Life 101: Learning To Live With Autism

A campus program teaches students with autism life's daily skills.

Dec. 10, 2008— -- Students with autism learn to navigate early adulthood at Chapel Haven West, a private transitional residential program down the block from the University of Arizona in Tucson. As they walk along the campus streets, seeking to blend in with the hustle and bustle of college life, they don't reveal that they're here to learn some of life's most basic and essential lessons -- getting practice for those difficult moments that make autism, autism.

For Forrest, a well-mannered young man from Dallas, tasks like remembering money for his morning bus ride are a battle. When he reached for change one morning and found his pockets were empty, he didn't know how to react. "I forgot my dimes," he said, staring down in disbelief.

Kai, who on top of autism struggles with brain seizure disorder, collapses at a moment's notice on the sidewalk. Matthew, who is getting training in public speaking, suddenly froze in front of a roomful of watchful eyes when called upon to speak in class.

And then there's Mackenzie Smith. Even in an art class, it's a struggle for him to converse about anything but politics -- his obsession. But taking college courses in politics proved to be too much for him, as did college life in general, when he tried a while back.

Though autism, a developmental disorder that impairs social interaction, communication and behavior, creates different obstacles for each of the students, their disabilities are mild enough that they each have a real shot at living independently.

At Chapel Haven West, a private program near the University of Arizona in Tucson, young adults with autism learn coping strategies and develop the tools to be successful.

"Just friendships, job interviews, actually filling out resumes and bringing them to a job, having a roommate," said Betsey Parlato, president of Chapel Haven. "These are all things that you and I take for granted, but for someone with autism it's a monumental challenge."

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In a social skills class, University of Arizona teaching assistants show the students the "hidden rules" that help them navigate their surroundings and interpret changing social cues.

"Not to stare inappropriately and that kind of stuff," said Mackenzie. "And about teacher-student relationships and that kind of stuff."

"They have to be taught as if they have never seen before what kind of behavior is, for instance, at a concert," Parlato said. "Is it all right to talk and laugh loudly at a concert? And then there's a distinction made -- well, what kind of concert? And they actually have to learn it."

But it's not all classroom work. Guided by special education teachers like Ken Hosto, the young adults get round-the-clock courses in taking care of themselves. Hosto brings them to the bank for a tutorial on deposits and checks. He helps them sift through produce to find what's fresh and then guides them step-by-step through making their dinner at the off-campus apartment complex where they live.

Later on, they get a quick lesson in home repair -- how to change a light bulb. They end the evening with simple conversation, which for those with autism is difficult.

This curriculum adds up to a course in Life 101. Upon graduating the life course, Mackenzie hopes to achieve his dream of one getting a degree in political science.

That's why he and all of the participants are working hard now, so that someday they can be on their own -- with autism, or not.

For more information on the Chapel Haven West program for young adults with autism, you can visit their website, or call 1-877-8CH-WEST.