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With support, autistic students find greater success in college

It's bedtime in her Arizona home on a recent summer night as Catherine Moreno softly taps her son's forehead, a gentle reminder to come back.

"You're with mommy now, be with mommy," Moreno says.

Daniel, her 10-year-old son, has been diagnosed with autism. For kids like Daniel, it is hard to stop themselves from slipping into their own little world, to escape from the nearly constant sensory overload that comes with the disorder.

Daniel is one in 110 children in America who has been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and those numbers are climbing, according to, making autism more common than pediatric AIDS, juvenile diabetes and childhood cancers combined.

That rise has coincided with an era of increased acceptance of those with disabilities, which partly explains why more students with autism are enrolling in college and earning degrees.

There are different levels of functionality for those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders, a range of developmental disorders which includes Aspergers Syndrome, Rett Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. For many with ASD, socializing doesn't come easy, because of sensory hypersensitivity and the failure to pick up on social cues.

Steven Moody, a junior and psychology major at Utah Valley University, has been diagnosed with high-functioning Aspergers. Moody worries about parking, class assignments and making deadlines, like every other student, but he also has other stresses others don't.

Moody had to learn through trial and error the right amount of eye contact to make during conversations and even the appropriate number of questions to ask.

The social struggles also make it difficult for Moody and others with ASD to approach an instructor about their special needs. Approaching an instructor can be intimidating, and Moody is often hesitant.

At UVU the Accessibility Center will often speak with professors on behalf of students seeking assistance, and will ask instructors to be more understanding to a student's particular needs, as well as be clear about expectations and assignments, according UVU's Director of Accessibility Services, Edward Martinelli.

These students "take things very literally, so they need specifics and examples," Martinelli said. "We encourage communication to be done by email. That can be helpful because they get specific information and they can go back and read it again. It can also be easier for them to compose an email than to speak face to face."

Martinelli believes autistic students are getting "better support before they go to college, so they can get in and do well." And while Diane Baum, director of Utah State University's Disability Resource Center, many of her students have been in resource rooms from K through 12, which contributes to their collegiate preparation.

There is no easy way to document the increasing number autistic students going to college, but the disability resource centers at Utah colleges and universities have seen an increase in the number of ASD students seeking academic assistance the last few years, said USU's Baum and Steve McAward, director of the University of Utah's Center for Disability Services.

In 2007 when the University of Utah's Center for Disability Services first began tracking numbers, they assisted 14 students with Aspergers syndrome and three with autism. In the 2010-11 school year they were able to set up accommodations for 25 students with Aspergers.

"The fact that we are getting an increase shows that they can be successful at college," McAward said.

The number of ASD students in college has increased across the nation, said Martinelli. Some are inspired by the story of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman whose academic success and scientific career were portrayed in the eponymous 2010 HBO movie that won seven Emmy Awards. Time Magazine listed Grandin on its list of influential 25 heroes of 2010.

"What do neurologists, cattle, and McDonald's have in common?" the Time article asked. "They all owe a great deal to one woman...Temple Grandin….an extraordinary source of inspiration for autistic children, their parents — and all people."

College resource centers provide a practical bridge for the gap between the student's disability and the curriculum. A college student's chosen field of study can also help create a more comfortable environment that is more manageable for them.

Moody is a psychology major who hopes to major in art history after transferring to the U.

"I find human behavior fascinating, especially coming from someone who has high-functioning Aspergers," Moody said.

His interest in art history stemmed from the lives of the artists themselves.

"A lot of artists have had similar lives, they had trouble interacting with other students, they would get picked on," Moody said. "They were told over and over that the things they enjoyed would never get them anywhere."

"No matter what your struggle is," he added, "there is always something you can do with your life."