July 19, 2009

Off To A Good Start

Davin White, an Education Reporter for the Charleston (WV) Gazette recently wrote a nice piece on the transition program Marshall University sponsors for high school students with ASD interested in attending college.

The piece, which is pasted in below, can be found at this link.

Davin White, Staff Writer

This summer, Justin Depamphilis and Jay Murphy, both 17, are getting an early jump on their college careers at Marshall University.

The soon-to-be high school seniors are in the middle of a five-week program where they'll take a class, sleep in the dorms, eat meals in the cafeteria and generally get a feel for the college lifestyle.

Housed within Marshall's West Virginia Autism Training Center, the program is designed to help high school students with Asperger's syndrome -- who often have difficulty with organization, focus and social skills -- adjust to life on a college campus.

"I made a couple of friends around here ... my first couple of days," Depamphilis said. The New Jersey native first heard about Marshall from the film, "We Are Marshall."

Marc Ellison, coordinator for the Autism Training Center and the College Program for Students with Asperger's Syndrome, said students are eligible for the summer program after their junior year in high school.

"These guys are really devoting a whole chunk of their summer to really getting a sense of what college is going to be like for them," Ellison said.

Asperger's syndrome "creates some real challenges in terms of anticipating what to expect, some challenges with cause and effect, some issues of social awareness and understanding," Ellison said. "So as often as possible, a very realistic, very practical experience is really helpful, and that's what we're trying to create."

Asperger's syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder. Children with Asperger's syndrome often show obsessive interest in a single object or topic to the exclusion of any other, according to the National Institutes of Health. Repetitive or obsessive routines are also a common trait. People with Asperger's syndrome are often unable to successfully interact with peers or understand common social cues such as sarcastic comments.

For instance, another boy in the high school program was supposed to meet someone at the Autism Training Center's lounge at 11:45 a.m. one day. The person showed up at 11:48 p.m. and the boy had already left.

"They are creatures of habit," said Rebecca Hansen, assistant coordinator of the College Program for Students with Asperger's Syndrome. "They really like routine.

"[The program] just kind of gives them this new level of comfort," she said.

The high school summer program is a microcosm of the Autism Training Center's larger program, which will assist 32 students at Marshall this fall.

The Asperger's program is not special education, Ellison and Hansen said. It's designed to teach social and life skills while the students try to obtain their degrees.

In a structured high school setting, students often rush from class to class. In college, downtime is much more common, and it can be difficult for a student with Asperger's syndrome to adjust to both the freedom and routine changes, Ellison said.

"Around here we have lots of times to relax, get our studies done," Depamphilis said.

Ellison knows of one student who watches hours of You Tube videos some nights, and might forget to study.

Depamphilis said some noises, such as popping bubble gum, might affect his focus in the classroom. Video games can become a distraction for Murphy.

Murphy, from Charlotte, N.C., described himself as a slow reader. He visits the autism training center's lounge to read, and took his flash cards back to the dorm once or twice. "The study hall is nice to have," he said.

One Marshall student with Asperger's syndrome said this type of program would have helped him with his adjustment to college a couple of years ago.

Jack Goodman, a junior math and physics major at Marshall, struggled greatly with social skills at high school in Maryland, but believed things would get better when he went off to Harvard University.

"I really bit off more than I could chew academically," he said. For Goodman, one math class alone begged more than 50 hours of work a week.

Still, his struggle to fit in socially led to depression and contributed to his academic troubles.

"I was really miserable. I didn't really enjoy myself at parties," he said. "I couldn't really figure out how to interact with people. I could never get a date."

At Harvard, "everybody" is a geek, he said. However, the geeks with social skills were still too narrow-minded to accept into their ranks the really socially awkward guys, he said.

Once, on the dance floor at a party, he broke out into a cold sweat and just froze. He couldn't emulate the social skills of the popular guys at Harvard, because it didn't come naturally to him.

"I think for a lot of people with Asperger's syndrome -- guys at least -- girls are a huge issue," he said. "Even for normal guys, girls are perplexing."

Ellison said it's difficult for some people with Asperger's to tell the difference between flirting and just being friendly.

"Because I was so awkward they would always think I was a creep, which is a big issue with guys with Asperger's syndrome ... often because we don't know how to express ourselves in what's considered a socially accepted manner," Goodman said.

Goodman said he's "doing a lot better now," and he's been dating his girlfriend for eight months.

"The biggest advantage of a program like this is to allow people with Asperger's to see other people with Asperger's," Goodman said. "By increasing your awareness of what Asperger's behaviors are, you can kind of increase your self awareness and stop yourself from doing things that might be considered creepy or awkward.

"If I had something like this ... I wouldn't have had 90 percent of the problems I ended up having in my college years," Goodman said. "People with Asperger's don't learn life skills the same way other people do. We have to learn them like we're studying a subject in school."

Goodman also struggled with organization, which helped to compound his troubles, he said. In an honors physics class, he usually worked alone while others teamed up in study groups of three or four.

"I just had trouble forming the social network among my classmates ... in order to be in the study groups," he said.

@tag:Reach Davin White at davinwh...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1254.

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