College aid for disabled students on the rise

Justin Pope / The Associated Press /


Published Sep 15, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — As he sits in class at Eastern Michigan University, a flood of images streams from Tony Saylor’s vibrant, creative mind down through his pen and onto paper.

Often, his doodling features the 9-year-old character Viper Girl who battles monsters with her pet fox Logan. Saylor, 22, has even self-published three books of their adventures.

Saylor’s professors didn’t exactly welcome his constant drawing, but once he explained it was the only way he could hope to process their lectures — and even to stay awake — most let him continue.

For college students with autism and other learning disabilities, this is the kind of balancing act that takes place every day — accommodating a disability while also pushing beyond it toward normalcy and a degree, which is increasingly essential for finding a meaningful career.

But Saylor and a growing number like him are giving it a shot. Students who would once have languished at home, or in menial jobs, or struggled unsuccessfully in college, are finding a new range of options for support services to help.

“I knew I didn’t want to work in the fast food industry my whole life,” Saylor said, sitting at the kitchen table of his family’s home in this Detroit suburb, where he lives while commuting to EMU. His mother, Angela Saylor, says a 3-year-old program at EMU that supports autistic students — a graduate student who works with the program attends all his classes with him — has been a godsend.

Such programs within traditional universities, offering supplemental support for additional tuition, are sprouting up around the country. “The K&W Guide to College Programs for Students With Learning Disabilities or AD/HD” has grown steadily since its precursor was first published in 1991, and now lists 362 programs, the majority of them now comprehensive services.

Meanwhile, other parts of the landscape are also expanding. College disability service offices (whose help is usually free) are also improving. Care centers, often for-profit and unaffiliated with colleges, are popping up near campuses and offering supplementary support. Finally, institutions with a history of serving large numbers of students with learning disabilities are growing, some adding 4-year degrees.

“This is the best time ever for students who learn differently to go to college,” said Brent Betit, a co-founder of Landmark College in Vermont, which opened in 1985 with a then-unique focus on such students and now has a range of competitors. Among those Betit mentioned: programs within the University of Arizona and Lynn University in Florida, plus Beacon College, also in Florida, which like Landmark has a comprehensive focus on students with disabilities.

“There are better programs available than at any time in history,” Betit said. “I think that’s in part because of the entrepreneurial nature of the United States. When there’s a need out there, and a business market available, people respond.”

But the new players also bring new challenges. Families who would once have struggled to find options struggle to choose among them. Some experts, meanwhile, are concerned about the growth of for-profit providers, sometimes charging $50,000 or more. There are also concerns some enrollment-hungry colleges themselves are starting these high-priced services to attract students with disabilities, but lack the expertise or financial commitment to offer what they truly need.

That’s what happened to Saylor, who spent two miserable years at a design and technology-focused school in Flint before learning about EMU’s new program from his sister, a student there.

“We were led to believe there was more support than there was” at the previous institution, said his mother, who found herself having to constantly help Tony from afar. Tony says simply: “It was horrible.”

“There’s really no standards” for such on-campus programs, said Jane Thierfeld Brown, a longtime educator in the field and author of three books, including a college guide for autism spectrum students. Some “are just seeing dollar signs.”

Another problem: These highly personalized services are expensive. Unlike in K-12, there’s no legal right to a free college education for disabled students. So far, the expanded options mostly benefit those who can afford to pay out of pocket.

A study last year in the journal Pediatrics found about one-third of young people with autism spectrum disorders attended college in the first six years after high school, and the numbers are certainly growing. About one in 88 children is diagnosed with a disability on the autism spectrum, according to the advocacy group Autism Speaks. More broadly, federal data show more than 700,000 U.S. undergraduates with some kind of disability, including cognitive and physical impairments, on college campuses (about 31 percent with specific learning disabilities and 18 percent with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

Virtually all colleges now enroll at least some students with learning disabilities — 56 percent have students with autism spectrum disorder and 79 percent with diagnosed ADHD.

But the transition from high school can be rough. Federal law requires K-12 schools to provide customized support that will help students succeed. College students enjoy a vaguer right to “reasonable accommodations” that requires less of institutions. And college students have to ask for their help — a challenge for many because poor self-advocacy skills are part of their condition.

Tony Saylor isn’t sure what the future holds. The immediate plan is to keep living at home. He admits his shyness and awkwardness have made it hard to make friends outside class. And he sounds like a lot of college students these days when he says he isn’t sure what his degree (children’s literature and theater) will offer him, only that he’ll be better off than without it.

Angela Saylor says she’s grateful for what EMU has offered, but knows how lucky she was to come across the program, and how hard it can be for others to find a good fit.

“I see more information becoming available,” she said. But still, “given the statistics on the number of people being diagnosed with autism,” she said, “they’re going to have to come up with more options.”