Teen with Asperger's syndrome prepares for life after graduation

Jeremy Ernstoff is making plans for college -- he's headed for the University of Hartford in Connecticut, and there's no end to the preparations.

The Squirrel Hill 18-year-old, a recent graduate of Winchester Thurston, knows he has a particular challenge: "Getting used to change."

He has Asperger's syndrome, a condition thought to be on the milder end of the autism spectrum. The spectrum encompasses a range of developmental disorders involving problems with social skills and communication. In Asperger's these can include social awkwardness and an extreme, absorbing interest in certain subjects. Medications can help relieve anxiety, depression or hyperactivity, if needed by the child.

Growing up has meant learning social behavior that didn't come naturally to Jeremy.

He has seen the Hartford campus and gone through orientation, but he won't meet his roommate until fall. He's not too concerned.

"I've traveled a lot, with crew, with my friends, to Europe with my parents," he said. "If they don't accept that I have Asperger's syndrome, I could find another roommate or I would adjust to that fact."

His communication skills really got a workout at school this year, he said, when he was explaining the complex card/Internet game "Magic: The Gathering" as his senior presentation.

"I talked about statistics and strategies. It was hard to explain how to play the game. Sometimes I have to explain things again ... sometimes I say something I don't mean," he said.

He said his mom, Susan, helped him rewrite the senior project paper, pointing out the words she didn't understand.

Although he had some difficulties with people understanding his needs in elementary school, since transferring to Winchester Thurston in eighth grade, Jeremy said his experiences in school improved.

"I have supportive friends, supportive family." Besides his parents, Susan and Brian, he has a 16-year-old brother, Zachary.

"My friends try to give me cues, like when I'm doing something ..." he said. "I usually don't understand how people are looking at me. If I say something out of place, completely random, they look at you, like, 'What?' "

What are his challenges in social situations?

"Trying to start a conversation is hard, and then trying to keep on the topic of a conversation," he said. "And my overcompulsiveness, a bit."

He thought about attending college closer to home.

"At first I didn't want to go away," he said. "Then I noticed there are more opportunities away from home." He plans to study mathematics and "maybe something with music." He sings and plays clarinet and bass clarinet.

A good thing about Hartford, his mom explained, is it has a mentor program. She said it will be a far cry from his seventh-grade frustrations of being unable to cope with the noise on the school bus and people touching him in sports -- both common in people with Asperger's.

At Hartford there will be a more understanding atmosphere, she said.

"They have other adults with Asperger's. He will have a mentor of an upperclassman and a freshman." A roommate was preferable to a single room, she said ("He'd stay in his room") and Jeremy will have help keeping up with his medications.

Mrs. Ernstoff said the support at the University of Hartford also convinced Jeremy's social worker, with Mental Health America-Allegheny County, that it was the right choice for the young man.

It hasn't always been easy to find the help he needed, she said.

"You have to be an advocate for your child," she said, "I listen to parents and they think the school should do it all. But you have to do it. Winchester was wonderful. ... His friends are so accepting. His friends protect him. They don't let other kids hurt him."

She said one girl classmate told her that "[Jeremy] doesn't know how to have a conversation with me." His mom said, "I told her, 'You start the conversation, talk about what you want to talk about.' "

She's proud of her son, of his performance in a school play, of his plan to go away.

"You would never know this was a child who came into the house when he saw a dark cloud, when the weather changed," she said.

Now, Jeremy's mom said, "I think going away from me for a little while will be good for him ... It's time for him to spread his wings for a while, just a tad."

Recommended reading: "The Autism Acceptance Book: Being a Friend to Someone with Autism," by Ellen Sabin (www.wateringcanpress.com)

Jill Daly can be reached at jdaly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1596. First Published June 11, 2008 4:00 AM


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