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New programs helping students with autism achieve college dreams


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OREM — Colin Doyle is a freshman at Utah Valley University. The 19-year-old is part of a growing trend: young adults with autism going to college.

"Life with autism can be hard," Doyle said. "I sometimes worry I have people judging me for doing weird things."

His biggest challenge is timing and scheduling. It's easy for him to get lost and miss classes.

Across the nation, half a million youth with autism spectrum disorder will be entering adulthood over the next decade, according to the Drexel Autism Institute. Hallmarks of college success like: flexibility, understanding social cues and unspoken rules, and sitting in large classrooms full of peers are challenging for these students.

Dr. William McMahon with the University of Utah is an advocate for these students.

"They have high GPAs and get scholarships to universities and then flunk out their first semester," he said.

That's because they deal with struggles professors may not even be aware of. For example, McMahon said, "A fluorescent light emits a hum that most of us cannot hear, but people with autism not only hear it, they're distressed by it. They have to work extra hard to filter that out."

Elliot Francis successfully navigates college, but it took him a few extra years to graduate from the University of Utah. He now works on campus and wishes he'd had more resources.

"I still don't know what most people are thinking, what most people are trying to convey when they're interacting with me," Francis said. "I have to just make really good educated guesses."


Recognizing these challenges, Utah Valley University is taking a proactive approach with a new Center for Autism going up on campus. Students with autism can participate in programs to help them with independence, self-advocacy and social connections. There will also be campus-wide training for professors.

It's the missing link Colin Doyle's mother, Naomi Doyle, has been hoping for.

"It's always worry, worry, worry, but now, for the first time since he was diagnosed, I feel like there's a light at the end of the tunnel and he has a promising future," she said.

Utah State University has a program similar to UVU's. Salt Lake Community College and the University of Utah also support students with autism.

With help, hopefully Colin Doyle and students like him will find success.

"We can blaze the trail for all those behind us," Naomi Doyle said.


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Heather Simonsen


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