Constable: When autism goes to college

With as many as one in 88 children now being diagnosed on the autism spectrum, most of the focus has been on early childhood education.

"You don't find as much about kids who are going into college," says Michael Duggan, a College of DuPage counselor for students with disabilities. Of the 150 students he works with, many fall somewhere on that spectrum.

"(The instructors) are eager to do whatever they can to help these students. They're just not sure what to do sometimes," Duggan says. "That's why I wrote the book."

The College of DuPage Bookstore will host Duggan from 1 to 2 p.m. today in Student Resource Center Room 2000, where he will read excerpts and discuss his book, "First Class Support for College Students on the Autism Spectrum." It's aimed at counselors and instructors.

"When you teach at a college, you get training in your discipline," Duggan says. "You usually don't get training in how to teach these students."

Letting Claire Svehla take her tests in a different setting than the rest of her class, which eased her anxiety, is one of the simple changes that helped convert the Downers Grove girl with autism from an unlikely college student to a 24-year-old scholar. Working with Duggan and Sheryl Ebersold, an accommodations specialist at the college, Svehla says she learned the coping mechanisms, study methods and social skills to succeed in college.

Every student's needs are unique, Duggan says. Some strategies, like getting instructors to make materials available across different platforms, help students who have autism and some who don't. Students who learn best from reading, from listening, from watching videos or from seeing data all get the same chance to understand the lesson, Duggan said.

Sometimes academic success depends on how students are managing friendships, romance and their living situations, Duggan says, noting his college offers a wide variety of disability support services. In a typical day, he might see a student with depression and anxiety, a student worried about becoming homeless, and another student looking for scholarships to a four-year college.

A third of his students with autism hope to earn a certificate and take advantage of a program coach to land a job. Another third plan to earn an associate degree. The final third plan to get a bachelor's, master's or doctoral degree, Duggan says.

As a young child, Svehla spoke in single words, unable to form complex sentences. She credits her parents and speech therapists for helping her move far beyond what even she thought she could do.

"If my future self had visited me then and said, 'Hey, you'll be attending North Central College with high honors,' I would have looked at my future self and said, 'You are nuts,'" Svehla says. "As a young child, I did not envision myself being where I am today. I'm so thankful for my years at College of DuPage. It's been an absolute blessing."

Her success story isn't finished. Svehla is set to graduate in June from North Central College in Naperville with a bachelor's degree in history and already has been accepted into the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where she'll work toward a master's degree in history with an emphasis on museum studies.

"It's so cool to see students who start out and three or four years later, they graduate. It's fantastic," says Duggan. While some of his students with disabilities boast perfect ACT scores, others struggle with classwork and come to college for training on how to find a job, make friends, form relationships and live independently.

"Sometimes we have a definition of what success is, but it's got to be what they want," says Duggan. "It's challenging, but it also makes it fun. You want the lower-functioning students to have the same opportunities, the fullness, as great a life as anyone else. Everyone's different in what they face."

Duggan and Ebersold started Autismerica, an educational and social club for students with autism. The club helps students cope with anxiety and learn how to socialize.

"They found that going to a university wasn't as scary anymore. They had the confidence they could succeed," says Duggan, who is married, lives in Winfield and admits that he had to overcome some of those same fears when he wondered whether he was capable of writing a book. Three years later, he is an author. A fellow professor recently used one of the techniques in his book, and "it actually worked," Duggan says. "That was the best feeling."

  With two decades of experience helping students overcome disabilities, College of DuPage counselor Michael Duggan gathered his best tools for his book about how college counselors and other staff members can support students on the autism spectrum. Bev Horne/
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