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First Published Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Berkeley Campus

Program tailored for youths with autistic disorders

Updated: 06/29/2009 11:20:17 AM PDT

Sheryl Meeuwsen’s college career started with such promise — a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“It went downhill from there,” she says. “I ended up failing out. Moved in with an aunt and uncle in Colorado Springs. Failed out of Pikes Peak Community College. I had no idea there was anything wrong with me.”

By the time Meeuwsen, then 20, was diagnosed last year with Asperger’s syndrome — which is a particularly high-functioning disorder on the autistic spectrum — she was scraping bottom, unable to figure out why things had gone so wrong.

Meeuwsen was hardly alone.

Just over a decade ago a flood of children with autistic spectrum disorders began entering regular classrooms, mainstreamed under new and significantly more forward-thinking federal regulations. They were given individualized education programs — or IEPs — that played to their strengths, helped them compensate for their weaknesses, and gave them advocates to help steer through challenges.

A number of specialized elementary and secondary schools, including Moraga’s Orion Academy and Lafayette’s Springstone, sprang up as well.

Now, those youths are starting to age out of that protective, well-supported academic environment and head off to college. And many of them are struggling.

All the challenges of freshman year are multiplied 500-fold when you’re also dealing with autistic spectrum disorders, says Janet Miller, director of Berkeley’s two-year-old College Internship Program for young adults with Asperger’s and similar disabilities.

It’s not a question of intelligence. It’s regular life they have difficulty with — getting up in the morning, prioritizing tasks, and taking care of themselves. Autism affects executive functioning, the brain’s ability to process the overwhelming surge of information that streams through our lives every moment. They have trouble interpreting events and social cues, and formulating an appropriate response.

“More and more I saw a problem that repeats itself,” says Miller, who came to Berkeley from Menlo College’s disability services department. “There’s a semester, perhaps a year, where they tried it the traditional way. Socially, they couldn’t do it. You don’t have the advocacy of an IEP team.”

And a heart-rending cycle begins. Conventional college is a disaster, so the teen lands back at home, trying to take classes at a community college, and becoming ever more socially isolated. Instead of moving forward, he goes backward.

That was the fear for Jason Kanar and his family. Kanar had spent two years as a mechanical engineering major at UC Merced, trying to tough it out.

“By fourth semester,” he says, “we realized we had to do something else.”

There was absolutely nothing wrong with Kanar’s intellect. It was everything else that was the problem.

“It’s not so much needing help with subjects, it’s just getting started,” he says. “If I don’t explicitly put out time for certain things, it doesn’t happen.”

Back home in the Danville area, Kanar’s family began researching other options, alternatives that would bridge the gap between the protected, special education environment of high school and the challenges of university life. Frankly, there just aren’t many.

In the waning weeks of last summer, as Kanar tried to hold down a job at a Target store and figure out his life, his parents chanced upon this new program in Berkeley, the latest incarnation in psychologist Michael McManmon’s 25-year-old vision of college internship programs, which started in Massachusetts.

Miller says Berkeley’s combination of academics and city life, its public transit system, and the soaring statistics on autistic spectrum disorder cases on the West Coast made it a natural choice.

In California, some 1,977 youths, ages 14 to 21, with autistic spectrum diagnoses were enrolled in public schools in 2000. By 2008, the number had risen to 11,816.

“The need has been endless,” she says, “but there was nowhere to go.”

Now the program has expanded to include a summer session for high school students with Asperger’s on the UC Berkeley campus, as well as the orientation program for incoming first years that starts in mid-July.

Some of the program’s students are like Kanar, Bay Area born and bred. Others have traveled a considerable distance, physically and emotionally, to arrive here.

“I came here in complete denial,” Meeuwsen confesses.

That denial evaporated when she came across an Asperger’s symptom checklist and found herself uttering a surprised little “Oh!” at every question. Suddenly, there was an explanation for her difficulties and, more important, help.

“Definitely, the fact that there’s been a name for it has been the most helpful,” she says. “I was so isolated in high school. I’ve come so fully out of my shell. I’m an honor student, the president of the student senate here.”

Kanar, Meeuwsen and their classmates spend much of their days together. Students share two-bedroom apartments in downtown Berkeley, cook cooperatively and attend morning classes together.

Each day starts with a reframing exercise, and a series of questions — am I hungry, tired, angry, depressed, anxious? — that serves as a sensory check-in. Students grade themselves in each area and discuss how they might cope by getting more sleep, eating a better breakfast or being more gentle and forgiving with themselves. It’s an exercise, Miller notes, that might stand everyone in good stead, not just these young adults.

About 95 percent of the California students’ tuition is covered by Regional Center funding — the same funding that helped cover their special education costs in high school.

For actual classwork they head off to lecture halls at Berkeley City College, Holy Names, Peralta College and other local campuses.

On weekends, they strike out for other areas — Point Reyes, for example, or the tea garden in Golden Gate Park — with friends. Sundays are “Grill and Chill Nights,” when students fire up the barbecue and hang out.

“They haven’t had much of this sort of thing,” says CIP marketing coordinator Dan McManmon, “this big group of friends.”

And the difference it makes in a young adult’s life can be profound, he says. It’s not just about academic success, or modern survival skills. It’s about learning to thrive independently.

Reach Jackie Burrell at jburrell@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Autistic spectrum
disorders, by the numbers
Number of children in public schools nationwide with diagnosed autistic spectrum disorders, or ASDs:

  • 1994: 22,664
  • 2006: 224,594
    Number of youths 14 to 21 with ASD in California secondary schools:
  • 2000-01: 1,977
  • 2008-09: 11,816

  • College Internship
    This postsecondary program offers academic, internship and independent living experiences — including housing and classes in downtown Berkeley — for college-age youths with Asperger’s syndrome, high-functioning autism, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other learning differences.
    CIP also offers a summer program for high school students on the UC Berkeley campus.
    For details, call
    (566-9247) or visit

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