When he was a little kid, Alex used to be good at math.
But now as a college student, he’s more interested in English and history.
He’s also into politics. He said he can name the 45 U.S. presidents in order (but he occasionally stumbles around the middle).
Sometimes, the UW-Whitewater student gets tension in his muscles and flings his arms. But he said he doesn’t see many other ways being on the autism spectrum affects his campus experience.
“I’m just more weary of those things as the days go on. I’m getting better and better with adjusting to my environment,” he said. “But I’m still my same old self.”
Alex is figuring out when and to whom he wants to open up about being on the spectrum—maybe when someone asks him about getting more time on tests or another person brings up a relative on the autism spectrum.
At the same time, he’s still trying—like every other college student—to find his identity. But when he opens up about his disability, people sometimes respond by saying they never would have known.
“And in a lot of aspects, I think that’s really good,” he said. “But sometimes in some aspects, I like people that I can trust to tell them some of my issues that I’ve had in the past so they can maybe understand me better now.”
Alex is among an increasing number of students on the autism spectrum attending UW-Whitewater.
Karen Fisher, the disability services coordinator at the Center for Students with Disabilities, remembers having about five such students on her caseload when she started at the university about 15 years ago. More recently, she said, that number is about 100.
“Some of them are geniuses that we were losing prior because they didn’t fit the standard model,” she said. “And now, things are shifting so that their gifts can be seen and valued.”
‘Ahead of the curve’
Leann Smith Dawalt, a senior scientist at UW-Madison’s Waisman Center, said more students on the spectrum attending college is a result of multiple converging trends.
For one, she said, more people of all abilities are pursuing higher education. Additionally, more children on the autism spectrum are receiving diagnoses earlier in their lives, and intervention is happening sooner.
The center says the disorder is “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges” that now is a broader spectrum that includes what used to be diagnosed separately, such as Asperger syndrome.
While colleges are becoming more accommodating to students on the spectrum, Smith Dawalt said UW-Whitewater was “really ahead of the curve” and “a pioneer” in its programming to support students with disabilities.
She pointed to a summer program for those students before they start on campus. The program helps them transition to college life and connects them to support services.
Fisher said about one-third of students who attend that program are on the autism spectrum. She estimated that in a given summer they might have 65 or 70 students total.
Fisher also mentioned tutoring services offered to students with disabilities.
Alex, who asked The Gazette to publish only his first name because he will be searching for jobs, has been one of those tutors for three years. Because he has his own disability, the students he tutors know he can connect with them in a way others cannot, he said.
Fisher said a study from a few years ago showed students who took advantage of the university’s programming had higher GPAs. The study showed students on the spectrum who attended the summer transition program had an average GPA of 3.3, while the average for all students on the spectrum is 2.99.
She also said these students had higher retention rates. After participating in a two-hour informational meeting before coming to the university, students with autism, she said, were retained for two years and beyond at a rate of 90.66%.
“Students on the spectrum are good students. They tend to be really good students,” Fisher said. “It’s not like everything is easy-peasy for them, but they tend to … value education.”
Experts spoke to some of the challenges students on the spectrum can face.
Smith Dawalt pointed to the scheduling differences between high school and college. In the former, each day is largely the same and classes are in the same building, while the latter has more variability in day-to-day routine.
College campuses are harder to navigate, she said. Higher education also requires students to be more proactive in getting the services they need.
Fisher said students on the spectrum have a different style of communication that might not be attuned to the indirect way neurotypical people speak.
For example, instead of a professor during office hours saying, “Would you like to take a seat,” she recommended being more direct and saying, “Please take a seat.”
“It’s a lot of little, subtle things like that,” she said.
Individuals are individuals
To be clear, there is no monolithic college experience for students on the autism spectrum, just as is the case with any college student.
And the spectrum is just that—a spectrum. And it’s one that Fisher said is “very, very wide.”
“There’s a saying in the autism community: ‘So you met one person with autism? That means you met one person with autism,’” she said.
There are other misconceptions, too. Sometimes, she said, others can go to stereotypes and generalizations about students with disabilities.
Fisher said people hear the word “disability” and think of “wheelchair,” but many disabilities are not visibly apparent.
“Many, many, many disabilities are invisible,” she said. “They’re learning disabilities, ADHD, anxiety, depression, auditory processing, whatever. There’s lots of stuff that you can’t see on the outside.”
While Smith Dawalt said research suggests more students on the spectrum go into STEM fields, Fisher said she knows students who are interested in all areas of study.
And college is also about change. Interests are not static.
“If you go to school, you can actually learn more things,” Smith Dawalt said. “Hopefully, we are experiencing personal growth, and people with autism do the same thing.”
Alex, who is studying physical education, might not like math as much as he used to.
But in college, he has gravitated toward areas that interest him. Just last week, he had a good discussion with a floormate for a few hours about politics, he said.
Receiving a diagnosis for autism spectrum disorder does not determine how a child’s life will turn out, Fisher said. She has seen many people with significant autism diagnostic criteria—such as not talking until age 6, 7 or 8—who ended up becoming college graduates.
But early intervention from doctors, families and schools can make all the difference.
“I’m really excited about this because students on the spectrum are the people that will save the world,” she said.