Olivia Carr credits the Charterhouse School with helping her navigate college Photo by Isaac Harrell
Olivia Carr never knew she was any different from the other kids in her classes at Hermitage High School.
A young woman with strong opinions, a talent for deadpanned delivery and the smoky, throaty voice of a late-night radio DJ, Carr recounts instances in high school when other students baited her. And she remembers the day during her 10th-grade year, after baiting them back, that she found out just how different she was.
"When all the boys were talking, I would always state my opinion — the opinion wasn't nice or not nice, it was just my view," Carr says. "But there wasn't a day that went by when I could not find a fault in what they were all saying."
On this one particular day, the fault she found landed her in the principal's office — and rearranged her view of herself forever.
"He mentioned autism — and it shocked me because I didn't hear a word of this until that day," she says. Carr says she still doesn't know how much her parents knew about her autism — she was already aware of her ADHD diagnosis — but, she notes, "When I told my dad, he didn't believe me. And then he said, ‘No matter what they say about you, you're yourself.' "
Being yourself in high school — where federal law requires support services for students with identified learning disabilities — is one thing. But being yourself can be increasingly difficult for many students with high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome as they graduate high school and face the daunting prospect of college or work.
Cut off from the federally mandated support services of primary and secondary school, autistic students frequently founder in a university setting where so much emphasis is placed on interpersonal skills and independence. It was a worry for Carr and her parents as she prepared to graduate from Hermitage.
But a groundbreaking program being piloted at Richmond's United Methodist Family Services Charterhouse School aims to bridge the higher-education gap for autism spectrum disorder and Asperger's students. Called Courage to Succeed, the program began in earnest last year with just a handful of students, Carr among them. The four students enrolled at J. Sargeant Reynolds, where Courage to Succeed is helping them to overcome the stressful and confusing transition to independence. Three more students will join them this fall.
Sitting with her fellow students in the dayroom at UMFS' Charterhouse School, which also serves as a study hall and tutoring center for the program, Carr looks relaxed. She says the program has helped her stay on track through her first two semesters at J. Sargeant Reynolds, where she is following her dream of working with children.
It's clear that Courage to Succeed answers a need, but how great a need remains unclear: So little data exists on university and college students with Asperger's or high-functioning autism that many academic papers on the topic are prefaced with an acknowledgement of this statistical deficit.
Even the title of one of the few studies on the issue, "After High School: A First Look at the Postschool Experiences of Students with Disabilities," published in 2005, speaks to the fledgling state of research on autism in higher education. Equally telling, as one follow-up report noted, is that "of the 14,637 individuals with autism in the [After High School study], 46 percent were involved in post-secondary education at some level," a significant segment of the population.
Despite the lack of empirical information, there was ample anecdotal evidence of the need for a program like Courage to Succeed, says Sasha Yazdgerdi, associate clinical director of educational services at Charterhouse, who is deeply involved in developing the program. And the mere fact that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control stats indicate that about one in 150 children will be diagnosed with some autism spectrum disorder is evidence enough of need.
"We knew through word of mouth that there are many kids with autism that go to college, but they end up failing," says Erik K. Laursen, vice president of learning and development at Charterhouse. Often it's not the student's inadequacy — students with autism or Asperger's typically fall at the high end of other spectrums like IQ or grade point averages — but rather the simple fact that when an autistic student enters an environment where they have to self-advocate, they're woefully unprepared.
Even for students without disabilities that hinder clear communication, it's daunting enough to approach a professor about their situation or to search out on-campus resources. For a student with Asperger's or autism, the challenge can be insurmountable. Students in the Courage to Succeed program work with tutors who help them keep on top of studies, and counselors help them express their needs to university officials. "College is super scary," Yazdgergi says. "You're incredibly independent, and you have to be super motivated, and ideally your parents aren't there pushing you forward."
She points to an anecdote that's become almost legend in the local autism-services community. A student in his first year of college was having difficulty completing an assignment, a 500-word essay on a topic that he was well versed in. After days of mounting anxieties, during which he failed to produce the paper, he was finally asked why he was having so much trouble. The issue came down not to a lack of knowledge, but to his literal interpretation of the professor's assignment.
Where most kids would take the 500-word limit simply as a general goal, Yazdgerdi says, the student's autism — his difficulty understanding the basic gist of the assignment — meant he'd spent days agonizing over how to trim his paper to exactly 500 words. He nearly missed his deadline until someone finally figured out his roadblock.
"It's the ability to put it all together, and to interpret and to draw conclusions," she says. "We try to work on executive function skills: study skills, organizational skills, linking concepts together" to help students interpret what they're learning in class.
The program really provides the next step in the progression to independence for students with autism, she says. The objective is to see students enter the workforce, or to move forward to a four-year institution better prepared to succeed.
There's a clear need for such a transition program, says Richmond School Board representative Kimberly Gray, who also serves on the board of Charterhouse.
"They have the capacity," Gray says of students with autism and Asperger's with the grades to move beyond high school. "This is a communication disorder, so in order to be successful, you have to be able to communicate your ideas, your needs and your understanding of information. A lot of times they're not able to do that without the proper support."
Gray is particularly hopeful that the program eventually will expand enough to attract financial aid for students from lower-income families. Currently, the pilot program costs $16,000 a year, making it cost-prohibitive for many families without means.
Yazdgerdi says the hope is to quickly expand the program, a move that could bring the current costs down as economies of scale kick in. "Once we have enough students, then it can offset some of the cost," she says.
Meanwhile, the program is getting tangible results. Carr has maintained her grades.
So has Paul Switzer, a Thomas Dale High School graduate who, with Carr, is in the Courage to Succeed inaugural class. Tall, with short, dark hair combed forward toward his face to evoke a Spock-like intensity, Switzer's even-toned manner emphasizes the look, and only his frequent subtle wisecracks — often referencing his love of food or video games — break the illusion. "Lunch," he says, when asked about his favorite subject at J. Sargeant Reynolds.
But when asked whether Courage to Succeed has made a difference in his future, he becomes serious again. "It's providing me a group of friends," Switzer says. "It's also providing me the services to help me study. There's someone here to actually help me to overcome my problems.
"I do feel I have more opportunities now," he adds. And where might he be without Courage to Succeed? "Confused. Uninterested, probably."