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School aims to bridge gap for those with Asperger's, autism

Posted by on Jul. 8, 2011 at 11:54 AM
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School aims to bridge gap for those with Asperger's, autism

By Greg Mellen, Staff Writer
Updated: 07/07/2011 10:44:53 PM PDT

LONG BEACH — The offices still have a new-paint smell. The future computer room is vacant and dark, and furniture is on its way.

But the College Internship Program is up and running in Long Beach, albeit in skeletal form, and the first applications are being processed.

By August, organizers say the campus on Pacific Coast Highway near the Traffic Circle will be abuzz with its inaugural class and mirroring what its sister campuses have been doing nationally since 1984.

The name College Internship Program may not be revealing. But the mission, to "prepare young adults with Asperger's and other learning disabilities" describes the group's lofty aspirations.

Asperger syndrome is often referred to as a high-functioning form of autism and one of the disabilities that students at the College Internship Program will have. The disorder is often found in conjunction with other learning disabilities, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The students will be young adults like Merritt Wilson, a 23-year-old, who is a filmmaking aficionado and expert.

"His problem isn't filmmaking, his problem is navigating the world," says his mother, Caroline Wilson, who is also the executive director of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Autism Society of America.

interact well with others or understand how to use his knowledge.

Merritt Wilson has high-functioning autism and so, while he is an expert with incredible knowledge about certain aspects of film, he also lacks the ability to

A program like College Internship Program seeks to bridge the gaps that keep these students from success, independence and happiness.

Susan Levy, program director at the Long Beach school who is also the mother of a learning-disabled son, says most of the students have tried college or been employed and either dropped out of school or failed at the job.

According to Levy, less than 2percent of students with identified learning disabilities who graduate from high school attend colleges.

In the cases of many, it's not that they can't understand the subject matter, it's managing everything else that gets in the way.

And while a learning disabled student often has many resources available through high school, after that they are often left adrift and isolated.

At the College Internship Program, the college experience is really only a part of the equation. In fact, only about half will attend college, while the rest will look for jobs.

Students will also live together at nearby apartments, meet regularly to learn how to do things, from the complex to the mundane, and have mentors, friends, tutors and lots of one-on-one guidance. Maybe most importantly, they'll share a sense of community.

Soon after enrolling, students will be placed into varied internship programs based on their skills and abilities.

It's not cheap. Tuition runs between about $40,000 and $72,000 and doesn't include regular college class fees or room and board. Levy says the school has limited tuition money.

About half of the students will be referred by the Harbor Regional Medical Center, which may pick up some or all of the costs.

As students progress and require fewer services, tuition and costs decrease.

"The less we're needed the better we're doing," Levy says.

Among its successes, the national school says half of its students attended a college or certification program and

56 percent of students held a job continuously over the past year. About 35 percent of alumni report they pay their own living expenses and another 35 percent get by with assistance, while 56 percent are independently living in apartments. Seventy-one percent say they maintain a circle of friends and take part in community events and activities.

To some people, that may not seem like much. But to parents of the learning disabled, that can be everything.

Levy says that if students can have a social group and learn to stand up for themselves, much of the rest of their lives will fall into place.

"We'll help each student reach their fullest potential, whatever that is for the student," Levy says.

Or as Sarah Williams, who works with the school and hopes to enroll her own son, says, success looks like this: "My hope and dream is he'll be a full member of society - and be happy."

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1291

http://www.presstelegram.com/news/ci_18437382

by on Jul. 8, 2011 at 11:54 AM
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