I took the other fork on the road in my journey to UC Berkeley. As a nonverbal autistic student, my road is not only less traveled by, but it is also fuzzy.
I had no idea how I would even survive university. Unlike my neurotypical peers, there were not many role models for me to follow on this road to higher education.
Last summer was a very exciting time for me — I was admitted into all the UC schools I applied to. But students like me can’t just toddle off to any school, because we need strong support systems to help navigate our university life.
When I was applying to the UC schools, I was aware that they all had a Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP — but what exactly the program did was a veritable black box to me. So it was not without some apprehension and anxiety that I met with counselors in the program at a few of these UC schools as my acceptances started coming in.
My meetings with the program counselors were encouraging on the surface. They seemed open to working with me. But I could see puzzlement in some of their eyes — I was a new type of differently abled student for them because of my atypical communication, sensory disorganization and impulsive body mannerisms.
In fact, my good friend David Teplitz and I are the first nonverbal autistic students to join UC Berkeley, according to campus DSP Director Karen Neilson. We both type to communicate and have other similar sensory challenges. Needless to say, both of us are thrilled to be here and will not give up on creating shifts in attitude.
UC Berkeley had been my dream school for more reasons than the obvious ones, such as its world ranking and its top notch academic programs. UC Berkeley is also the birthplace of the disability rights movement.
The movement was spearheaded by Ed Roberts, who was severely affected by polio. He challenged the system in the 1960s, paving the way for other physically challenged students and helping to establish DSP. The program was later expanded to include people with learning and intellectual disabilities.
I sat down with Neilson on Feb. 9 to talk about the services on campus. I liked the program’s functional approach to disability, wherein disability is essentially anything that affects major life functions, be it a broken hand, a medical condition such as cancer or a learning disability such as autism.
Disabled students are held to the same high academic standards as their typical peers, which means that they don’t get an easier or modified curriculum. But a student can, for example, get additional time for an assignment, although the number of papers has to be the same as for other students. The end goal of such DSP accommodations, as dictated by law, is to provide “access” to the educational environment.
Some of my academic accommodations include additional time for exams, use of a iPad (it’s my communication device), a laptop (I have no handwriting skills) and the use of specialized software such as MathType for my statistics and other math exams. I’m also given a notetaker for classes and allowed to take fewer courses every semester.
Neilson and I also spoke of the necessity to adapt services to suit the needs of the growing number of autistic students, as they do not fit the traditional mold of a disabled student. Neilson pointed out that many in the autism spectrum need more assistance with social skills, executive functioning and making friends. Traditionally, these issues are not thought of as accommodations, but these are essential to an autistic student’s success.
There is now a newer subset of autistic students who are college-bound — the nonverbal and the sensorily disorganized autistics like me.
While we nonverbal autistics are very much capable of meeting the highest of academic expectations, we present some unique needs with our atypical communication — such as the need for a communication partner or assistant to help keep us organized and navigate the campus — to be successful.
“Providing assistance to students with autism with communication and executive functioning is a must if we are to provide them with full access to Cal and to allow them to meet their full potential here,” Neilson said in an email.
We are, in Neilson’s words, challenging universities to think differently.
I have found DSP at UC Berkeley very willing to listen and think innovatively, which is very encouraging. It’s a learning experience for both us autistics and DSP as we figure out how to move forward. Access and services at UC Berkeley has been shaped over the years by what its students have demanded of it. At the end of the day, the continuing inclusion and success of nonverbal autistic students may well rest on us refining what “access” means and what “accommodations” mean.
You can be sure that students such as Teplitz and I will be part of the change we want to see.