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Demand high for MU's Asperger program

Apr. 19, 2008 @ 10:28 PM

HUNTINGTON -- When Rebecca Wallen first read about Asperger Syndrome, she couldn't believe her eyes.

"It sounded like they had written the book about my son," she said.

While much remains to be known about this form of autism, advocates say programs and services continue to be needed locally. A college program for students with Asperger syndrome has been available at the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University since 2002, but waiting lists abound.

The lists -- which seem to exist for all programs at the Autism Training Center -- reflect the dramatic increase in autistic disorder diagnoses nationwide, according to Barbara Becker-Cottrill, executive director of the center.

"We just have not had the capability to keep up with the demand for services," she said.

Approximately 1,480 families in West Virginia are registered for assistance from the Autism Training Center, she said. Services range from family coaching to teacher training.

Becker-Cottrill said waiting lists should be reduced, though, as the center will be able to serve more people thanks to $1 million allocated to the Autism Training Center this past legislative session.

Asperger is an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) considered to be a mild, high-functioning form of autism. It often includes characteristics like peculiar speech and problems with non-verbal communication such as gestures. People with ASDs range from gifted to severely challenged.

Wallen's teenage son was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome a few years ago, at age 14. He had previously been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and was told in elementary school that he was above average verbally but below average in writing and expression. He also has what Wallen calls sensory issues -- with extreme sensitivity to certain materials and sounds. He wears the same types of shoes, pants and T-shirts each day.

The Marshall program supports students with Asperger syndrome who have the grades to be accepted into the school. The program helps them navigate university life, Becker-Cottrill said.

The program pairs students with staff who use a positive behavior support approach to assist students with social, communication, academic, leisure and personal living needs.

"Academically, they don't need much support. But they do need someone to say, 'Your paper's due next week. Have you started it?' " Becker-Cottrill said.

While many students may need reminders, such needs are greater for students with Asperger's, she said.

"Our kids might do their homework but leave it in the dorm and not understand that's not where it's supposed to be," she said.

Fourteen students are currently enrolled in the program, which has a waiting list of more than 200 people from all over the United States.

Becker-Cottrill said the program is successful and unique. It recently was featured on ABC's "Good Morning America" as one of few programs in the country specifically for students with Asperger syndrome.

Ruth Christ Sullivan, former director of the Autism Services Center in Huntington and mother of Joseph Sullivan, who was an inspiration for "Rain Man," called the Marshall center the best in the country.

She said the Asperger program gives students who are often overlooked and usually too disorganized or anxious to sit in a classroom a chance to succeed.

Wallen said children with Asperger syndrome tend to get "lost in the cracks." The average person probably can't find anything different about her son at first, for example, she said. However, something like a ball in his sock will cause him to panic.

She said the diagnosis can be devastating for some people, who may feel overwhelmed and not know where to turn. The Huntington area is fortunate, she said, because of the support of places like the Autism Training Center and the people of the Huntington Area Autism Society.

Dealing with Asperger syndrome may require a different way of thinking and teaching, but the experience doesn't have to be negative, Wallen said.

"Your child is just as special as anything. They're just as smart as before," she said. "You just have to go about things differently."

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