Autistic college students aren’t held back in living as adults

By Zhixiao Li


Joshua Frisch is a sophomore student majoring in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has been interested in math since he was about 4 years old and that he hasn’t waiver from that interest. He likes computer games, board games, and cooking.

Joshua Frisch_copyIn many ways, Frisch is a typical student at MIT, except for the fact that he struggles with executive functions, a kind of mental process that involve things like time management and multitasking. Sometimes that leaves him feeling depressed and anxious. “I feel like I want to do more things,” he said. “I wish I was capable of like taking on more stuff. For example, time management issues and that is frustrating and that’s like a terrible pressure I wish I didn’t have.”

Frisch represents a wave of young people on the less affected end of the autism spectrum who headed off to college after high school. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control reported that approximately 1 in 88 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder. This represents an increase in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders. The odds are much higher now. Colleges are seeing more and more students with autism.

“Going into college is hard and dealing with people outside of your medium family, functionally 24/7 is a change. Tensions there can be.” Frisch said, “The work itself is much more of a challenge than high school. So I have had like a lot of problems, getting myself started on time, getting myself do assignments, allocate time for assignments. The work itself has been more hard, not overwhelming, except for the fact that I’m bad about managing my time.”

In order to get work done, Frisch would always try to start things earlier.“I don’t want to say I have solved it,” he said, “but to the extent that I have make progress on it.”

Frisch’s difficulties are is all too common. Dania Jekel, the Executive Director of Asperger’s Association of New England points out that the students have to take initiative to understand that they are having some challenges in the school.

“Nobody is going to wake them up in the morning. Nobody is going to do their laundry. Nobody is going to give them breakfast. Nobody is going to remind them to do their homework or tell them when they need to go to bed anything like that,” she said.

When Frisch was a kid, for a long time he had no interest in having peers as friends. “I just did not really care. Apparently this is not in fact normal. Most 7-year-olds would not be happy to go play by themselves for hours at a time,” he said.

Frisch was told he was on this spectrum around 7 years old by his parents. “I was aware I’m not the same as everyone else for a very long time., he said. “But it did not bother me at all when I was a kid and it really does not bother me now (as well), I’m not particularly upset about being different.”

On the contrary, Frisch is very open with what he has.  “I have told multiple and multiple people I have autism,” he said. “I’m very very open about it. I find it hard and frustrating and annoying to keep things close to the chest.”

Autism is visible now but some still have limited understanding of it. Experts indicate that when people do not understand and identify what autism is, they would put inaccurate labels on those who are on the spectrum like lazy or unfriendly.

“There’s this main thing people think of identification of autism as anti-social,” Frisch said. “This doesn’t feel, at least in my experience, like the most reasonable way to view things.” He noted that “often people with autism have different or sometimes lack of understanding the social cues and therefore interrupt people. But the belief that people are antisocial seems like, at least to me, doesn’t seem like accurate.”

Lorraine Wolf, Director of Disability Services at Boston University, said that to reduce the stigma campus-wide training is needed. “The best thing I think we can do is to raise an awareness on campus, to train faculty, advising other offices within students affairs to know what to do if they have a student who they think is on the spectrum or who resembles behaviors has behaviors resemble something,” she said. “So we do campus-wide trainings and try to reduce the stigma.”

As a rule, Frisch feels he does things pretty similarly as other people. He often spends time with friends. He plays a large number of board games and computer games. He likes cooking. He also is involved in an organization, which is focused on teaching middle and high school students. “I teach people about math, I teach about game, I teach about autism. I care a lot about education. I care a lot about teaching people and I care about doing it well,” he said.

Frisch wants to do something related to either academia or education in the future. He has considered becoming a high school teacher. “I think that math education particularly is currently has a bunch of systematic huge falsity. And I think which needs to be addressed. I think there is a potential to do things much much better. And I think it is sort of interesting and valuable to figure out how to do it better,” he said.

Frisch said that he doesn’t think autism would be a barrier for him to get a job in the future. “I worried about me being able to functionally to get work done as like something which I need to be able to get work done efficiently if I want to be employed.” He said, “I’m not supremely worried that autism are going to hold me back.”

About Zhixiao Li 4 Articles
Zhixiao Li is a journalist from China who has been living in Boston for almost two years. She enjoys international news and long-form reporting. She can get completely absorbed in video editing. When she isn't glued to her work, she spends time reading books, watching tennis games (Federer and Raonic are my favorites, just saying) and movies, or going for a walk in the city if there are no crazy birds.