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Students in Connecticut With Autism Adapting Better at College

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University of Connecticut
UConn Law School in Hartford.

When Rachel Sczurek wanted to go to college, some people told her it wasn't a good idea.

"I didn't really let that get to me," she said. "It got to me a little bit, but I graduated magna cum laude and I did really well."

Sczurek  was one of four people on the autism spectrum who spoke at a conference at the University of Saint Joseph, where she graduated in 2013. She's now a professional cake decorator. 

According to a study published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, higher education is seeing a growing number of students on the autism spectrum.

These students face many challenges throughout school, but if they decide to go college -- that's when things can get especially difficult. It's estimated that Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, affects one in 88 people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines ASD as a disability that often involves significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.

For people on the spectrum, success stories like Sczurek's are becoming more common, thanks to rising awareness at colleges of their needs, according to Jane Thierfeld Brown, director of student services at the UConn School of Law.

"Because really what we're trying to do is not just think about education," Brown said. "We're not just trying to produce students with another college degree. We're trying to produce independent successful adults. That's our goal."

Brown is also co-director of College Autism Spectrum, a group that helps autistic students and their families through the college process. She was the keynote speaker at the conference, which was held by the Center for Higher Education Retention Excellence

One of the biggest hurdles facing students with  autism is transitioning from home to college life. They have to advocate for themselves, and learn to navigate sometimes complex social situations. Their parents have fewer rights because federal privacy laws make it hard for them to be involved. Some colleges won't allow parents to be involved at all in student decisions, Brown says.

Jess Watsky is about to graduate from the UConn Law School. She describes her experience as a college student on the spectrum as a mixed bag.

"It's been miserable, it's been great," she said. "I've learned basically how to socialize and how interact with faculty -- how to basically advocate for myself and succeed in a massive pool of people and set myself apart from the pack." 

For Rachel Sczurek, she got help from the staff at the registrar's office, where she worked while at the University of Saint Joseph.

"The people were really like second moms to me," she said. "They guided me when I came in and I was upset. They always gave me great advice and that helped me so much throughout my college career."

Or as another student panelist -- Brian Michael Frank -- put it, part of being a self-advocate is knowing when, and how, to ask for help.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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