College Dreams for My Aspie

There are plenty of kids with Asperger’s who make their way through college. We thought for sure that MJ would be one of them. But we gave up on the college dream when MJ’s level of success in her classes proved to be difficult and inconsistent. We couldn’t endure the struggles anymore and we both decided that it was time to stop fighting over it and try another path to employment. That was about 2 and a half years ago. So, it is with great excitement I report that with only 3 more classes to go MJ can graduate from community college!

It can be hard to explain to people who know MJ why she can’t get through a typical college experience. She certainly seems capable when you speak with her. She’s so obviously intelligent and her knowledge about space is impressive. They ask me, “Why doesn’t she become an engineer?” Believe me, we’ve tried our best. I’ll attempt to recap our efforts here. But before I go there I want to tell you how she ended up back in school.

As long as she’s between jobs, I thought it would be good if she could take a class. I figured that if she tackles one class at a time, she could focus and have a better shot a getting assignments turned in when they are due. So, we met with the Disability Services counselor to talk about what classes she should take and to figure out if there was any way she could finish up with a degree. We were surprised to learn that with all the coursework she’s already done she is so close to getting an Associates Degree in General Studies.

Right now she’s taking Intro to Communications during the summer session. Then she’ll have to take 2 lab sciences. She loves science and is relieved that she doesn’t have to take any more classes in design. The communications degree she was originally going for had a lot of requirements and there were some courses she had already failed and didn’t want to repeat. What a relief to know that she’ll have something to show for all the classes she’s taken!

Like many parents do, we agonized over helping her find the right school. She applied and got into a handful of schools that were not too far away. The fall after high school, MJ went to a four year college to major in engineering. The school was only about 2 hours away. We knew she would struggle to adjust to living away from home and I did my best to prepare her. We had started seeing a new psychologist because she needed to get some testing done in order to qualify for disability services and to get a letter requesting an optimum housing situation. We put in place as many things as we could so she could be successful.

I read a LOT about ways to support her. The following books were the most helpful: Realizing the College Dream with Autism or Asperger Syndrome, by Ann Palmer, Succeeding in College with Asperger Syndrome, A Student Guide, by Hohn Harper, Maria Lawlor and Michael Fitzgerald, and Top Tips for Asperger Students, How to Get the Most Out of University and College, by Rosemary Martin.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
– T.S. Eliot

One of the books suggested creating a “Resource Book.” I spent a lot of time putting one together and I was so proud of it. I even shared the digital version online with her. It had all of the contacts she would need, ways to get help for anything that could come up, directions on doing laundry, taking the bus, etc.

We also met with the Disability Support Services at the school and tried to get MJ to take advantage of the services they provide. But it was up to her to seek their help and she didn’t avail herself of the supports. Within the first 2 weeks it was already clear that she did not have it in her to juggle all that was required. Looking back, I suspect that at this point she was already overloaded and shut down. She was not getting out of bed and missed a lot of classes, falling behind and getting lost in the material.

When I finally stepped in to help and logged into her Blackboard account, I discovered that there were multiple assignments for each class that unless she checked everyday, and put them on a calendar or task list, she totally missed them. There were papers for English she never knew about, labs for chemistry that she never attended, online books she never downloaded… needless to say, she fell far behind so quickly and it was impossible to recover. We met with DSS and she was advised to drop half of the classes. She did finally get help from DSS for her Pre-calculus class. Her professor was also very supportive and she managed to pass it.

College life was rough going from the start, but we had no idea how bad it would be for her. Things seemed to go into a downward spiral as dysphoria and depression took hold. I was definitely in denial about the gender dysphoria. I thought that it would go way as she immersed herself in college work. Boy was I wrong! At the end of the semester I pulled her out and brought her home. After the winter break we enrolled her in a few classes in the local community college and continued meeting with psychologists. At some point, after a lot of searching, we switched to a therapist that has more experience with both Asperger’s and transgender kids.

It took a while before MJ figured out what to concentrate her studies on. Engineering was too hard. And, I bet some of the art classes were therapeutic. Eventually, she decided to pursue the communications degree. By the time she decided, there were quite a few courses she took that did not count toward the degree.

For the first couple of years she managed 3-4 classes at a time. But in the year we decided to pull out, she was taking 3 classes and doing OK in one of them and failing the others. She couldn’t juggle so many assignments and often failed to turn in outlines or drafts when they were due and only handed in the finished pieces. She put a ton of energy into perfecting the final and turned in excellent work but without the drafts, couldn’t make the grades.

There are programs – expensive programs, that provide more individualized support for the autism community. College Living Experience (CLE) is one of them that I’m aware of.  And a friend of mine sent her son to The Marino Campus in Florida for a class. Maybe someday MJ will want to try something like that, but not right now. She isn’t ready.

MJ is doing a wonderful job with one class. She’s focused and determined to do well. I can see that she’s using the experience to work on her deficits and is learning more about herself everyday. It’s funny to me that she is really enjoying the material. I’m surprised that my aspie could enjoy public speaking. Her interest in stand-up comedy gives her a new perspective. This week she is working on an educational speech about the practical applications of space technology that we benefit from. Of course, she’s always happy to talk about space! In her conclusion, she states that when we set our goals high, we learn more. Yes MJ, we sure do. Never stop dreaming.

The only place where your dream becomes impossible is in your own thinking.
– Robert Schuller


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