Dr. Lee Burdette Williams, executive director of the College Autism Network (CAN) that connects institutional stakeholders to improve the access, experiences and outcomes of college students with autism, said that students like Bonker are constantly fighting against the misconceptions of the world and higher education, including the surprise some feel that a nonspeaking or autistic student could graduate at the top of their class.
“The most common misconception about autism is that the label of autism is synonymous with developmental or intellectual delays,” said Williams. “The truth is, some with autism have intellectual or developmental delays, but lots do not. The diagnosis is problematic, because it does put a lot of very different people in one bucket.”
Academic acceptance of autistic students has come a long way in the last few decades. Dr. Jane Thierfeld Brown, an assistant clinical professor at Yale University’s Child Study Center and director of the College Autism Spectrum (CAS), an organization that helps students with autism and their families navigate the shift from high school to college, said this growth is perhaps a reflection of the increasing number of individuals born with or diagnosed with autism.
At Adelphi University in New York, the Bridges to Adelphi program has been working to support students with autism since 2008, when it began as a pilot program with the Jewish Child Care Association. By 2014, the program had become embedded into Adelphi, and it is now one of the roughly 75 institutions in the U.S. working to serve those with autism.