BY ROBIN WARSHAW
Enrolling in a large university and moving into a dormitory can be daunting for many students. But what if you're highly sensitive to noise, have difficulty talking with other students and professors, and sometimes focus so much on what you're doing that you forget to eat? Social adjustment to college life can overtake — and even disrupt — your academic experience.
Those are some of the challenges faced by students with Asperger Syndrome, a neurobiological condition that is part of the autism spectrum.
"Any change for me is very, very jarring," said Randolph (Randy) Sparks, a junior transfer student from Pittsgrove, New Jersey, who is majoring in history and political science. "One of the things about Asperger's [is], I am very sensitive to outside stimulus. That can really bother me."
"I do well in academic settings," he added, "but it's in the social settings that I usually stumble."
Sparks was living at home and attending community college as a New Jersey Student Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarship (NJ STARS) recipient, having graduated in the top 15 percent of his high school class. The next step — moving on to complete his four-year degree — loomed ahead. With it came worries about navigating campus life, concerns that the Rutgers program addresses.
The DDDC has long worked with people on the autism spectrum, from preschoolers through teens, explained Rita Gordon, director of the center's Division of Outreach Services. "We realized there wasn't anything here at Rutgers [for college students]. It made sense that we would expand our knowledge and services."
Begun as a pilot plan with one student last year, the program now has six — a mix of first-year and transfer students — this year. David Fischer, coordinator of the Asperger program, meets with students before they enroll; takes them on campus tours; and provides weekly in-person meetings, phone contact, and other support.
As part of a special orientation, Fischer accompanies students to their dormitories and to each classroom, and helps them learn to ride the university buses. "A lot of the things we might take for granted are major struggles," he said. "They have to organize their day so they get to class on time, have time to eat, are able to do laundry ... That kind of thing doesn't come naturally to people with Asperger's."
Neither does talking with a professor about a problem. "They don't know how that works," said Fischer. "In their school history, they haven't had the easiest time relating to teachers."
Many students with Asperger's are more comfortable without roommates. They may have "habits that would be hard to live with," Fischer said, such as being disorganized and needing time alone to decompress or use calming-down behaviors, such as talking to themselves. The social demands of being arounstrangers for much of the day — in dorms, in classes, while eating — can push anxiety high.
Sparks lives by himself in the dorm. "That was one of the things the program helped to procure," he said. "I prefer that."
He had one troublesome episode early on, during a mandatory dorm floor meeting. "I got very uncomfortable and it could have been bad," he explained. With the program's assistance, he feels a little more at ease with hall staff and other residents.
On the positive side, he joined PACT for Autism, which stands for Peer Awareness, Compassion, and Tolerance for those with autism. "I hope my presence gives them perspective," he said. "I'm the only person on the autism spectrum there."
Staff at the Asperger's program at Rutgers help by offering support without being intrusive, Sparks said. "They only check up on you if you want to be checked up on. The program's not about forcing people with Asperger's to do anything. It's just there in case you need it."
NOTE: There is a current controvery over the Asperger syndrome diagnosis. Experts working on the latest version of psychiatry's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due out in 2012, have proposed eliminating the Asperger syndrome label. The reason: they say these diagnoses are too vague. Instead, many experts prefer folding the diagnoses into one umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.
— RUTGERS FOCUS