College transitions bring unique challenges for those with autism

The following is the first in a series of monthly articles detailing autism in the college environment.

As a freshman at Utah Valley University, 19-year-old Rafael Vargas has a lot to remember. Like most students, he has to remember to get to class on time, do his homework and study. But unlike most students, he also has to remember to make eye contact, deduce if someone is being sarcastic or not and keep conversations going.

“I never introduce myself saying I have autism,” Vargas said. “I never do that. I challenge myself to be normal.”

The Vargas family emigrated from the Philippines when Rafael was around 10 years old. He remembers being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in the fifth grade while in the United States when his parents met with a special education teacher. He’s had to go to speech therapy, but currently isn’t in therapy.

Vargas, who is from Heber City and living in Orem, has started his college career pursuing a major in information systems and technology because he’s fascinated with computers, but, like most first-year students, he’s still weighing his options.

The services for people with autism greatly decrease as they hit adulthood in what’s referred to as “the services cliff.” But at UVU, the Passages program is looking to help ease the transition.

Around 30 students are enrolled in the program this semester. The program runs for nine weeks and includes classes and social activities. Students learn strategies about how to be successful in college, deal with roommates, learn social skills and learn about dating.

“We want to make sure we give them a strong foundation right off the bat,” said Laurie Bowen, the program’s coordinator.

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental, social communication disorder. Some people on the spectrum consider themselves neurodiverse. Nationwide, about 1 in 68 children have autism, but in Utah, 1 in 54 will be diagnosed.

People with autism may respond inappropriately in social situations, have difficulty forming friendships, be highly sensitive to changes and be dependent on routines.

Since starting in the summer of 2014, Passages gives the students, many of who have been bullied in high school for their diagnosis, a safe place to fail as they work on social skills.

“Sometimes those skills get taken for granted because some people pick that up naturally and some people don’t,” Bowen said. “And when you don’t, that can be pretty intimidating and I think what happens is people stay on the outside and observe or just give up on it.”

And while entering college in general can be a stressful time, it can become a sensory overload for someone on the spectrum.

“All the sounds and sights and smells coming together, that can be overwhelming and intimidating,” Bowen said.

Last year, 69 percent of the Passages group had depression, and only 34 percent had a driver’s license.

For some of the students, adjusting to college life could require help navigating through red tape. For one student, Bowen said he would come to a door, and once it was opened he’d feel comfortable entering what was previously an unknown building.

“If they get that scaffolding or that support, they can be very successful,” Bowen said.

Students have to fill out an application and undergo an interview before being selected to be in the program. But many students on campus with autism don’t self-identify as having it.

For Vargas, most people don’t know of his diagnosis.

He’s currently looking for work, but is focusing on school first. He’s previously worked at a barbecue place as a busboy and a cook, but never told his boss he had autism. In the future, Vargas said, it might come up.

“I think there’s a point I have to tell him that I have autism,” he said.

Making friends isn’t a priority for him right now, he said, and due to sensory sensitivity, Vargas also can’t wear Under Armour or silk shirts.

“I don’t like those shirts that make you comfortable,” Vargas said. “Some of them are itchy, or every time you move, it’s like, ow. It hurts.”

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