Autism diagnoses are soaring. Here's how some colleges are responding

Colleen Schrappen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in Lifestyles

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — The first time Hailey Hall went to college, it was 2008. She lived in Georgia and had been diagnosed with autism four years before.

In high school, the diagnosis meant she had access to smaller classes and a therapy group that helped with social skills. But when college started, that all stopped.

“I was responsible for everything,” said Hall, 35, who lives in Ballwin. She ended up dropping out.

Since Hall was diagnosed two decades ago, the number of children with autism has shot up from 1 in 125 to 1 in 36. Now, college administrators across the country are responding, training staff, adapting to learning differences and promoting self-advocacy. A few local universities are even touting some success: Small steps, they say, appear to be working.

Webster University has a resource center where students learn strategies to cope with the rigors of college.

St. Louis University assembled a sensory room, with a tabletop fountain and a miniature rock garden. It had hundreds of visits last year.


And the University of Missouri-St. Louis has a two-year program that fosters interpersonal and life skills.

“It’s a retention issue,” said Jonathan Lidgus, the director of UMSL’s Office of Inclusive Postsecondary Education. “What can we do to help them persist through their undergraduate degree, to help them unlock their next steps?”

Autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disability, has no correlation with intelligence, and is marked by difficulty with social interactions, communication deficits and repetitive behaviors.

And, for many, it makes college difficult: The rate of completion for autistic students lags that of the general postsecondary population, 39% to 59%, according to the National Institutes of Health.


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