Monday, April 30, 2012

Going to College With Autism Aging out of supports, kids on the spectrum struggle

Vassar junior Zoe Gross knows her strengths and weaknesses all too well. So while she gets good grades, the 21-year-old is aware that she does things more slowly than most people, including getting dressed in the morning, transitioning between activities, and writing papers. It makes college an even greater challenge. "When you take into account that when I'm living on my own it is difficult for me just to keep myself washed, fed and in clean clothes," she says, "it means that I can't do the schoolwork as fast as the professors can assign it."
Gross is on the autism spectrum, and her struggles with life skills and executive function—the mental processes that involve things like planning, time management and multitasking—leave her feeling depressed and anxious. "I get sick a lot because my immune system is shot," she says. "I got strep and mono in one semester." Of course, this adds to her anxiety and trouble getting things done. "Every semester I am absolutely miserable by finals." After finally hitting a serious "rocky patch," as she puts it, Gross decided to take a break this semester.
Gross represents a wave of young people on the less affected end of the autism spectrum who are headed off to college after high school. Because these bright if socially awkward children have been doing well academically, it's a natural assumption they will do fine in college and beyond. Many parents of children with diagnoses including PDD-NOS and Asperger's do not anticipate the struggles their kids, without the family structure and the supports they were provided in school, will face.
Conventional wisdom holds that the biggest problems for those on the less severe end of the spectrum are social and communication issues. They might miss social cues and misunderstand what's expected of them. But disrupted executive function, usually associated with ADHD, is also common in people on the spectrum, says Dr. Ron J. Steingard, senior pediatric psychopharmacologist at the Child Mind Institute. "I think the burden is increased in autism," he says.
Which makes college, often the first foray into independent living, especially challenging. While Gross sees many students reveling in their freedom, she says the responsibility of staying organized and on track that goes with freedom is her most formidable obstacle. "I've talked to people who want to frame the issues I have as social because they see autism only as a social disability," she says. "But any social issues I might have at college pale in comparison."

Read more of Beth Arky's Child Mind Institute article HERE.
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