TRANSITIONAL PROGRAMS

Providing the Structure the Autistic Need for College Life

Kay Freeman of Bethesda and her daughter Laura, 20, who has Asperger's syndrome. The family was referred to College Living Experience, which Laura has enrolled in while attending a Texas community college. The program provides a heavily structured regimen: tutoring sessions, study time and social outings.
Kay Freeman of Bethesda and her daughter Laura, 20, who has Asperger's syndrome. The family was referred to College Living Experience, which Laura has enrolled in while attending a Texas community college. The program provides a heavily structured regimen: tutoring sessions, study time and social outings. (Lois Raimondo/Post )

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By Mariana Minaya
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 29, 2007

The first 15 years of Laura Freeman's childhood were marred by erratic obsessions with television shows, outbursts when other children teased her, a suicide attempt and questions about why she behaved the way she did.

During her freshman year at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, doctors gave her parents an answer: She had Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that can cause obsessive interests, difficulty with social interactions and impairment of motor skills. She later discovered that she also had a bipolar disorder.

The diagnoses only heightened her parents' anxiety. Would their daughter be able to finish high school? What kind of future could she have? They enrolled her at Montgomery College so she could complete the requirements for a high school diploma. But a year after her senior year of high school, Freeman was still without a diploma.

"We were honestly desperate," said her mother, Kay Freeman. "We're thinking, 'She can't hack it at Montgomery College -- how can we send her anywhere else?' "

A counselor who had been helping the family referred them to College Living Experience, a program that helps students with learning disabilities make the transition to college. The organization, which opened a branch in Rockville this fall, assists students who might not otherwise consider leaving home to attend college. Students receive tutoring, mentoring and instruction in living skills to help them survive in the often disorderly world of a college campus.

Now 20, Laura Freeman is beginning her third semester at Austin Community College in Texas and is enrolled in the College Living Experience program.

The demand for such transitional programs has grown as students with disabilities, who gained access in large numbers to regular classes in the 1980s, expect to follow their peers to college, said Meg Grigal, who leads a research team that studies higher-education programs for students with learning disabilities.

"It's very clear that students who have the opportunities to do this in a program that does it well come out with better employment opportunities and a better ability to advocate for their own needs," Grigal said. "Anecdotally, we know that providing support for these transition projects really works. We just need to document it."

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that among 8-year-olds, the group it chose to study, about 1 in 150 have an autism spectrum disorder. Of 29,722 8-year-olds living in four Maryland counties and Baltimore in 2002, 199 were found to have an autism spectrum disorder.

College Living Experience provides the kind of structure and guidance that Sybille Braum of Alexandria wanted for her son, who as an infant endured major heart surgeries and suffered a stroke that caused a traumatic brain injury, mild paralysis on the left side of his body and delays in mental development. Her son was unable to receive the accommodations he needed -- such as extra time during tests or for assignments -- at community college.

"When you're looking for educational solutions for a child with disabilities, it's more than just the academics, even though that's an important part," she said. "Before you can get to the academics, you have to work through other things like independent and social skills, making friends and all of that, and really becoming independent. Those are big issues, because they can't do anything until they're able to do that."

College Living Experience, which in Rockville costs $33,500 for 12 months, accepts students ages 18 to 24 with a variety of conditions, including dyslexia and emotional or social issues. Although many students are autistic, others have a combination of disorders that make learning difficult but don't preclude going to college, said the program's executive director, Steven Roth. At six sites near colleges, the program serves 201 students who would not learn as effectively in a less structured environment, Roth said.


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