My friend Tom, well past retirement age, worries not only about his own future as calamitous health problems mount up, but with the future of his son, who has Asperger’s syndrome. Long an advocate for mental health and volunteer with the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI), Tom knows the pitfalls and opportunities and options; none provide guarantees for his son’s future.
One innovative possibility for shepherding people with autism (Asperger’s is a form of autism) into a brighter future is being launched this fall in California, and was outlined by Michael Bernick, former Director of the California Employment Development Department, in an op ed piece in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.
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.
In earlier generations, people with autism and a variety of other mental illnesses that might well have responded to education and treatment wound up in institutions. Boomers are the first generation to consider people on the autism spectrum in two new lights: they are many, and they may be able to live with a degree of independence.
A (California) 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.
Those of us on my block have watched a young neighbor with autism grow into adulthood, sometimes with exasperation but always with a degree of affectionate admiration. We despaired over the decibel level of his voice, but there weren’t a lot of dry eyes by the end of his bar mitzvah. Maybe we’ll carpool to his college graduation.
As with the need for older adults to remain independent and as productive as they can or wish to be, autistics aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from such programs as the one coming to Cal State Hayward.
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?