By Zhixiao Li
Nina Davis-Milles works in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology library. In addition to her work there she is also a housemaster in one of the undergraduate dorms at MIT. She and her family have lived in the dorm for 18 years. During these years she has come to know a number of students who are on the Autism Spectrum and has become really interested in doing a better job of helping those talented young people.
“More and more students have come to MIT who have tremendous cognitive ability and may need some supports in developing social skills,” she said.
Most schools have the Disability Services Office and students can register with the office to get help.
“If they have difficulty paying attention, we might allow them to sit their exams in a distraction-reduced environment or use a computer for essay tests, or have extra time or reduce their course loads,” said Lorraine Wolf, the Director of Disability Office of Boston University. “Sometimes we have an accommodation for a student who has difficulty standing up in front of a class and giving a presentation. We might ask the professor would it be ok if they videotape it and show it to the class, or if they have some smaller group to present to,” she said.
For most students on the autism spectrum, the Disability Services Office is a good place to go. However not all of those students would register with the office since it is not required.
“I am generally tracking about 15 students this semester but that didn’t represent how many we have on campus I’m sure,” Wolf said. “That’s just a limited number who feel the need to register with us. There are many more out there who don’t.”
However Davis-Milles said that once students are clearly identified, the academic accommodations are the easy part. The big set of challenges would be in residential living. Many students on the spectrum have a hard time managing living with their roommates and mastering the details of daily life. “Knowing where your pens, pencils and papers are, making sure your laptop is charged, getting to class on time… Things many of us just take for granted are a huge struggle for a lot of students on this spectrum,” she said.
For many, it would be the first time away from home and living completely independently. Parents, teachers and schools would support them when they were students in high school. However, these students may not get that kind of support in college. “They may get a little bit support (in college), but generally it is much much less…you have to have a maturity and independent level to be able to figure that out,” said Dania Jekel, the Executive Director of Asperger’s Association of New England.
Davis-Milles and her husband sometimes would have students coming to their place to check in with them even if it is just for five minutes. They once had a physics major coming every night for a year. They would talk about simple things like steps to take to get a book or to by soap for laundry.
“That young man is a physicist with a Ph.D. now, so you know, kind of success story. Go from day by day, books, pencil, soap…” she said, “It is a slow process. Everyone needs help and support in some area and that’s the great thing of being in college, there are so many offices and people and supports just ready, willing, eager to meet you halfway.” But there are not always success stories like this. Davis-Milles said that hard stories for her are the students who come and say they don’t want to be the person who needs help anymore and refuse to work with supporters on campus.
“Many students often fail in higher education because they lack the self-advocacy skills to ask for help,” said Caroline vanBruinswaardt, a parent of a 19-year-old son with Asperger’s Syndrome, in her January testimony to promote legislation for the successful transition of students with disabilities to post-secondary education in Massachusetts.
“I have heard students say, ‘I don’t want them running after me, I don’t want to be in class and have somebody running after me to (say) that I haven’t done something.’ But nobody is running after you, you are not going to get anything unless you asked for it. So it’s a little bit of misperception,” she said.
Joshua Frisch is a sophomore student at MIT who has autism. He has registered with the Disabilities Office on campus. He will meet with the dean of the office on a weekly basis to make sure he is doing fine and to keep him on track.
“Expect that you probably need more help than you expected you would,” he said. “This is especially true of people with autism. You feel like you are going to do fine but then you realize that there are sort of unrealized barriers. ” Frisch added, “one of the symptoms that a lot of people with autism, myself included, have is unexpected challenge. So to that extent, expect you might need more help and if you can, checks the help if it is available.”