The Depths of Higher Education
Take a look at this abominable news article (thanks to Lana for the link) entitled "Students on the Spectrum," with the barf-worthy subtitle, "A Dream Not Denied."
The article declares that colleges are "in a panic" about the enrollment of autistic youths as they "scramble to figure out how to accommodate this new, growing population of disabled students" more of whom allegedly are considering college as a result of "earlier and better intervention" and "intensive therapies." Many college administrators have been attending conferences about Asperger's support services, including one conference that was sponsored in part by the Yale Child Study Center:
The director of the center, Dr. Fred Volkmar, helped define autism and Asperger’s for the American Psychiatric Association in the early 90’s. "Twenty-five years ago," he says, "I would have been stunned to learn that I was going to put together a conference on colleges for these kids. Twenty-five years ago, the stereotype view was that they were not very bright and not college material."
I'm giving Dr. Fred Volkmar my Barefaced Liar of the Year Award for that one. You know how many children diagnosed with Asperger's were thought to be "not college material" because of stereotypes 25 years ago?
Zero. Zip. Zilch.
There weren't any children diagnosed with Asperger's 25 years ago. The concept of autism spectrum categories and the ugly stereotypes it spawned didn't exist (except in a few theoretical academic papers) until Volkmar and his cronies cooked them up in the early 90’s. Before then, most autistic high school students were considered to be normal, and those who attended college were admitted on the same basis as anyone else—high school grades and admissions test scores. And many of us got our degrees, found jobs, and got married or found romantic partners without benefit of the demeaning "services" that the article describes:
At Keene State College, in New Hampshire, fellow students act as "social navigators." Their assignment: change their charges’ "outsider" status by introducing them to their friends. The mentors get $10 an hour (and sometimes course credit in psychology) by helping students on the spectrum make small talk, date and get consent at every level of romantic advancement.
Yecch. Just how is a phony friendship with a paid-by-the-hour psychology student, who may be conducting research for a class project, supposed to make the "mentee" feel like anything other than a lab rat? And someone really needs to explain to those ding-dong psychologists that it's not the autistic guys who are committing date rape—most autistics are quietly studying on any given evening. Rather, it's the beer-chugging party-animal jerks who could use more "social navigators" in the form of probation officers teaching them how to behave around women.
But wait, it gets worse:
At Marshall University, the West Virginia Autism Training Center operates a program in which graduate students work daily with students with Asperger’s, reviewing assignments, helping with time management and teaching classroom etiquette. They take the students on field trips to Wal-Mart, to restaurants and to the movie theater to let them practice social skills. Bottom line for parents: $6,200 a year.
Field trips to Wal-Mart? WTF? Here's a little anecdote about how I learned to do my own shopping when I went away to college. While I was unpacking my clothes and linens in my dorm room, I noticed that I had forgotten to bring a pillow. So I asked my dad (who had driven me to the campus) if he would take me to a store. He informed me that I was living on my own now, that it was my responsibility to do my own shopping, and that he was quite sure I was capable of buying a pillow. Then he left. I sat there on my pillowless bed for a few minutes, sulking about the unfairness of life and parents, and then I went and got my bicycle from the rack and rode a few blocks to the nearest discount store. I bought a pillow (well, gee, it wasn't rocket science after all) and rode back to the dorm with the pillow balanced across my handlebars, which taught me a valuable lesson about planning ahead.
That's one of the best support services to help an autistic kid learn how to live independently: Parents who have the good sense to administer a few well-aimed kicks in the rear, figuratively speaking, when they're needed. Thanks Dad. (And he didn't have to pay $6,200 a year for it, either.)
To make myself clear on this point, I'm not denying that support services can be useful or that there should be more of them available on campus. I can think of many services I didn't have (or didn't take full advantage of) as a student that would've been helpful, such as testing to identify my areas of strength, career counseling to match my strengths and interests to suitable jobs, occasional meetings with an academic advisor to provide guidance with my class choices, and some general advice on time management and adjusting to independent life. But these services—which would also be helpful for many non-autistic students—can and should be provided in respectful ways that don't stigmatize the recipients as grossly incapable.
Some college officials, according to the article, have been wondering why more autistic students aren't seeking out their support services:
"The Asperger’s population is much bigger than we think it is," according to Larry Powell, manager of disability services at Carnegie Mellon. "But students aren’t disclosing that..."
Well, duh! Here's a teensy hint for you, Mr. Powell. It's not because Carnegie Mellon hasn't been offering enough field trips to Wal-Mart. Maybe you ought to take a closer look at how the folks on your campus have been treating students who disclose, such as Valerie Kaplan, a student featured in the article. Although she scored a perfect 1600 on her SAT, that didn't save her from being treated as some sort of tragic mental defective by a Carnegie Mellon professor who
encouraged her to explain her cognitive difficulties to her teammates and ask them to be direct about what they wanted her to do. Dr. Pausch says the results were beneficial not just to Miss Kaplan but to the others. "They found a way to work with someone who opened up to them about something that was very embarrassing," he says. "Once she puts that on the table, what else can anyone feel embarrassed about having to divulge?"
Guess what, dude, a lot of things are more embarrassing than the simple fact of belonging to a social minority group as a result of a natural genetic difference. Such as being a bigoted professor who sees nothing wrong with teaching a bright, capable student to feel ashamed and embarrassed about who she is. Or being an ignorant journalist who happily laps up vicious prejudice like that and presents it as a wonderful insight into social interaction.
To all the "autism aware" colleges and universities out there: Clean up your act. Show a decent respect for human differences. Educate your faculty and staff about neurodiversity, rather than "symptoms." Make it clear that you intend to strictly enforce your non-discrimination policy. Respond promptly and appropriately when you receive complaints of discrimination against autistic students. Replace degrading pseudo-services with genuinely useful ones. Maybe then your autistic students won't be afraid to come out of the closet.