Autism no hurdle for HCC freshman

CT Post, January 14, 2008

BRIDGEPORT - Sitting in the quiet atrium of Housatonic Community College, Austin Smith, 18, talks about his goal of becoming a writer.

The college freshman, with short hair and glasses, makes eye contact and is not at a loss for words as he talks about school, family and getting where he needs to go by bus.

A driver's license is still a work in progress.

Smith found sociology, a first semester course, interesting, although he could have done without all the reading. He looks forward to taking a psychology class in the spring, but not math as much, which will be taught partially online.

He apologizes for not bringing his worn set of playing cards that might convince a skeptic that he really is autistic.

"My repetitive urge is to shuffle cards. Over time, they begin to develop a sweat rash," he said. "That's mainly what I do."

Shuffling cards, sometimes endlessly, offers a level of comfort that Smith finds hard to describe, but which he hopes to put into words when he pens his first book about living with Asperger's syndrome.

One of a number of disorders in the autism spectrum, Asperger's syndrome is a condition characterized by poor social skills, distractedness and abnormally intense, repetitive rituals and preoccupations.

In addition to card shuffling, Smith has a deep fascination with Japanese animation. He knows elaborate details about their complex story lines and could spend all day with them.

Smith said his urges don't surface on campus,

though he confides that the semester break gives him "more time for my cards."

Lynne Langella, a learning disabilities specialist at HCC for 10 years, said the college enrolls at least one new student with a type of autism every year.

There could be more. Langella only knows of those who seek her office for help.

Some students with autism disorders have behavior that gets in the way of their studies. Others have done quite well, Langella said. One recent Housatonic graduate diagnosed as autistic, she said, is now completing studies for a bachelor's degree at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

HCC is a flexible place for students to come, Langella said. Students with Asperger's who don't like crowds can be given a schedule that includes classes at off-peak hours.

Others can get more time to complete assignments, or can tape-record lectures.

Smith, according to his father, Patrick Smith, is a good advocate for himself and frequents the college's Learning Center, which provides tutoring.

Austin Smith said he doesn't like "playing the autism card."

"To be honest, I sometimes forget that I'm autistic," he said.

Patrick Smith is glad he and his ex-wife, Catherine Smith Pech, ignored the prognosis one doctor gave when Austin was 5 years old.

"He painted a doom and gloom picture. He said he would probably never amount to anything," Smith's father said.

Smith's parents knew there was something wrong when their son was about 2 years old.

Patrick Smith, an investigator for the court system in New York, said Austin wouldn't make eye contact, suffered night terrors and had an obsession with a Slinky toy.

He wore it on his arm and didn't want to be separated from it.

Austin's mother, at first, thought the behavior was a reaction to the arrival of younger sister Kelsey. He was not interacting. He was not affectionate. He touched everything. He arranged trains and other toys in straight lines.

His parents looked for answers. They were living on Long Island and enrolled him in a prekindergarten program for children with disabilities. They worked on getting Austin to make eye contact and improve motor skills.

In 1995, the family moved to Bridgeport. Smith attended standard classes at Maplewood School through third grade. Then, with the help of a diagnosis from the Yale Child Study Center, he was enrolled at the Foundation School in Milford. There, classes were small and the curriculum was tailored to Smith's needs, both parents said.

The Foundation School focused on honing life skills and offered vocational training. Smith called it a pretty good experience, although he wishes he had been better prepared in math.

"I felt I belonged there," he said.

Mike Nicholson, director of the Foundation School, said more and more colleges are recognizing that students with Asperger's Syndrome, given the right support, can succeed.

Last year, two out of 10 Foundation School graduates went on to post-secondary education, he said.

Smith said he had no more trouble adjusting to college than any teen dealing with time management issues.

His grades are good. He hasn't made many friends at Housatonic, but explained students at a community college don't tend to stick around after class.

In a first semester composition class, the first essay he wrote was a descriptive narrative. He decided to write about being autistic.

"I was talking to a classmate before class started. I told her my topic. She would never have guessed," he said.

Smith discovered a love of writing in his sophomore year of high school. He was assigned to keep a daily journal. One day, he was asked to describe winter with his senses and wrote a poem. People responded to it. He wrote more.

The book he is writing will describe what his life has been like until now.

"I do have the trait of wanting to be solitary a lot of times, but I also come out of my shell," he said, adding, "In a lot of ways, I don't think of it as a disability."

For the last couple of summers, Smith has worked at Northern Frontier, a camp associated with a service brigade at Black Rock Congregational Church that Smith belongs to. Both his parents say faith is important to their son.

Smith lives with his father in Bridgeport, but visits his mom, who now lives in Cheshire, often.

Pech, who works for a veterinarian's office, said she has learned by trial and error how to deal with her son's diagnosis.

"He needs to know what is going to happen when," Pech said.

"He's gotten better over the years but even now, if you throw a curve ball to his schedule, he flips out," said his father. "He wants to know what's for dinner. What time I'll be home."

After Housatonic, Smith plans to transfer to a four-year college. He hasn't decided where, but wants to major in creative writing.

"Austin thinks outside the box," said his father, who has grown to accept the card shuffling, though it still drives him crazy.

Smith said he can go for up to a week resisting the urge to shuffle cards. "I'm not sure how much longer than that," he said.

Usually, the cards are arranged in a certain order. In the summer, if it rains or gets humid, the cards' texture begins to feel uncomfortable, and he has to get a new deck.