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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Autism and College

At The American Thinker, Robert Weissberg writes:
It is not easy being a connoisseur of educational foibles -- just as one is recovering from the latest foolishness, along comes something new, and it's back to the anti-depressants. The latest installment of Educators Gone Wild is the push to enroll the "intellectually disabled" in college. We are not talking about attracting eccentrics; these recruits are youngsters with Down Syndrome, autism, and other disabilities that seriously impede learning. This is college for those stymied by reading and writing.

Eight years ago, a mere four campus programs existed for the intellectually disabled; by 2009, this has soared to 250 in some three dozen states (see here). Predictably, the impetus for this good-heartedness is federal money, and more is forthcoming -- Congress recently appropriated $10.56 million to develop 27 model projects to uncover successful approaches to getting these youngsters into college. Private foundations have also kicked in (federal Pell Grant loans also permit the mentally disabled to pay tuition and thereby acquire debt).

And why should Washington push access at a time when higher education funding in general is hurting? Political lobbying, notably pressures from parents of disabled children, has seen one triumph after another, and access to college is the next agenda item (see here for these groups). This is the "logical" progression of the mainstreaming movement whereby inserting the disabled into regular settings becomes a matter of right regardless of what is accomplished (see here for the legal push).
Though he is usually a very perceptive analyst, Dr. Weissberg paints with too broad a brush here. Autism itself is not an intellectual disability, and many people on the spectrum can indeed do college-level work. Most famously, Temple Grandin earned a Ph.D. in animal science at the University of Illinois, where Dr. Weissberg himself used to teach.