From the newsletter:
If there’s a good kind of autism to have, Ian has it. His IQ for nonverbal tasks, like pattern recognition and visual spacial reasons, is off the charts. He taught himself to read at age three, looked at the multiplication tables once and just knew them, and is an excellent computer programmer. The good news is that jobs in technology fields are plentiful and well compensated. In addition, as 60 Minutes reported last year, more and more large companies recognize the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce and have created modified workplaces, which include new interview techniques and sensory-safe offices.
Ian can absolutely do one of those jobs in the future. That’s the goal. But how we do we get him there? I can’t just plop in a regular college like his older brother. He couldn’t manage the social expectations of a dorm or a traditional classroom. Most college professors do not appreciate being interrupted by a student who corrects their usage of apostrophes. Without basic independent living skills – like crossing a busy city street – Ian could not live without assistance in a college dorm.
So, how do I get Ian from Point A to Point Z, from now to job? There are multiple things that I’m working on simultaneously. He is attending a town 18-21 program, where he is learning social rules like: “no one appreciates having their grammar corrected.” A private therapist is working with Ian to lessen some of his OCD tics. Because he needs some formal training in computer programming — a piece of paper to take to future employers to certify his skills — I’m slowly acclimating him to college life.
Between my professor jobs, my undergrad, and grad schools, I have direct experience with about a dozen colleges. My husband and my father are PhDs. My dad used to take me to his college, back when I was in elementary school. My brother and sister both have BAs and MAs. As part of my job as an education writer, I have talked with hundreds of college professionals over the years. I know how colleges work.
However, prior to this spring, when I started the community college admissions process for Ian, I had limited experience with community colleges. I wrote a couple of articles that touched on those 2-year schools, but I never worked on those campuses and got the full experience. So, this spring was a crash course.
Poorly trained administration, compounded by limited work hours due to COVID, meant that it took me months and months just to sign up Ian for one non-matriculated class at the college. It was impossible to get this done on their website or on the phone, so I had to go down to the school, walk into the correct offices, and demand to talk with someone with a lofty “I’m a former college professor” entitlement voice. I was shocked by the inefficiencies and unprofessionalism of the school administration.
Getting Ian registered with the Office of Disabilities was another bureaucratic challenge. They simply didn’t answer their emails. I had to again walk into the office and demand help.
There is no way that Ian could have busted through that bureaucracy on his own. I’m sure that many, many typical students with complicated lives were unable to get through the application process this year. Perhaps that’s why community colleges continue to struggle with enrollment.
And in the end, the Office of Disability did not offer any real help for Ian. They are set up to help students who are deaf, blind, or have dyslexia. They offer extended time on tests, access to braille learning devices, or opportunities for free tutoring. They offer a small separate program for kids with intellectual deficits (IQ under 90), where they let the students help out in the library and book store. But Ian doesn’t need those things. He needs an aide to jump in to answer Ian’s random questions and decipher college lingo.
Basic modifications and supports that Ian received with an IEP in public schools, do not exist in higher education. Students with disabilities have the guaranteed right to a high school education, but they do not have those same rights in college. I couldn’t even hire someone privately to help out Ian in his college classrooms, because extra people are not allowed in the classroom.
More and more colleges are stepping into the void of colleges for high functioning autistic people. Landmark College in Vermont is one of the best. However, those schools are extremely expensive — over $70,000 per year. And I’m not sure that a full BA program is right for Ian. A certification or a community college AA degree might be enough for him to get a tech job. He has no interest in a traditional liberal arts curriculum or dorm life.
Slight tangent – there are more and more college programs for young adults with mid-level autism (verbal, intellectual challenges), which is really exciting. Here’s a cool new program at Rutgers for people with that variety of autism. Many of those programs are getting massive federal funding, so knowledgable parents can leapfrog from 18-21 programs to free residential college experiences for their young people, which keeps those kids happy and busy through their 20’s. More on these programs another time.
Because we don’t want to send Ian to a college for autism yet, we’re getting him used to the highly imperfect local community college. The first step was giving him a basic introduction to college expectations and lingo. We talked about what’s a syllabus, how do you find out the dates for the quizzes and tests, how do you address an email to a professor, where do you find your grades.
I decided to sign him up for one online async class (all lectures on YouTube, no interaction with professor or fellow students) to take the social skills problem out of the equation. I signed him up for a super easy math class that he already completed in high school — Intermediate Algebra, so I took academic challenges out of the equation, too. This semester is all about learning college expectations, because a college classroom is nothing like a high school classroom.
Now, most high school kids probably need this same information. Jonah could have used this information, before we plopped him into a 30,000-student campus with a crazy ambitious course load. He’s doing a fifth year of college right now to make up for the train wreck that was his first year of college. Boys in particular seem to struggle with the transition to college, which explains why only 35% of boys at his school graduate in four years. But the “boys in college problem” is another tangent that I’ll take up another time. Back to Ian at the community college.
To prepare for his async class (YouTube lectures), Ian and I sat down in front of his computer and figured out Moodle and his online textbook. All homework is online, so he had to learn how to write algebraic equations within their homework module. He’s good with technology, but he needed a crash course on what an online textbook was and how it worked.
To prepare for his first online quiz yesterday, we spent one evening earlier in the week downloading an anti-cheating monitor. Downloading the software and setting up the webcam was no problem for him. But I had to explain to him all the rules and why this webcam was necessary and how he had to refrain from making any odd head movement or it would trigger some red flags. Do those anti-cheating monitors recognize weird autistic body movements? We’ll find out.
His quiz was oddly low tech — he had to open a .pdf with the test questions and write out all his answers on paper. Then after it was over, he had 20 minutes to scan his worksheets and then upload it to a special spot on the class website. We watched the professor’s explanation of the testing procedure in the YouTube video five times, until we understood the rules. Our scanner is a little temperamental, so I had to help out here.
There is no way that an average person with autism could manage all those complicated steps required to take a simple quiz. I imagine that a lot of average typical students struggled with those rules. Jonah said that he knew fellow students who failed tests at his school, because they had to pee in the middle of a test, and the anti-cheating software zinged them.
So, how’s it going with Ian? Now, that I’ve walked him through the procedures and expectations and lingo for the first month of the class, I think he’ll be able to finish the rest of the class on his own. I might sign him up for more classes in the spring, but I’m unsure if he is ready for an unsupported classroom yet.
More kids could benefit from bureaucracy busting and lingo explaining, and not just those on the spectrum. We need better transitions from high school to higher ed/job training, but with all the cuts in higher ed, we are getting less. There is a sink or swim mentality to the post-high school world that is deeply inequitable and rather sad. While there are some silos of hope, like the new college programs for students with intellectual disabilities, we need more post high school supports for all students who have some vulnerabilities or differences.