Apr 01, 2013 0 Share

You Say Disability, I Say Autism

Illustration of autism awareness ribbon.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I sometimes have a tendency to forget that “disability” and “autism” are not synonymous. I especially need to remind myself of that fact when it comes to sniffing out postsecondary options for Cameron. I recently attended yet another information session on yet another program for students with disabilities. This particular program was a four-week summer session designed to prepare students with disabilities for college. See? There’s another word with a meaning I have a tendency to forget: “college” and “postsecondary education” are not the same. When I signed up to attend a session on a program on "College Preparation for Students With Disabilities,” a specific type of "student" and a certain type of "college" came to mind. But as I sat in this session, the definitions of "disability" and "college" started coming back to me.

As usual, the information imparted at this session stirred my soul. I suppose when you have no idea what the future holds, everything sounds like a good idea. But teaching prospective college students study skills, using a drama course to teach self-advocacy, and practicing reading college-level texts for comprehension seem like great things for a student with disabilities to learn. At least some students with some disabilities … Sitting in the familiar setting of my son's school, among parents I know and among students whose learning profiles are familiar to me, the vastness of the term "disability" became apparent. When a fellow parent asked the question that was on my mind: "What if a student has no hopes of being able to comprehend college-level text?" and the facilitator responded, "Well, she'll have to read college level text in college!" I began to realize the presenter didn't know her audience. We were a group very familiar with language-based learning disabilities and high-functioning autism. When we hear "disability" that's what we think. There was a bit of a mismatch of definition in the room. Most of us in the audience didn't aspire for our students to take credit courses in college. We were looking for continuing educational opportunities beyond high school. And preparation for what lies ahead sounds like a good way to spend the summer. Little did we know that this program was aimed at preparing them for something that was likely out of reach for most of us.

Cameron seemingly not having the appropriate disability for this program wasn't the only thing that bothered me. There was discussion about the need for participants to stay for the entire session each day due to the disruption caused when students leave early. A student who leaves early apparently requires a staff member escort to the pick-up zone, and is very disruptive indeed. Excuse me? Students aged 16 to 21 that are being prepared for "college" cannot walk out of a building unescorted? This struck me as a little counterintuitive. I'm not aware of any college's Department of Disability Services offering "adult supervision to and from the carpool line" as a reasonable accommodation.

So this wouldn't be a program suitable for Cameron. But I wouldn't consider the evening spent learning about an unsuitable program a total loss. I have now had a reminder of the fact that disability doesn't just mean autism. And not all college programs for students with disabilities are suitable for students with autism. Just as not all college programs for students with autism will be suitable for Cameron. I'll keep looking. I've got about 18 months to find something. It may well take that long to find a keeper.