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Providing the Structure the Autistic Need for College Life

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.

"Many people assume students with disabilities can't attend college. That's not true," said Betty Greene-Bryant, director of the program's campus in Rockville. "A lot of people think that, a lot of parents think that, a lot of colleagues think that, and it's just not true. With the proper support, they can do it."

The proper support, according to the program's model, is a regimen in which a student's week is heavily planned: tutoring sessions, study time, social outings and meetings with financial advisers. A scheduler helps Freeman plan her week in a color-coded agenda that includes time for academics as well as trips with her friends to the shopping mall and grocery store.

She meets with a financial planner, therapists and a meal planner, who helps her create grocery lists and even helps her tackle French onion soup recipes. The staff members, whom she knows by name, have become familiar with her personality and habits, such as the fact that she keeps her apartment very clean.

"It's kind of like a work environment," she said. "You know each other on a first-name basis, but you keep a distance. When you're a disabled kid, your family sometimes tries to mother you; you don't really grow up that much. They really let you act like an adult [here]."

Adulthood comes with boundaries, however. With Freeman's permission, her mother receives a weekly update on her progress. And the staff counsels students to avoid destructive behavior and people who might take advantage of them.

The program, originally based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was bought two years ago by Educational Services of America, a for-profit company that operates alternative- and special-education programs. Within a year of purchasing College Living Experience, the company opened sites in Austin and Denver. This year, it expanded to Monterey, Calif., Chicago, and to Rockville, near Montgomery College.

County school systems in Maryland support 22 programs that provide transition services to students with learning disabilities in college settings, Grigal said. Last month, the Kennedy Krieger Institute opened a Rockville campus to help students ages 10 to 21 with autism spectrum disorders and other disabilities.

Freeman said the support has worked for her. The girl who earned spotty grades in high school finished a semester with mostly C's and B's and, in algebra, with an A, a grade she had never earned in math. Now she looks forward to returning to Maryland, possibly to a career in psychology.

"I knew I had to be away for college," Freeman said. "To spread my wings, I had to leave home."

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