BY MARY SOLBERG | FAITHLIFE
Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a two-part series on autism and the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst University in Erie.
Paul Cohen, a junior at Mercyhurst University in Erie, didn’t start speaking fully until he was about 5 years old.
His mother, Julia Guttman, an attorney in Washington, D.C., describes the constant care and understanding necessary to diagnose and raise a child on the autism spectrum.
“I guess I tried to take it one year at a time,” Guttman says. “If he was doing well, then I thought the next year would be better. When he was little, I had no idea how he would develop. I talked to friends who had children with various developmental issues. It was more cobbling things together.”
As in Cohen’s case, autism usually appears in early childhood, mostly among boys, and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. According to the Autism Society, more than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), considered to be the fastest-growing developmental disability in the country.
In Cohen’s lifetime, the prevalence of autism in the United States jumped dramatically, according to the Autism Society, from 1 in 150 births in 2000, to 1 in 68 in 2014. Understanding the complexity of the neurological disorder can be a difficult learning curve for parents as well as for those with autism.
That’s why Mercyhurst University, in 2008, founded the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM). Its goal is to assist students like Cohen to advocate for themselves and to develop much-needed social skills that will put them on the path to academic success and, hopefully, meaningful employment.
Since the program’s inception, 22 students on the autism spectrum have graduated with four-year degrees from Mercyhurst, says Brad McGarry, director of AIM. Currently, AIM enrolls 60 students from all over the world. It is one of the oldest and largest autism support programs in the country.
“AIM is a fine line between enabling and empowering,” says Brad McGarry, director. “For the parents of these students, a four-year college away from home is not doable, but with the support of AIM it is. It’s a leap of faith on the part of parents.”
Guttman and Janet Slaby, the mother of Mercyhurst grad Ryan Slaby, agree. AIM staff meet weekly with students to keep them on task with coursework. Students also are required to join at least two extracurricular activities in order to improve social skills. Optional experiential adventures—including trips to the Grand Canyon in the western U.S., and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa—boost student confidence. Career training offers mock interviews and assists with job placement.
Cohen, a history major, has taken advantage of everything, including internships at the International Institute in Erie and the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
“I think Paul is going to be able to live on his own and I think he will get a job someday, but he’ll have more challenges,” Guttman says. “He’ll be much better prepared because of the AIM program.”
For Janet Slaby, Mercyhurst’s Catholic tradition and small size were beneficial for her son Ryan, who now is working full-time for KeyBank in Cleveland.
“We’re Catholic, so it made me feel a sense of peace,” Slaby says. “It instilled in him confidence and a belief in himself.”
Paul Cohen also is Catholic, but that’s not a requirement to attend Mercyhurst, a university founded in 1926 by the Sisters of Mercy in Erie.
He’s involved in several campus organizations, including Colleges Against Cancer, Circle K International, and Mercyhurst Campus Ministry. He joined the excursion to Tanzania, and traveled this fall to New York City, where he was interviewed along with other students for a Netflix documentary, “This Business of Autism,” scheduled to be aired in April 2018.
“AIM has allowed me to soar,” Cohen, 21, says.
Cohen met recently in McGarry’s office with three other AIM students: Kevin Thomas, a senior majoring in English; Rachael Wilson, a sophomore with a double major in English and history; and June Durkee, a first-year student who plans to major in sports business.
They frankly discussed the difficulties that have plagued them since childhood—stuttering, isolation, an inability to focus. Most take advantage of on-campus housing dedicated to AIM students, who generally experience less stress living with each other.
“It’s really nice to have people who understand what goes on in my head,” Wilson says. “A lot of my friends are not on the spectrum, so they act like they know, but they don’t really get it. People who I’m friends with at AIM really get me.”
Adds Durkee, who was officially diagnosed with autism in her senior year of high school: “The diagnosis gave me another perspective. Now I fully understand why I might have been timid in my early days.”
Thomas, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3, acknowledges having certain ticks and mannerisms that make it difficult in social situations. But AIM, he says, helped him make important life decisions.
“I’ve figured out more of what I want to do,” says Thomas, who hopes to land a proofreading/editing job after graduation.
In that regard, students with autism are like any college-age students trying to find their way.
Says Cohen, “I’ve learned about accepting myself.”