’t always pick up on his classmates’ jokes or use of sarcasm.
Magro was diagnosed with autism at the age of four, and like many people on the autistic spectrum, he had difficulty in certain social situations. “It’s always been a challenge fitting in,” he said, “I never really knew how to react.”
Magro was told he probably wouldn’t graduate from high school or college. Yet in May 2011, he graduated from Seton Hall University and is now working on his Masters in Strategic Communications at the University.
Matthew MacPherson, a senior at Indiana State University, told a similar story. He was diagnosed with autism in kindergarten and didn’t speak until he was five.
“I wasn’t supposed to go to high school, or graduate, or go to college,” he said.
MacPherson is now working on a degree in recreation and sports management.
When Magro first arrived at Seton Hall, he found himself struggling with all the free-time.
“In high school, everything is structured for you,” he said, “But in college, everything is scrambled.”
Jane Thierfeld Brown, the co-director of Higher Education and Autism Spectrum Disorders, Inc at College Autism Spectrum said that time-management doesn’t come easy to most autistic college students.
“We have to help those students impose a structure on themselves,” she said.
There are currently programs in place at colleges and universities across the country to help autistic students adjust to both the academic and social spheres at college.
Autistic students at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, can participate in the Drexel Autism Support program.
Peer mentors are trained to help autistic students navigate what program director Dr. Felicia Hurewitz calls the “hidden curriculum,” the rules of conduct in various situations. Students on the autistic spectrum, she said, can have difficulty sensing how flexible a professor is with deadlines.
Peer mentors “translate the hidden curriculum,” Hurewitz said.
The program has 30 trained peer mentors who have worked with 20 autistic students over the past year.
Eveyn Hinkle, a junior at Drexel, meets weekly with two students on the autistic spectrum. They work out detailed academic schedules for the week and help the students adjust to being away from home for the first time.
“Learning to adjust to that is a challenge,” she said, “it’s nice to be able to help out.”
While some colleges and universities offer special programs to help autistic students navigate social situations, all schools are required to give academic support to students with learning disabilities.
Magro registered with Seton Hall’s disability services office when he first arrived on campus, something he recommends all college students with autism do.
“[Disability services] is there to give you the best accommodations possible,” he said.
Magro was given extended time and a single room for exams. He could use a laptop and a tape recorder in class, and have someone take notes for him.
Brown said that while academic support is in place for autistic students, there’s still a long way to go.
“Just going to college isn’t enough,” she said, “We have to get people employed.”
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