By Michael Bernick
The California State University East Bay campus in the Hayward hills is the site of an unusual experiment in higher education for people with autism. Starting in the fall quarter, college-age autistics will be encouraged to attend and build an educational community; one that draws on the autistics' unusual academic strengths. The experiment will test the possibilities for autistics in a university setting, and more generally the possibilities for a range of students with disabilities.
Twenty years ago in California and across the nation autism was largely invisible. Today, rarely a day goes by that there is not an article regarding autism in the news media. The shelves of bookstores and libraries are filled with books on causation of autism, early intervention, parenting and even "warrior mothers" of autistics.
The state Senate has formed a Senate Select Committee on Autism and Related Disorders, the second such committee formed in the past four years. A Senate report estimates that by the year 2012 at least 70,000 autistics will be registered with the state's Regional Center system, and the number of Californians with a condition on the autistic spectrum will number more than 350,000. The emerging Center for College Students with Autistic Spectrum Disorders is an attempt to open wider higher education for autistics. The young adults with autism, born in California in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the number of diagnosed cases of autism grew geometrically, are now reaching college age. They and their parents are faced with life after high school. In particular, they are challenged to find alternatives to a life of dependency and Social Security payments that has been the main lot of adult autistics in California.
An estimated 70 percent of adults with autism in California are unemployed, with the majority enrolled in the Supplemental Security Income/Social Security Disability Insurance systems. Much of the growing literature on autistics focuses on their limitations and disabilities: the socially awkward behaviors, the large gaps in cognition and conceptualization, the self-stimulating behavior like spinning or rocking and self-talking.
But it is also true that many students with autism possess academic skills more advanced than many students in computation, observation and documentation. They often bring a different way of looking at the world and a singular creativity. Can these skills and insights be harnessed in ways that allow the students with autism to succeed in college and in the larger world and work world? This question is central to the experiment about to begin in Hayward. While its outcome is uncertain, we can be certain of a few of the elements needed for any success.
One key element will be the involvement of parents. At a time when public university resources are declining, the parents will need to bring a heavy investment of time and financial resources to the center. A second key element will be the ability of the students with autism to build their own network of mutual support. As longtime disability rights advocate Catherine Baird notes, students with disabilities cannot depend on the kindness of others. A critical mass of students with autism needs to exist at a university, and these students need to provide the social and academic support for each other.
A third key will be the university itself, and the evolving role of higher education in our state's economy. The California State University system for years has done the heavy lifting in higher education, producing the teachers, nurses and technicians needed in California, as well as a range of other professionals. This initiative builds on the CSU's role as most responsive to the state's changing job structure and changing demographics.
Imagine Raymond Babbitt of "Rain Man" in college. Might it not be a better alternative for him, and much less expensive for society, than institutionalization or the SSI/SSDI government system? Might he even bring unusual skills that can enrich university life for others?
Michael Bernick, former director of the California Employment Development Department, is the chairman of the advisory board of the CSU East Bay autism center.