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Autism, learning disabilities services grow on college campuses

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"There's really no standards" for such on-campus programs, said Jane Thierfeld Brown, a longtime educator in the field and author of three books, including a college guide for autism spectrum students. Some "are just seeing dollar signs."

Another problem: These highly personalized services are expensive. Unlike in K-12, there's no legal right to a free college education for disabled students. So far, the expanded options mostly benefit those who can afford to pay out of pocket.

A study last year in the journal Pediatrics found about one-third of young people with autism spectrum disorders attended college in the first six years after high school, and the numbers are certainly growing. About one in 88 children is diagnosed with a disability on the autism spectrum, according to the advocacy group Autism Speaks. More broadly, federal data show more than 700,000 US undergraduates with some kind of disability, including cognitive and physical impairments, on college campuses (about 31 percent with specific learning disabilities and 18 percent with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

Virtually all colleges now enroll at least some students with learning disabilities – 56 percent have students with autism spectrum disorder and 79 percent with diagnosed ADHD.

But the transition from high school can be rough. Federal law requires K-12 schools to provide customized support that will help students succeed. College students enjoy a vaguer right to "reasonable accommodations" that requires less of institutions. And college students have to ask for their help — a challenge for many because poor self-advocacy skills are part of their condition.

As success stories, schools point to students like Katie Fernandez, who struggled desperately through high school in Connecticut with what was eventually diagnosed as an information processing disorder.

"I studied and studied and nothing was happening," she describes it.

Still, Fernandez cried when she first visited Dean College outside Boston, a school where the president estimates close to half of students arrive with either a diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disorder.

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