At Marshall University, students with autism can find a haven

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Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated Joseph Galloway's age.

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- For Laura Beth Galloway, the Autism Training Center at Marshall University was not just a place where her autistic son could have a chance to succeed, but a haven from the misunderstanding and bullying he endured throughout his school years.

Her son Joseph, 20 and 6 feet 5, has a high IQ and a fascination with aeronautical engineering.

He is also someone who was so anxious about shopping for a suit for the prom that he paced around the family car for 20 minutes to get up the courage to go into the mall. And he is a young man who finished his high school coursework at Marshall after he was beat up at his Ohio high school.

The assault says a lot about the social difficulties of autistic students and the ways in which they unwittingly play a role in their own rejection. As Marshall training center interim director Marc Ellison recalled it, Joseph was walking through the school cafeteria when he stepped on a condiment packet. He picked it up, and looking for a way to wipe the gooey liquid off his hand, he spotted a jacket over a chair nearby, and used that, not recognizing how inappropriate that behavior was.

The jacket belonged to a school athlete, who naturally took offense, and proceeded to punch Joseph.

Mrs. Galloway, a registered nurse who works in Huntington, W.Va., where Marshall is located, said the Autism Training Center program not only allowed Joseph to escape those kind of incidents, but will now give him an opportunity to get a college degree and a possible gateway to work.

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"I feel like God put us here," she said in an interview in June. "You have to surround your child with people who see his value and see his strengths and weaknesses. He's always going to have to have a go-to person who will understand his disability, but I really feel like the sky's the limit for Joseph if he has the right employer and the right supports."

Marshall's program is the oldest in the nation to award college degrees to higher functioning students with autism, and it has only been around since 2002.

It was started with a donation of $50,000 from Alexandria, Va., businessman Larry Austin, whose son Lowell became the first student and now works at the training center.

"Marshall's program is unheralded," the elder Mr. Austin said. "I think it's one of the great unsung stories in America."

The program rests on three principles: the 45 students each have graduate student mentors who make sure they get their class work done and help them learn how to navigate the social world of college; each student lives independently in a dorm; and each student takes the same classes as non-autistic students.

That's not to say that the autistic students don't need plenty of help.

If they don't show up for class, their mentors knock on their doors. If they ask too many questions during a lecture, they may be given a limit of only asking one question per session. And if they become anxious over not knowing what a future reading assignment will be, the program will ask professors to provide a more detailed syllabus.

The university covers the tuition of the graduate student mentors and provides them with a stipend.

"We have learned that the best way for our autism students to transition into adult life is to shadow someone who has been through the undergrad experience," said Rebecca Hansen, coordinator of the center's college program. "The mentors can serve as role models, and it's really wild how much happens during a five-minute social interaction, and you'll then see the [autistic] student mirroring the same type of behavior."

While the autistic students are mainstreamed, they hardly make an overwhelming impact at the state school, which has 14,000 students.

Steven Hensley, the Marshall dean of students, said the school has a long history of serving students with disabilities, starting with physical impairments, because it sits on flat land near the Ohio River, a rare geographical feature in the mountainous state. That makes it easier for those students to move around the campus.

Ever since then, he said, "we now feel it is our obligation to serve students with disabilities. The unemployment rate is so dismal for people who are severely disabled that if we can get people who can be productive out in society, it's the right thing to do at so many levels."

The training center is proud of having the same student retention rate as the rest of the campus, but while its students are often successful in getting their degrees, finding meaningful employment is a steeper challenge.

John McGonigle, a University of Pittsburgh psychiatry professor who works with autistic adults, said it's a national problem.

"Even for high functioning folks with autism spectrum disorder," he said, "80 to 90 percent are unemployed or underemployed, and even the college graduates are often at home with their parents. They struggle, regardless of their level of ability."

Despite that, the Marshall program has drawn enthusiastic support from parents who have seen their children falter at other campuses.

One of those parents is Scott Badesch, president of the Autism Society of America, whose son Evan is starting his junior year at Marshall.

Evan is 26, and tried two other colleges before enrolling at Marshall.

His family was in Florida when he graduated from high school. He first tried a small private college near his home, but "even though the school did everything in their power to make him successful, he just couldn't fit in," his father said.

Next came a community college in Orlando, but it also didn't work well. "He gave up on education," Mr. Badesch said, "and we did too because we felt that what he needed to get support wasn't there."

The Marshall program has been a much better experience, Evan said. Not only does he rely on his mentor, but such tools as the pictorial schedule he and other students get to help them plan their days, and the chance to socialize with other students like him, have made a critical difference.

Evan's most noticeable behavior is that he pauses for several seconds before answering questions.

"I think about what that person is asking me for a minute or so before answering," he said, "because I'm not sure my response is the one the person is looking for."

That struggle to know what people want and how to gauge their intentions is a constant effort for people with autism.

Joseph Galloway treated it almost like a math problem, his mother said.

Growing up, she said, "he struggled greatly with social situations. He would go to school and come home and just be devastated, because I think people believed his behavior was a choice, and he was choosing to be obnoxious or inappropriate."

Now that he is older, she said, "he can learn, 'This is what I need to do' -- but it's robotic and he goes into every social situation thinking 'This is what I might face and this is how I should react to it,' and yet he cannot read people's expressions."

The Marshall program works hard to overcome those social deficits. It also supports itself primarily with fees, so that the state money that flows to the center can be used for its outreach program to families with autism who live throughout West Virginia.

For every 100 students who apply for admission, the school may interview 30 and admit 10-12 each year. The students have high-functioning forms of autism, but are not necessarily the most gifted high school graduates, who can often get into other colleges without needing special social supports, said Mr. Ellison, the center interim director.

Mr. Austin, the program's founder, said Marshall can often help transform students' behaviors.

"One of the things that was so frustrating about autism when I first encountered it is that wherever your child fell on the scale, the thinking was they would permanently be at that spot. When my son was first diagnosed he was profoundly autistic; now I think his autism is virtually undetectable.

"In some skill areas, it's like they have superpowers," he said. "For me, autism is not a problem that needs to be fixed, but a matter of taking advantage of their strengths."



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Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1130. Twitter @markomar. First Published October 8, 2013 8:00 PM


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