April 2, 2008 — -- Like many of his high school classmates, Robby Cvejanovich is trying to decide which college to attend this fall.
While Cvejanovich is concerned about picking a school with a good zoology program, his parents are anxious about what will happen outside the classroom as their autistic son transitions into college life.
"I am very nervous because Robby is the most honest and trusting person I have ever known. He doesn't understand that people can lie. He doesn't understand why people lie," said his mother, Beth Cvejanovich.
The issue is not limited to the Cvejanoviches. As scores of autistic young adults enter universities for the first time, colleges across the country are trying to find ways to deal with the first generation of Asperger's students to hit campuses in large numbers.
A decade ago the idea of Asperger's students — who have a mild and high functioning form of autism that is characterized by social isolation — working their way through a four-year college may have seemed impossible.
But today, with early diagnosis and therapy, an influx of students across the autistic spectrum are heading off to college and the schools are trying quickly to adapt.
Marshall University has one of the few programs in the country specifically for those with Asperger's syndrome.
"If you attend two classes for 50 minutes a day, the rest of your day is spent on campus. So it's that community that is hard to navigate many times — to know where to go to feel safe or where to go to get support — and that's where our program really fits in," said program coordinator Marc Ellison.
The university has graduate students who work daily with the 14 students in its Asperger's program to review assignments and help with classroom etiquette.
"They have levels of anxiety or stress that prevent them many times from coming in and seeking help," Ellison said.
Autistic students also have weekly life skills meetings. Though programs like Marshall University's are rare and small, other schools are beginning similar curriculums.
"Students with autism should be able to go to the college of their choice and get the services they need. And I hope that's what happens," Ellison said.
Some schools, like the University of Connecticut, don't have an autism-specific program, but rather, they assist the students through their disabilities office.
There, pupils like Josh Pinnolis can work with counselors like Christine Morello. Morello has aided Pinnolis since he arrived at the college four years ago.
"After the first year, I realized I really need more time on exams and through her I was able to get those letters and it made taking the tests less stressful," Pinnolis said.
Pinnolis and Morello believe the support really has helped him grow.
"I went from meeting with Josh weekly to now I never really even see him," Morello said. "To us that is a good sign because that means he has developed enough strategies that he doesn't feel he needs to come to the office on a regular basis."
In order to find the best fit, parents are advised to do their homework to ensure a school offers the right support systems for their child.
"Some students really need a real hands-on disability coordinator or a program specifically for Asperger's. Other students would not take part in that and really want to be anonymous on campus," said Jane Thierfeld, who has worked in disability services for three decades and has been helping the Cvejanovich family make its decision.
The collegial support is teaching a whole new generation of students how to fly on their own.
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