HUNTINGTON, W.Va. Andrew Reinhardt is an 18-year-old college freshman who aspires to study math and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technol-ogy, yet his mother is afraid to let him cross a busy street by himself.
Her fear is justified. Although Reinhardt is academically ready for college he scored a 27 on the ACT and had a combined SAT score of 1140 Asperger's Syndrome makes it difficult for him to cope with daily life.
He doesn't like crowded rooms. When he goes somewhere, he is single-minded, walking quickly with his dead down, body leaning forward as if into a strong wind. He sometimes pays no attention to what's going on around him, heightening his mother's fear of him crossing streets.
At Marshall University, Rein-hardt has trouble taking tests in a classroom because he is irrepressibly distracted by lawnmowers outside the window and students who may finish before he does. He misplaces things like books and pencils he can go through dozens of pencils in a semester. And he avoids working on projects with other students because he feels like they hold him back and do sloppy work.
He is able to attend college with the help of a program at Marshall's Autism Training Center which works with autism spectrum disorders like Asperger's, a neurobiological condition characterized by normal intelligence and language development with deficiencies in social and communication skills.
While many colleges have counselors and staff familiar with autism, only Marshall has a program tailored for autistic students. The program serves three of the university's 16,360 students and may eventually accommodate 10.
It will remain small by choice. The goal is not for all students with autism to attend Marshall, but for the program to become a model for other colleges, said Barbara Becker-Cottrill, the center's director.
''The true goal is for students to have the ability to attend the university of their choice. Our work will be working with other universities on how to establish a program such as this on their own campuses.''
It is not special education. Students must meet and maintain the university's academic standards, and they're required to pay, like everyone else, tuition of $1,630 for in-state residents and $4,472 for those living outside West Virginia.
Reinhardt's goal is to develop an engine that operates faster than the speed of light.
''I want to be the next Albert Einstein,'' he said with an enthusiastic smile. ''I come up with all these physics ideas all the time. I know they don't work because I don't have the education behind them. I haven't taken the calculus-based physics yet.''
He has wanted to go to college since he was in elementary school. But, as he relaxes in the center's lounge, he observes, ''I probably wouldn't go to college at a place that didn't have a place like this.''
The center offers tutoring, counseling, a quiet space to take exams and help navigating the bureaucracy and social world of college: how to schedule classes, join clubs, buy books and replace ATM cards that don't work.
As proof of the center's success, Reinhardt made the Dean's list with a 3.6 GPA after his first semester. He has been hired as a math tutor this spring.
There's no way to measure how many college students have forms of autism. Many go undiagnosed or are simply perceived as ''a little bit strange,'' said Lars Perner, an assistant professor of marketing at San Diego State University who has Asperger's Syndrome.
And no one knows how many people in the general population have autism. Some studies suggest it might affect at least 40 per 10,000 U.S. children. That's 10 times higher than estimates a decade ago, which many scientists think reflects better diagnosis. The exact cause is unknown, although both genetics and environmental factors are suspected of playing a role.
''Some of these students might be able to get into college because of fairly strong academic credentials and a reasonable academic showing. That may not mean they will be able to stay in college,'' Perner, author of a guide to selecting a college, said in a recent issue of the bimonthly Asperger's Digest.
Autistic students often drop out or do not attempt college because they have difficulty with bureaucracy, time management and taking notes, tests and required classes not in their area of expertise, Perner said.
Stephen Shore, who is finishing his doctoral degree in special education at Boston University and has been diagnosed with ''atypical development with strong autistic tendencies,'' said there is a need for programs like Marshall's.
''I think they would do much better, there would be a much higher rate of success if this type of program were available,'' said Shore, author of ''Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome.''
As researchers learn more about autism and public school services for autism improve, more autistic students are graduating from high school academically prepared for college, said Kim Ramsey, the Marshall program's director. ''The problem is, social and daily living issues are interfering.''
The Marshall program was founded two years ago with a $75,000 donation from the family of its first student, Lowell Austin, now a 19-year-old sophomore. The family wanted to honor Austin's uncle, Howard Austin, who spent his career trying to develop cognitive skills in machines. Howard Austin, who died in April 2001, was fascinated that his nephew could have both extremes of human intelligence.
The program has been a lifeline for Lowell Austin, who is majoring in sports marketing, participates in clubs and lives in a dorm, without a roommate.
''I have seen such a growth in him, his confidence, his ability to face a situation, ... his conversational skills,'' said his aunt, Ellen Austin Friend, of Athens.
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